Rats and the Trenches of WWI

Chasing rats in the trenches became a pastimeWorld War I conditions were horrific and death was never far away. If the soldiers managed to survive enemy shelling and the sneaky sniper’s bullet they could just as easily be defeated by an illness such as Trench Foot or Wiel’s DiseaseFleas, lice and rodents were rife and would plague the men with disease.

Lice caused Trench Fever, a nasty and painful disease that began suddenly with severe pain followed by high fever.  Although not usually life threatening, Trench Fever was  debilitating, requiring a recovery period of two-three months. It wasn’t until 1918 that doctors discovered that lice transmitted Trench Fever. Lice sucked the blood of a host infected by trench fever and then spread the fever to a successive host.

Trenches often flooded with rain in which frogs swam. Red slugs would ooze from the mud. At night opportunist rats crept out. Discarded food cans would rattle as the rats crept inside to lick the remains. More horrifically the rodents were sometimes referred to as corpse rats. They bred rapidly in their millions and swarmed through No-Mans Land gnawing the corpses of fallen soldiers.

Black ratThe rats would taut sleeping soldiers, creeping over them at night. There were long bouts of boredom and rat hunting became a sport. To preserve ammunition, shooting at rats was banned but piercing them with a bayonne became a pastime for some soldiers. This image shows Canadian troops engaged in a rat hunt at Ploegsteert Wood near Ypres during March 1916.

Trench conditions were ideal for rats. There was plenty of food, water and shelter. With no proper disposal system the rats would feast off food scraps.  The rats grew bigger and bolder and would even steal food from a soldier’s hand.  But for some soldiers the rats became their friends. They captured them and kept them as pets, bringing a brief reprisal from the horror which lay all around.

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