Many men killed in the trenches were buried almost where they fell. If a trench subsided, or new trenches or dugouts were needed, large numbers of decomposing bodies would be found just below the surface. These corpses, as well as the food scraps that littered the trenches, attracted rats. One pair of rats can produce 880 offspring in a year and so the trenches were soon swarming with them.
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."
(1) Sergeant A. Vine, diary entry (8th August, 1915)
The stench of the dead bodies now is awful as they have been exposed to the sun for several days, many have swollen and burst. The trench is full of other occupants, things with lots of legs, also swarms of rats.
(2) Richard Beasley, interviewed in 1993.
If you left your food the rats would soon grab it. Those rats were fearless. Sometimes we would shoot the filthy swines. But you would be put on a charge for wasting ammo, if the sergeant caught you.
(3) James Lovegrave, interviewed in 1993.
Life in the trenches was hell on earth. Lice, rats, trench foot, trench mouth, where the gums rot and you lose your teeth. And of course dead bodies everywhere.
(4) Frank Laird writing after the war.
Sometimes the men amused themselves by baiting the ends of their rifles with pieces of bacon in order to have a shot at them at close quarters.
(5) Captain Lionel Crouch wrote to his wife about life in the trenches in 1917.
I can't sleep in my dugout, as it is over-run with rats. Pullman slept here one morning and woke up to find one sitting on his face. I can't face that, so I share Newbery's dug-out.
(6) After the war Stuart Dolden wrote an account of life in the trenches.
The outstanding feature of the trenches was the extraordinary number of rats. The area was infested with them. It was impossible to keep them out of the dugouts. They grew fat on the food that they pilfered from us, and anything they could pick up in or around the trenches; they were bloated and loathsome to look at. Some were nearly as big as cats. We were filled with an instinctive hatred of them, because however one tried to put the thought of one's mind, one could not help feeling that they fed on the dead.
The one thing of which no description given in England any true measure is the universal, ubiquitous muckiness of the whole front. One could hardly have imagined anybody as muddy as everybody is. The rats are pretty well unimaginable too, and, wherever you are, if you have any grub about you that they like, they eat straight through your clothes or haversack to get at it as soon as you are asleep. I had some crumbs of army biscuit in a little calico bag in a greatcoat pocket, and when I awoke they had eaten a big hole through the coat from outside and pulled the bag through it, as if they thought the bag would be useful to carry away the stuff in. But they don't actually try to eat live humans.
Rats bred by the tens of thousands and lived on the fat of the land. When we were sleeping in funk holes the things ran over us, played about, copulated and fouled our scraps of food, their young squeaking incessantly. 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. What happened to the rats under heavy shell-fire was a mystery, but their powers of survival kept place with each new weapon, including poison gas.
(9) Major Walter Vignoles, Lancashire Fusiliers, interviewed after the war.
Rats. There are millions!! Some are huge fellows, nearly as big as cats. Several of our men were awakened to find a rat snuggling down under the blanket alongside them!
(10) Private Frank Bass, letter (1916)
In one of the dug-outs the other night, two men were smoking by the light of the candle, very quiet. All at once the candle moved and flickered. Looking up they saw a rat was dragging it away. Another day I saw a rat washing itself like a cat behind the candle. Some as big as rabbits. I was in the trench the other night and one jumped over the parapet.
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.
(12) Captain Alexander Stewart, diary entry (2nd June, 1916)
The dugouts in this part of the line were infested with rats. They would frequently walk over one when asleep. I was much troubled by them coming and licking the brilliantine off my hair; for this reason, I had to give up using grease on my head... flies were an absolute plague. Great big, fat, sodden, overfed, bloated brutes, bluebottles and large house flies. Most of them must have come from and lived on the dead.
The two mice which were building a nest of paper which they used to tear noisily each night were victimised in the first hour, and there were two more victims, mere visitors I suspect, last night. Rats, happily, don't infest my dugout but as they swarm in the neighbourhood I thought it wise to guard the entrance. A more useful purpose, however, seemed to be served by lending it to the officers' cookhouse - six rats were caught in an hour - we shall have to dig a special grave for the numerous corpses.
We were soon back in the trenches after that action. Our living conditions there were lousy, dirty and unsanitary - no matter what the weather was, whether it was hot or cold, rain or fine, you were in there for four days, and three nights. There were rats as big as cats, and if you had any leather equipment the damn things would gnaw at it. We had leather equipment - and they'd chew it. If you stood still long enough they'd chew your bootlaces.