Encyclopedia - Trench Rats

Belgian soldiers digging trenches For many veterans who were asked to recall their memories of life in the trenches the overriding feature that lingered in the mind was the problem - and horror - of trench rats.

Rats - brown and black - thrived literally in their millions among trenches in most Fronts of the war, be it Eastern, Italian, Gallipoli - but primarily the Western Front.  Trench conditions were ideal for rats.  Empty food cans were piled in their thousands throughout No Man's Land, heaved over the top on a daily basis.

Aside from feeding from rotting food littered in such cans, rats would invade dug-outs in search of food and shelter.  Most soldiers who served on the Western Front would later recall how rats grew in boldness, stealing food that had been lain down for just a few moments.  Rats would also crawl across the face of sleeping men.

As they gorged themselves on food so they grew, with many rats reportedly growing to the size of cats.  George Coppard, writing in With a Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969), recalled the ceaseless rattling of tin cans during the night, the sound of rats constantly ferreting in No Man's Land.

However the feature which caused revulsion among soldiers was the knowledge that rats openly fed on the decaying remains of comrades killed while advancing across No Man's Land.  Attacking - and eating - the eyes of a corpse first, rats would steadily work their way through the remainder of the body in a short space of time.

Disgusted and often feeling a horror of their presence, soldiers would devise various means of dealing with the rat problem.  Although shooting at rats was strictly prohibited - it being regarded as a pointless waste of ammunition - many soldiers nevertheless took pot shots at nearby rats in this manner.  Attacking rats with bayonets was also common.  However the rat population was not noticeably diminished by such techniques - a pair of rats were capable of producing some 800 offspring within a single year.

The "Red Baron" was the allied nickname for German air ace Manfred von Richthofen, the leading ace of the war.

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