A Prussian Landwehrmann tanning rat skins in a dugout, WWI
A Prussian Landwehrmann tanning rat skins in a dugout, WWI. The trench soldier of WWI had to cope with millions of rats. They were attracted by the human waste of war – not simply sewage waste but also the bodies of men long forgotten who had been buried in the trenches.
Possibly drawing on his pre-war trade in the leather industry, this fellow has set himself up in business, tanning the pelts in the age-old method of separating soil and gore from the skin, before they are washed and spread out to dry (as depicted here). It’s possible that he used the skins to make patches for repairs to uniforms. Some of these rats grew extremely large. Many troops were awakened by them crawling across their faces, or attempting to take food from the pockets of sleeping men.
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 – being regarded as a pointless waste of ammunition – many soldiers nevertheless took pot shots at nearby rats in this manner. Attacking them with bayonets was also common, but efforts to eliminate them proved futile. A single rat couple could produce up to 900 offspring a year. Cats and terriers were kept by soldiers in the frontline trenches to help free them of disease-carrying rats. The Terriers were actually very effective.