World War I – Trench Rats
It is important for us all to remember those who gave their lives for our freedoms today, and to those who continue to serve our country today.
As Remembrance Sunday approaches, we look at the horrors of WWI through a pest lens.
Rats were often referred to as corpse rats. In their millions they swarmed through No-Mans Land and gnawed on the corpses of the fallen soldiers.
As so many of the soldiers who were killed in the trenches were buried where they fell - as new trenches were needed to be dug or existing ones subsided significant numbers of decomposing bodies were exposed just below the surface - this would attract rats in their millions.
Food disposal methods were absent and this gave the rats an attractive food source with discarded cans thrown just outside of the trenches.
Rats would creep over the soldiers in the night and rat hunting became a sport when boredom set in. The soldiers weren’t allowed to shoot rats as ammunition was precious and had to be preserved but instead, they used their bayonets to pierce them.
Rats loved the trenches as conditions were ideal for them. There was shelter, food and water source for them, and this enabled them to breed rapidly and in their millions. As the rats become bigger and bolder over time, they would even eat food from soldiers’ hands and some soldiers captured and kept them as pets to give them a brief respite from the horrors all around.
Disease was rife in the trenches and soldiers could as easily be defeated by disease as by bullets. Diseases such as Weil’s Disease and Trench Foot.
Some extracts from those in the trenches give us an insight into the appalling conditions these men suffered and how this enabled rats to thrive:
Robert Graves remarked in his book, Goodbye to All That: "Rats came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly. While I stayed here with the Welch. a new officer joined the company and, in token of welcome, was given a dug-out containing a spring-bed. When he turned in that night he heard a scuffling, shone his torch on the bed, and found two rats on his blanket tussling for the possession of a severed hand."
George Coppard gave another reason why the rats were so large: "There was no proper system of waste disposal in trench life. Empty tins of all kinds were flung away over the top on both sides of the trench. Millions of tins were thus available for all the rats in France and Belgium in hundreds of miles of trenches. During brief moments of quiet at night, one could hear a continuous rattle of tins moving against each other. The rats were turning them over."
Some of these rats grew extremely large. Harry Patch claimed that "there were rats as big as cats". Another soldier wrote: "The rats were huge. They were so big they would eat a wounded man if he couldn't defend himself." These rats became very bold and would attempt to take food from the pockets of sleeping men. Two or three rats would always be found on a dead body. They usually went for the eyes first and then they burrowed their way right into the corpse.
One soldier described finding a group of dead bodies while on patrol: "I saw some rats running from under the dead men's greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. My heart pounded as we edged towards one of the bodies. His helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured and from the yawning mouth leapt a rat."
These are unimaginable horrors to us today.