On both sides of No Man’s Land, men were united in the face of a common enemy: the Brown Rat. Aside from the threat of imminent death, life in the trenches had no shortage of daily horrors, which the presence of the rat contributed to greatly.
A plentiful supply of food, water and shelter in the trenches ensured a rat population explosion. The rats fed not only by scavenging for scraps from soldiers’ discarded rations tins, but also from a more sinister and plentiful source: human flesh from the dead and dying out in No Man’s Land. With such an abundant supply of food, rats were reported to grow to the size of cats(a caption to one 1917 sketch in The Illustrated London News describes rats of 'aldermanic size'), and reproduced at an alarming rate, with ‘swarms’ of rats described in soldier’s diaries and letters home.
Rats destroyed equipment by knawing leather straps; their urine spread disease; they bit men, thieved food and disturbed sleep, making pest control a priority. Attempts were made to control the population using rat catchers and terriers, with the incentive of a cash sum paid per tail. Ferrets were also in demand for ratting, causing their price in Ashford to rise from 1 shilling to 5 in 1916.
There were some creative responses to the rat problem, with rats treated as ‘small game’ and hunted as a trench sport. The Illustrated London News published a double page spread in April 1916, showing British soldiers in hot pursuit of a rat with a fixed bayonet, describing the scene as “sport in self-defence”. Use of ammunition to hunt rats was discouraged, on grounds of wastage.
Perhaps surprisingly, some found there were limited advantages to the presence of rats on the Western Front. The sign of fleeing rats could be a useful indicator of imminent danger, such as gas attacks, and allegedly some rats were even tamed to become pets and companions for soldiers.
Despite the generally unwelcome presence of rats in the trenches, the press portrayed the problem as a cheery everyday irritation in their reportage from the front. A field postcard shows smiling German soldiers posing behind a string of rats they’d caught; an advert for Abudulla cigarettes cheerfully prints a poem about how an otherwise loyal pet rat is unable to stop itself from eating this particularly irresistible brand of smokes from a soldier’s Christmas hamper.
At home too, vermin was a problem: with skilled groundsmen and rat catchers away at war, the rat population was growing unchecked, with serious implications for nation food security. W.P Pycraft, eminent zoologist and contributor to The Illustrated London News, wrote passionately about what he described as the ‘rat menace’ both during and after the war, estimating in April 1918 an astounding native population of no fewer than 40 million rats. The U-boat threat meant food supplies were closely monitored, and the rat’s partiality to grain meant that this valuable resource was under threat.
As the war drew to a close, the rat menace showed no signs of abating. The problem was such that the Rats and Mice Destruction Act 1919 was passed, and a national Rat Week was declared in November 1919, where people were encouraged to kill as many rats as possible. Rats thrived under the challenge of wartime conditions, and continued to flourish in its aftermath: it seems it would take more than a world war to inhibit the adaptable and cunning brown rat.