Mud-filled warrens littered with dung, detritus, and the dead may sound like a less than hospitable environment, but to the myriad millions that scurried along the trenches of the Western Front, these very conditions provided the fuel for explosive individual and population growth. Of course, I’m not talking about the soldiers that suffered in the mud and filth, but rather their furry co-habitants: the common brown rat. Despite the waves of toxic gas, the raining shells, the flying bullets, barbed wire, plunging bayonets, and exploding grenades, rats figured out how to survive and thrive in their new ecological niche. Popularly remembered as No-Man’s-Land, the perennially shelled, shot and sundered expanse of land that marked the Western Front might be more accurately called the Rat’s Land.
Tiny, brown, and plucky, the rats that considered Northern France and Belgium home were perhaps uniquely suited to a life at war. These creatures had a life span of up to three years—though they usually lived less—they had omnivorous diets, could breed incredibly fast, and lived in tiny tunnels and burrows. They matured so quickly and bred so rapidly that a pair of rats could become a colony of 15,000 by the end of a year. In terms of diet, rats had few scruples; they eagerly devoured the scraps that millions of soldiers tossed along both sides of the front and when that became scarce, they readily pivoted towards one of the many rotting horse or human carcasses that could be found. While they were just as much victim to the shells, bullets, and gas as their human counterparts, their adaptable and frugal way of life meant that they readily bounced back from even the most horrific slaughters. In fact, during the war years, rat populations along the front reached unprecedented sizes.
Rats didn’t just grow in terms of population. The sizes that rats could attain while feeding on the leftovers of armies could be astounding. On the 5th of February 1918, Lieutenant Rayner of the 3rd Brigade of the Canadian Field Artillery had this to say on the subject: “The darn rats are as big as rabbits & as friendly. Was looking out through the peephole trying to get a line on Fritzies [the Germans] flash & one of them came & sat right in front of the compass, I reached for my gun but he moved too quickly for me.” Some rats were known to get as large as cats. To try and control the population, soldiers took to shooting the rats on sight, practicing bayonet thrusts on them, and getting pets to devour them. Some officers offered rewards for most killed, but all these efforts did little to stop the infestation.
Rats weren’t just a nuisance, their presence could also seriously unnerve soldiers and impact morale. They frequently got into food stores and packages sent to soldiers, ruining deeply treasured gifts. When they weren’t ruining valuable supplies, rats had a tendency to dart over sleeping soldiers and occasionally bite them, interrupting rare opportunities for rest, and sometimes causing violent reactions. Worse still were the occasions where soldiers had to watch as their former brothers-in-arms, lost beyond reach in No Man’s Land, were slowly devoured by the scurrying horde. Rats could also be vectors for disease, making any interaction stressful. Finally, sentries found it difficult to tell the difference between the sounds of approaching raiding parties and simple pests digging through abandoned tins for food. Particularly active at night, the scavenging pests would haunt soldiers as they tried to rest or keep watch.
As vermin infestations became a regular part of the Western Front experience, rats as a motif or metaphor began to slide into soldier discourse and culture. One example of this can be found in the 1916 diary of Clarence “Buster” Booth, who at this time was serving with the 24th Battalion. In it, he transcribed a soldier’s song that he picked up. The parodied lullaby is imbued with the kind of gallows humour that soldiers were particularly fond of:
Sing me to sleep the Bullets Face
Let me forget the War & all
Dark is my dugout, cold my feet
Nothing but Bully & biscuits to eat
Sing me to sleep in some old shed
a dozen rat holes around my head
dodging the rain drops from the roof
Far far from Ypres I want to be
Where German snipers can’t pot at me
Fancy me crouching where worms do creep
Waiting for shrapnel to, sing me To sleep
Rats were one of the fundamental avenues of discomfort that all soldiers could recognise. Though some uses could be found for the ever-present pests, such as tying bells to them to mask the sound of underminers, they were overwhelmingly viewed as a blight and when their presence was tolerated it was only with a sense of futility.
Thinking of the First World War as an ecological disruption, one that posed both risks and opportunities to those that were present for the disruption, offers some novel insights into the world of the Western Front. At the human scale, it is certainly true that the thin band of scarred Earth stretching from the Atlantic to Switzerland was a largely fatal one with few opportunities for positive growth. But at the scale of a rat things become more ambiguous. Not bound to one side, not committed to continuous slaughter, and suddenly in possession of more food than ever before, this little rodent was able to balance the extraordinary lethality of the front with the unique opportunities it contained and come out on top. It may sound silly to think of No-Man’s-Land as Rat’s Land but had you made that observation to either Booth or Rayner or any other soldier forced to watch their step lest there be a cat-sized pest underfoot, I think that they would have agreed.
By: Cain Doerper
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———. No Place to Run : The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First Wold War. Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press, 1999. https://www.deslibris.ca/ID/404309.
Modlinska, Klaudia, and Wojciech Pisula. “The Norway Rat, from an Obnoxious Pest to a Laboratory Pet.” Edited by Stuart RF King, Peter Rodgers, Stuart RF King, and Amelie Desvars. ELife 9 (January 17, 2020): e50651. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.50651.
Pascas, Brian. “Clay-Kickers of Flanders Fields: Canadian Tunnellers at Messines Ridge 1916-1917” 27 (2018): 32.
Featured Image: “After Rats with the Bayonet! A Novel Form of Small-Game Hunting in the Trenches.” The Illustrated London News, April 1, 1916. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003.
Image 1: “Pet dog of the Middlesex Regiment with its catch of rats in the trenches on the Western Front during the First World War.” 1914-18, © IWM Q 115420.
Image 2: “Richard Walter Rayner Diary with Portrait”, 1914-1918, Collections CCGW
Image 3: “Canadian troops engaged in a rat hunt at Ploegsteert Wood near Ypres during March 1916” March 1916, © IWM Q 448.
Image 4: “Rat Pit Bearer Relay Post in Bovril Alley” August 1916, © IWM Q 14736.
Image 5: “The Battle of Passchendaele July-November 1917”, 27 September 1917, © IWM Q 2901.