Rats!

Me in a French reenactment trench site on the Western Front, posing next to the rats.

Me in a French reenactment trench site on the Western Front, posing next to the rats.

I’ve been working on a WWI story about a wounded soldier who wakes up in No Man’s Land as evening approaches. He hears and see rats around him. That’s when he realizes he’s paralyzed, and there’s no getting away from them. It’s a pretty gruesome story, but so was the war. And so were the rats.

The rat stories from WWI abound. Conditions in the trenches were unhygienic to say the least. The dead were often buried nearby and in heavy rains would become exposed. Or under certain circumstances dead animals or men couldn’t be buried right away. These became food for rats which multiplied quickly. That’s why ratter dogs became so important. But even so, plenty of soldiers went a little crazy being constantly surrounded by rats. Other stories by soldiers mention waking up to the rats actually chewing on their wounds or biting their faces which always reminds me of the end of 1984 by George Orwell. Pretty horrible stuff.

Here's a blow up of the picture I'm standing next to. It's a French soldier with his dog and all the rats the dog caught.

Here’s a blow up of the picture I’m standing next to. It shows a French soldier with his dog and all the rats the dog caught.

Even Uncle Harry included references to the rats in some of his letters, although being a bit of jokester, he often made light of it. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts dated December 15, 1918:

“Well here we are sleeping in a barn among the rats and cooties both to numerous to mention. The rats have a great time sitting on our foreheads and pulling our noses. And our dining room is swell as it is a nice clean pig yard and with our mess pans on the ground and us on our knees we feed our faces. Well one good thing, what we don’t want we hand over to the four legged kind and with a grunt of satisfaction they come closer and look for more, that’s when they get a hobnail shoe well planted between their eyes.”

My own personal rat story is nothing compared to those of the soldiers in the trenches, but it was pretty unnerving to me. It was when I was in the Peace Corps in Kenya. During the rainy season, it wasn’t unusual for a rat or two to come into your house to get out of the rain. I had put up reed mats to make a ceiling in my little house/apartment which kept the place  getting too hot from the sun heating up the metal roof. Anyway, my friend Melinda was visiting. It was around 9 o’clock at night and we were reading and listening to the scurrying on the mats overhead. Needless to say, we were feeling uneasy.

Well, one dumb rat went charging across the mat and didn’t realize there was a three inch gap between the mat and the wall. It came through and dropped inches away from Melinda’s head. Then it started running around my apartment. Well, of course we screamed and ran outside. My neighbor, Alice, came out and started laughing at us. The Somali guys across the street came over to see what all the laughing and yelling was about. When they heard the story, they charged into my house while me, Melinda and Alice waited outside. We heard all kinds of banging, yelling, and stomping going on inside. A few minutes later, the two guys come out. One of them was still holding his shoe in his hand, while the other was holding the dead rat by the tail.

I love a happy ending.