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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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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!
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. 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.
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.
Vietnam Vermin: The Story of the Tunnel Rats
When the Vietnam War began on 1 November 1955, the United States’ involvement was a relatively low-key affair. But the passing years would see increasing actions by the US as its military personnel on Vietnam soil gradually grew into thousands.
Starting out with just under a thousand military advisors in 1959, the number of US troops in Vietnam skyrocketed to over 180,000 following the 1964 hostile engagement between the United States and North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. By 1966, the US had gotten neck deep into the Vietnam War and was freely deploying ground combat troops into Vietnamese territory.
In a bid to cripple Viet Cong military forces in Saigon, the United States military, in collaboration with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), sought to break all Viet Cong activities at their source. Several intelligence reports pointed to the presence of a key Viet Cong headquarters in a large underground bunker within the Ho Bo woods, about 2.5 miles west of the Iron Triangle and around 12 miles north of Cu Chi, Binh Duong Province.
A US 105 mm howitizer providing fire support to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade on the final day of Operation Crimp.
Although its precise location remained uncertain, all Viet Cong activity in and around Saigon was believed to be controlled from this particular political-military headquarters. Operation Crimp was therefore generated as a search-and-destroy operation to eliminate it.
Featured in this operation were units from the US 3 rd Infantry Brigade, the 173 rd Airborne and the 1 st Infantry Division, along with the 1 st Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) which had two companies from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment integrated into it.
Australian soldier looking into a Viet Cong tunnel discovered during Operation Crimp, Vietnam.
An intense bombardment of the target region preceded the operation with the aim of neutralizing the strong defensive positions suspected to be guarding the headquarters. On the extremely cold morning of January 8, over 8,000 US and ANZAC troops were inserted on the north, west, and south of the woods. Operation Crimp had begun.
While the joint force combed the location, little of importance was found. The position of the headquarters could not be confirmed. On top of this, the Americans and Australians were continuously plagued with small scale surprise attacks by the Viet Cong as they advanced deep into the woods.
An American B-52 on a bomb run over South Vietnam, during Operation Crimp.
The Viet Cong units appeared from different positions, infiltrating the units at will and causing a number of casualties. While the US and ANZAC troops defended against these surprise attacks, they were bemused by the system of attacks these hostile units employed: suddenly appearing and then disappearing just as quickly as they came.
They soon realized, from their various locations around Cu Chi, that the Viet Cong were making use of a massive network of tunnels in this region to spring ambushes on them. As a matter of fact, the US and Australian units had been practically walking above the Viet Cong.
A US 1st Infantry Division soldier enters a tunnel during Operation Crimp.
Originally created during the First Indochina War which had pitted the Viet Minh against the French, this extensive network of tunnels grew from a fairly basic system to a highly complex underground labyrinth in the 1960s.
By the time of Operation Crimp, these tunnel complexes included hospitals, storage facilities, barracks, training areas, and the Viet Cong headquarters, running from Saigon down to the Cambodian border. This network of tunnels was so extensive that it was believed by some to be capable of holding up to 5,000 men for several months.
A Viet Cong soldier crouches in a tunnel with an SKS rifle.
Thus, upon realizing the existence of these tunnel complexes, the mission objective shifted to finding, clearing, and destroying them.
But venturing into these tunnels was not something everyone could do. They were barely large enough to contain a 5’6” man, and it needed an extra bit of courage to venture into these holes knowing that the chances of coming out alive were slim.
Cross-sectional diagram of Vietcong tunnel system used by the communist insurgents during the Vietnam War.
But among the many men of the joint American and Australian units, there were men who were equal to the task. They were called Tunnel Rats—an unofficial designation for the volunteer combat engineers and infantrymen from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand who ventured into the labyrinth.
Marine Lance Corporal John R. Gartrell (Fort Smith, Arkansas) crawls into a captured North Vietnamese bunker during Operation Meade River, southwest of Da Nang.
They were armed with M1911 or M1917 pistols, along with bayonets, flashlights, and explosives, and charged with infiltrating these tunnel complexes and neutralizing any hostile occupants while gathering information along the way.
SGT Ronald A. Payne entering a tunnel in search of Viet Cong with a flashlight and M1911 pistol.
The Tunnel Rats faced a number of difficulties during these perilous missions. The tunnels were often booby-trapped with mines, hand grenades, and punji sticks. Poisonous snakes and scorpions lurked in some, and rats, spiders, ants, and bats were determined to make the job even more difficult.
SGT Ronald A. Payne moves through a tunnel in search of Viet Cong with a flashlight and M1911 pistol.
The standard pistol was woefully unfit for this mission because the loud blasts from the muzzle were amplified by the walls of the tunnels and would deafen the Tunnel Rats momentarily after each shot. They had to opt for other kinds of pistols which were of far less quality than the standard pistol. Some of them preferred their personal weapons such as .25 caliber automatic pistols and sawn-off shotguns.
Vietnam tunnel rats
Sometimes while on the mission, a Tunnel Rat would meet a Viet Cong soldier, and would then have to engage in exceedingly close combat.
Several of these tunnels had sharp U-bends which could be easily flooded to trap and drown intruders. Also, poison gases were used by the Viet Cong against intruders in the tunnels, prompting some Tunnel Rats to go in with gas masks. However, gas masks made it harder to hear, see and breathe within the narrow tunnels. So, many Tunnel Rats decided they’d rather go without one.
Vietnam tunnel rats.Using a gas mask during the operation.
This work was mentally and physically tedious, and it was not uncommon for men to give up after a few runs.
However, according to Sapper Jim Marrett, a former Tunnel Rat, there was a surprisingly lower casualty rate than one might expect among the Tunnel Rats—most war casualties occurred above ground.
Vietnam tunnel rats in action
In the midst of all the difficulties, the Tunnel Rats were largely successful. The bravery of these men led to the discovery of several Viet Cong facilities, including their headquarters. The Tunnel Rats’ contribution to the war paved the way for the adaptation of the United States military to a new level of non-conventional warfare.
Supplying the trenches
Supplies were brought up from the rear by the communications trenches and some soldiers would be sent into no man’s land on patrols. The issue of supply was of particular importance. Getting food to soldiers on the front line was not easy. On the Western Front rations for both sides normally consisted of stale bread, hard biscuits and dried vegetables, while meat came in the form of tins of corned beef or “bully beef”. Field kitchens were set up in the rear and food was brought up through the communications trenches but it rarely arrived hot.
In Gallipoli, water also became an issue during periods of extreme heat. Soldiers had to sink wells and some stole half-filled water bottles from their dead comrades.
To keep spirits up each British battalion on the Western Front had a ration of rum, which was handed out after trench raids and when cold weather set in. German and French troops enjoyed daily rations of wine and brandy.
A group of Canadians, standing with mugs at a soup kitchen set up on boards “100 yards from Boche lines” during the push on Hill 70.
Trench rats killed by a terrier, 1916
The result of 15 minute’s rat-hunting in a French trench. Note the Jack Russell Terrier in the gentleman’s arms at left.
The trench soldier of World War I had to cope with millions of rats. The omnipresent rats 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 and often reappeared after heavy rain or shelling. 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. Trench conditions were ideal for rats.
Some of these rats grew extremely large. It was not uncommon for rats to start gnawing on the bodies of wounded men who couldn’t defend themselves. Many troops were awakened by rats crawling across their faces. These rats became very bold and would attempt 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 rats 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 in killing rats.
There is a difference between a cat and a terrier when it comes to rodent control. When it comes to cats, even the best mousers only go after one at a time, and they often pause to eat. Generally, it can take them days/weeks to deal with an infestation because of this. With a good terrier, they will take care of your rat issues in a matter of hours. They don’t stop to eat.
They kill, then move on immediately to the next creature. They don’t play with their prey as cats do. They kill immediately. One terrier will also be much harder for rats to overwhelm as well. They are bigger and stronger than a cat, and their jaws are much bigger. That’s what they were bred, to kill rats.
The plague of rats in the French trenches. An official rat-catcher, with his dog, and their bag. Illustration for The Illustrated War News, February 1916.
Rats on German trenches. The rat problem remained for the duration of the war (although many veteran soldiers swore that rats sensed impending heavy enemy shellfire and consequently disappeared from view).
Two German soldiers posing with rats caught in their trench.
Three German soldiers display rats killed in their trench the previous night. 1916.
A French soldier showing his “catch” to his comrade.
“Large feast of rat goulash today”. A commercial card depicting German artillerymen preparing several dead rats and one hapless mouse (or a skittish rat) for their evening repast – and who said Germans don’t have a sense of humor.
“No sign of a lack of meat here”. Another commercial postcard depicting the end result of a few hours hunting rats in the trenches and dugouts. Some of the men are toting shovels and improvised clubs, undoubtedly the weapons of choice in this particular ‘Rattenjagd’.
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.”
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”.
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 leaped a rat.”
Famous Dogs in History
Terriers became famous dogs in history as ratters during the Great War. They helped keep the rat population down in trenches, and they helped comfort the soldiers during a difficult time.
Trench warfare has been employed since ancient times, but reached its highest development on the Western Front during World War I. Both sides built deep trenches as a defense against the enemy. The territory between the two sides, ranging from 50 yards to a mile, was no man's land where soldiers crossed to attack the other side. The long narrow ditches, which were dug by hand, were usually about 12 feet deep and stretched for miles in a zig zag pattern. In total, the trenches built during WWI (laid end-to-end) would stretch some 25,000 miles. Life in the trenches was extremely hard so soldiers would take turns staying there - from as little as one day to as much as two weeks, sometimes even longer.
Sanitary conditions in the trenches were very poor. The filth and foul odor of decaying corpses and human waste from overflowed latrines not only contributed to the spread of disease, it also attracted rats and other vermin like lice that spread infection. Millions of rats infested trenches, some as big as cats. They would scamper across the soldiers in the dark and bite them while they slept, evoking fear from even battle-hardened soldiers. They would get into the soldiers food and even feed on human remains. The men used various methods to kill the rats - gunfire, with the bayonet and clubbing them to death - but their best method was using ratters.
|A ratter's catch after a 15 minute hunt in the French trenches|
Terriers were used as ratters during the war to help control the rat population in the trenches. They were bred for this type of work, and could kill many rats in a short period of time. The word terrier comes from the Latin word terra meaning earth. They were given this name because of their ability to catch rats and other small animals both over and under the ground with great skill.
These dogs were heroes during the Great War, risking their lives just like the brave men who fought against the enemy. Not only were they excellent hunters of rats, they were also a psychological comfort - a reminder of friendship - to the soldiers who were going through the horrors of battle and life in the trenches.
How does 1917 reflect the harsh realities of the Western Front?View of the Hindenburg Line (National WWI Museum and Memorial)
Attempts to encapsulate the experience of war abound in reviews of 1917. “War is hideous—mud, rats, decaying horses, corpses mired in interminable mazes of barbed wire,” writes J.D. Simkins for Military Times. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw echoes this sentiment, describing Blake and Schofield’s travels through a “post-apocalyptic landscape, a bad dream of broken tree stumps, mud lakes left by shell craters, dead bodies, rats.” Time’s Karl Vick, meanwhile, likens the film’s setting to “Hieronymus Bosch hellscapes.”
These descriptions mirror those shared by the men who actually fought in World War I—including Alfred Mendes. Remembering his time in the Ypres Salient, where the Battle of Passchendaele (among others) took place, Alfred deemed the area “a marsh of mud and a killer of men.” Seeping groundwater exacerbated by unusually heavy rainfall made it difficult for the Allies to construct proper trenches, so soldiers sought shelter in waterlogged shell holes.
“It was a case of taking them or leaving them,” said Alfred, “and leaving them meant a form of suicide.”
British soldiers in the trenches (National WWI Museum and Memorial)
According to Cart, leaving one’s trench, dugout or line was a risky endeavor: “It was pretty much instant death,” he explains, citing the threat posed by artillery barrages, snipers, booby traps, poison gas and trip wires.
Blake and Schofield face many of these dangers, as well as more unexpected ones. The toll exacted by the conflict isn’t simply told through the duo’s encounters with the enemy instead, it is written into the very fabric of the movie’s landscape, from the carcasses of livestock and cattle caught in the war’s crosshairs to rolling hills “comprised of dirt and corpses” and countryside dotted with bombed villages. 1917’s goal, says producer Pippa Harris in a behind-the-scenes featurette, is “to make you feel that you are in the trenches with these characters.”
The kind of individualized military action at the center of 1917 was “not the norm,” according to Cart, but “more of the exception,” in large part because of the risk associated with such small-scale missions. Trench networks were incredibly complex, encompassing separate frontline, secondary support, communication, food and latrine trenches. They required a “very specific means of moving around and communicating,” limiting opportunities to cross lines and venture into No Man’s Land at will.
Still, Cart doesn’t completely rule out the possibility that a mission comparable to Blake and Schofield’s occurred during the war. He explains, “It’s really hard to say … what kind of individual actions occurred without really looking at the circumstances that the personnel might have been in.”
British soldiers in the trenches, 1917 (National WWI Museum and Memorial)
As Mendes bemoans to Time, World War II commands “a bigger cultural shadow” than its predecessor—a trend apparent in the abundance of Hollywood hits focused on the conflict, including this year’s Midway, the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” and the Steven Spielberg classic Saving Private Ryan. The so-called “Great War,” meanwhile, is perhaps best immortalized in All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of the German novel of the same name released 90 years ago.
1917 strives to elevate World War I cinema to a previously unseen level of visibility. And if critics’ reviews are any indication, the film has more than fulfilled this goal, wowing audiences with both its stunning visuals and portrayal of an oft-overlooked chapter of military lore.
“The First World War starts with literally horses and carriages, and ends with tanks,” says Mendes. “So it’s the moment where, you could argue, modern war begins.”
The Battle of Passchendaele was a major Allied offensive that left some 500,000 soldiers dead, wounded or missing in action. (National WWI Museum and Memorial)
Trench Rats - History
I t was the coming-of-age war for the United States, and for the men who served in combat overseas, it provided a sobering lesson in the realities of twentieth-century warfare. Barrages of immense artillery shells snuffed out lives by the thousands, trenches filled with water and rats and worse were home for months on end to weary soldiers, and geographical orientation was often impossible. Though Americans had a sense that the tide had turned with their arrival, the sense of certain victory remained a rumor until the very end.
James Nelson Platt sailed for Europe in the spring of 1918 as a private and returned home eight months later as a sergeant. Not long after landing in France, he volunteered for typing duty and was given corporal’s stripes he soon became a map reader and then was promoted to mess sergeant. When his company’s commanding officer was killed, Platt took over briefly. His familiarity with maps helped him guide his men out of trouble. In his memoir, he vividly describes the war’s devastation and is honest about his fear of being shot.
Trench Rats - History
Friday 7th of January 1966. The 1st Battalion of the 28th Infantry, itself part of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Inf Div - "The Big Red One"- was engaged in operation "Crimp". The first search and destroy sweep into the VC held area's Northwest of Saigon. Operation "Crimp" was intended to be a massive strike against the VC in South Vietnam in and around the Ho Bo woods just west of the Iron triangle.
Even as the men from the 1st Batt 28th Inf touched down on LZ (landing zone) "Jack" they could see their comrades in the 1st Batt 16th Inf were already in trouble and engaging the enemy in small fire fights. The men quickly de-assed their helicopters and moved into the nearby tree line hoping to find, engage, and destroy the VC that had been harassing the soldiers of the 16th Inf.
Just inside the tree line at the edge of a rubber plantation, the men of the 28th discovered a large trench - but no enemy. Where had they gone? How could the VC who had been firing at the men of the 16th Inf just disappear apparently into thin air? As the Batt moved forward it began to find large caches of rice, and enough food to feed a Regiment. As the operation continued, over the next couple of days foxholes, trenches, and caves were discovered. Still no enemy were being engaged in running fire fights, or surrendering, and all the time US casualties were mounting through sustained enemy sniper fire.
By the 10th of January the 28th had reached the banks of the Saigon river. So far during the 3 days of the operation only a couple of brief glimpses of the enemy had been seen. Late in the afternoon of the 10th word came through via the radio that elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the Aussies to the north had made contact with the VC and - found tunnels.
|1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, left South Vietnam, having completed almost a full year of combat duty. In leaving, the "diggers" could point with pride to a creditable performance during their stay, highlighted by participation in no fewer than nineteen major operations . Of particular note was an operation conducted in January 1966 which resulted in one of the biggest intelligence coups of the war up to that time. During a sweep of the so-called Iron Triangle, an area near Saigon heavily fortified and controlled by the Viet Cong, the Australian unit discovered a vast complex of tunnels, dug 60 feet deep in some places, which turned out to be a Viet Cong headquarters. In addition to capturing five new Chinese Communist anti-aircraft guns, the Australians discovered 6,000 documents , many revealing names and locations of Viet Cong agents. (from American Report)|
The next day the 11th of January the 28th began to retrace it's foot steps. It had finally dawned on the Battalion Commander LTC Robert Haldane what had happened - they had literally walked right over the VC! Searches were begun for the tunnel entrances but nothing much was discovered. By now hot and tired, and waiting for further instructions some of the GIs began to sit down for a quick rest.
Sergeant Stewart Green did the same, but only momentarily, as he suddenly leap to his feet cursing that something had bitten him on the ass. Thinking he'd been stung by a scorpion, or worse, bitten by a snake, Green searched through the layer of dead leaves that covered the area looking for the creature that bitten him. Only to discover it was a nail sticking up from the ground. Upon further careful inspection it was discovered that the nail was part of a small wooden trap door - Haldane's men had found their first tunnel!
Originally the tunnels were started during the war against the French, but which were rapidly expanded upon when the American's arrived. They were constructed by volunteer(!) village labourers using simple hoe's and baskets. The Laterite clay in which the tunnels were dug has a dull reddish appearance and dries rock hard during the dry season. During the wet season it is very soft and much easier to work. Because of the very nature of the Laterite clay's ability to dry rock hard it made a very good (if a somewhat difficult substance to work) soil in which to carve out a tunnel.
The passages themselves were not cut in dead straight lines, rather they were made with corners that had between a 60 - degree and a 120 - degree angle to them. In other words the corners were constructed with no less than a 60 - degree angle and no more than a 120 - degree angle. This made shooting in a straight line impossible, and helped to deflect explosive blasts from grenades that might be thrown down.
The tunnel systems (where the water table permitted) had several levels, each level was separated by a watertight trap door which would seal the rest of the system against gas, flooding, etc. The trap doors themselves were virtually undetectable and could fool a person into believing that the tunnel finished in a dead end, when in reality it led into a huge system of other passages. These passages would in turn lead to underground ammo dumps, kitchens, air raid shelters, hospitals, store rooms, workshops, latrines, and even theatres for the performances of political plays.
All the tunnel systems had smaller thin (drain pipe sized) ventilation shafts leading from the surface down to the 1st level. These vents were constructed with an oblique angle so as to prevent the monsoon rains flooding the system. Vents were placed so as to face east and the light of a new day, whilst others were placed toward the wind so as to provide a constant cooling draught. Despite these efforts the tunnels were still hot, dark, and claustrophobic, even at the best of times.
The VC also dragged the bodies of their dead comrades underground in order to inter them in temporary graves when it became impossible to bury them above ground due to the presence of American/Australian troops. Once they had been dragged underground they were buried in the foetus position in the tunnel walls and covered with a thin layer of clay.
THE OP ENGINEER (Tunnel Rat)
(an underground man)
The leading scout raised his arm in the village of Long Phuoc
He'd found another tunnel, but who'd go down to look?
The corporal passed the word back, it went back far behind
To let his platoon commander know of his recent find
Then along came this soldier, with mud from head to toe
"Where's the tunnel entrance?" was all he wanted to know
When they showed the soldier, he quickly looked around
And before you could stop him, he'd gone underground
Now he'd been searching on his gut, all that day I bet
Look out for booby traps that good ol' Charlie sets
Then he found the wire, stretched out taut and thin
But he deloused that booby trap, with a safety pin
Then he found the weapons leaning on the wall
There was no disputing he'd found a real big haul
When he finally surfaced, wearing a big grin
He proudly showed the Diggers what he'd found within
Now he'd like to sit down, and roll himself a smoke
But he's been called up forward, by another bloke
So when you see that hat badge, that's like a bursting shell
Remember that this fellow has crawled half way through to hell
And if he's in a bar mate, you buy that bloke a beer
Because Sir, you're drinking with an Aussie Engineer
Originally called "Tunnel Runners" by the 25th Inf Div, and "Ferrets" by the Australian Army , the term "Tunnel Rat" soon became their official accepted name. The US Army soon realized that trying to destroy the tunnels was a short-sighted policy that wasn't going to work. Moreover this was also a loss as the underground networks could yield vital intelligence on the VC in the form of plans and documents.
A chemical officer of the 1st Inf Div, Capt Herbert Thornton a Southerner, was charged with setting up the first tunnel team.
The kind of man that Thornton sought for his tunnel team had to be a special breed. He had to have an even temperament, an inquisitive mind, a lot of common sense (in order to know what to touch and what not to), and to be exceptionally brave.
All of Thornton's men were volunteers, most (not all) were small men of slight build who could squeeze through the tight trap doors and crawl along the narrow passages with relative ease.
- No dead tunnel rats were left in a tunnel, dead or wounded they were all dragged out with commo wire, ropes, or by a comrade using a fireman's crawl.
It was a very stressful, nerve racking job, pushing the rat's mental state to its limits. Crawling through narrow, pitch black tunnels, sometimes for hours looking for a heavily armed enemy who would if he got the drop on you not hesitate to kill you. Occasionally under the strain a mans nerves would break and he'd be dragged from the tunnel screaming and crying. Once this happened he would never be allowed down a tunnel again.
If going down into a tunnel posed a threat, then coming up again could be just as dangerous. Upon emerging from a tunnel a rat would often whistle "Dixie" just to let the troops on the surface know he was on their side. A little guy stripped to the waist and covered in dirt could easily be mistaken (particularly if he was oriental looking) for a VC and shot by his own side.
TRAPS AND CREEPY CRAWLIES:
Going down into a tunnel system was a very risky business fraught with danger. Usually armed only with a pistol or a knife and a flashlight. The tunnel rat would descend into a pitch black, claustrophobic, dank hell, to play a deadly game of hide and seek with the enemy. Carefully probing the floor, sides and roofs of the tunnels became second nature to the tunnel rat as he gently inched and probed his way along. Feeling for wires or tree roots that didn't quite feel right, knowing that anyone of them could detonate a booby trap and blow him to smithereens.
Tunnel entrances were sometimes mined or covered by concealed firing positions. On other occasions an entrance would drop into a punji stake pit which would be covered by two rifle men, one either side. Another way in which the unsuspecting tunnel rat could meet his death was by garrotting him or cutting his throat as he came up through a connecting trapdoor. Besides the booby traps the tunnels also held other nasty surprises. Living along side the VC was a whole plethora of animals which had also made their homes in the dark confines of the tunnels. Bats (the cave dwelling nectar eating bat and the black bearded tomb bat) would use the tunnels as a roosting ground during the daylight hours.
A tunnel rat crawling through a tight tunnel would wake them from their rest causing them to fly right at him, getting tangled in his hair and running and crawling all over him. Snakes were also encountered underground. Two of the most deadly being the bamboo viper and the Krait. Sometimes the VC would deliberately tether a snake in a tunnel to use it as a sort of natural booby trap.
Scorpions were also used as booby traps, the VC would take boxes of them into the tunnels. The box would be rigged with a trip wire, the tunnel rat tripped the wire and the scorpions would fall on him stinging him in the process. Being stripped to the waist and slowly crawling along on their stomachs also exposed the rats to bites from fire ants that inhabited the underground labyrinths. Other nasties to be encountered in the tunnels were real rats, and spiders like the Giant Crab Spider. Sometimes whole chambers were crawling with a thick black mass of tiny spiders the size of a thumb nail, giving the illusion that the walls were moving!
It was soon discovered early on that to fight in the tunnels the tunnel rat had to do away with most of the infantry mans basic load. In fact the total lack of equipment carried by a rat was a distinct advantage, which greatly increased his chances of survival. The basic tools of the tunnel rat were the knife, the pistol, and a flashlight.
Knife of type that would be carried
The pistols that were carried by the tunnel rats were varied, the .38 Smith and Wesson was a favourite. Other tunnel rats procured their own personal firearms to suit their own needs. One of these was Master Sgt Flo Rivera who acquired and used a 9mm German Luger. The one weapon everyone agreed about was the Colt .45. It was too big, with a silencer it was to cumbersome and when it was fired underground without a silencer its bark was deafening. Making it impossible to hear the enemy.
One of the tunnel rats golden rules was you never fired more than 3 shots underground without reloading, as the VC would know you were out of ammo.
The flashlight was the standard Army issue type and every rat carried one. These were carried in a way so as not to make themselves a nicely illuminated target. If the bulb in the flashlight went it had to be changed. This was practiced so it could be done in pitch darkness by touch alone, and done quickly, lying prone, squatting, or kneeling down.
These were made from an ammo can which had a hole drilled in one end. A phosphorus grenade was then taken and unscrewed, the main body of the grenade was placed inside the can. The grenade lever is straightened and fuse is then passed through the drilled hole and screwed back onto the body. Finally the can is filled with napalm or thickened fuel.
THE TUNNEL EXPLORATION KIT:
Due to the specialised nature of tunnel warfare, priority was placed with ENSURE (Expedited Non-standard Urgent Requirements for Equipment) program for the development of special "Tunnel Exploration kits". Six kits were requested by USARV on the 29th of April 1966, and then passed on to ACTIV (Army Concept Team In Vietnam) on the 7th of August. ACTIV then distributed the six kits, two went to the 1st Inf Div at Di An, a further two were dispatched to the 25th Inf Div at Cu Chi. Of the remaining kits one was given to the 1st Cav at An Khe, whilst the last remaining kit went to the 173rd Airborne Bde at Bien Hoa.
Each kit cost 728 Dollars and consisted of a .38 calibre pistol which was fitted with a suppressor and a spotlight sighting device. This was all carried on a standard pistol belt in a specially designed holster. On the wearers head was a baseball cap which had a miners lamp mounted on it which was switched on and off via a mouth operated bite-switch. At the back of the cap was a bone conduction microphone communication system which was connected to a small ear piece. The power pack for the lamp and a communication wire reel were also hung on the pistol belt, but were situated on the wearers back.
Tests on the exploration kit in Vietnam soon revealed its short comings. The silenced .38 cal pistol was not liked because of its length with the suppressor, and because it lacked balance and was awkward to handle. The special aiming light was found to be unnecessary given the tight confines and short ranges the tunnel rats were operating in. The huge pistol holster was also a failure as it was too big and unwieldy to be used in the tight confines of a tunnel. The head mounted miners lamp fared no better! This was obstructed by the baseball cap's visor and could be shorted out by switch malfunctions rendering it useless. Furthermore the lamp tended to slip down over the wearers eyes. The earpiece part of the communication system was also troublesome as it kept falling out of the wearers ear!
USARV requested 250 tunnel kits on the 21st of March 1967, but because of a mix up in the ordering quantity (500 instead of the original 250) and year end budget problems, immediate funding was slow in coming. Natick labs were not asked to produce the sets until the 30th of September, this situation was further frustrated by problems in the communication equipment for the kits. Eventually the requested 250 sets were delivered to Dover AFB between the 22 nd and the 29th of May 1968, and from there immediately flown to Vietnam.
With their patch with it's nonsense Latin motto "Non gratum anus rodentum - Not worth a rats ass" the tunnel rats were among the bravest in Vietnam, doing a job that not many others could, or would care to do.
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Found: Cases of ‘Trench Fever’ in Ancient Rome
In October 2018, Davide Tanasi was off the coast of Italy, pulling teeth. His dental patients were 34 Sicilians who had been dead for the better part of 2,000 years. These Roman Christians were buried in the catacombs of St. Lucia in Syracuse, an underground city of some 8,000 dead stretched across an area about the size of the White House. Concealed among their no-longer-so-pearly whites was Bartonella quintana, a bacteria that causes a disease called trench fever, and which arrived in Roman mouths via the guts of lice.
The bacteria—its name a reference to the recurring, five-day fevers it is known to cause—had likely sped some of its hosts to their graves. Tanasi’s subjects were just a few of the infected chronicled in a recent paper tracing the history of trench fever, published in the open-access journal PLOS One.
The vernacular name (“trench fever”) was coined for the disease’s prevalence around the unsanitary battlegrounds of World War I. In the trenches, lice and rats capitalized on a dense concentration of humanity, and soldiers constantly got infections. The ankle-deep exposure to muck didn’t help, and thoughts of a shower may as well have been fever dreams. Trench fever had a reprisal in World War II, as well, but the Sicilian cemetery precedes those conflicts by 15 centuries. “World War I was the perfect storm for a major outbreak of trench fever, but the bacteria was always very much prevalent,” says Tanasi, an archaeologist at the University of South Florida and a co-author of the paper.
Life in the trenches was crowded, when you factor in all the humans, rats, and lice. Public Domain
Tanasi’s team was looking at 13 civilian and military sites from the last 5,000 years to study the prevalence of trench fever in different populations in France, Italy, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Russia, and see how the bacteria that causes the infection may have changed over time. The researchers didn’t notice much difference in prevalence among civilians versus military groups, despite its association with warfare. The fact that the bacteria showed up on the teeth of those 34 civilian Roman Christians buried in the catacombs suggests that their living conditions were squalid, Tanasi says. When a louse starts feeding on an infected host, the bacteria proliferates in the parasite’s intestine. Then, when the louse moves on to a new host, it poops the virus into its host through the skin. The bacteria easily moves through the bloodstream of the infected, which is how the Romans ended up with telltale bacteria in their teeth.
Trench fever wasn’t officially identified until after germ theory developed in the late 19th century, according to Carol Byerly, a historian of U.S. Army medicine who was unaffiliated with the recent paper. Besides the hallmark fever, symptoms include headaches, abdominal and shin pain, dizziness, and more.
Excavating the catacombs of St. Lucia under Syracuse, Sicily. Courtesy Davide Tanasi
“Trench fever had been around, it was in the environment, but it was just one in a whole suite of fevers and diseases that people couldn’t identify very well,” Byerly says. “No one wanted it, but people weren’t terrified of it.”
Among the near-800 American soldiers in World War I who were confirmed to have the fever, two died, according to a U.S. Army medical department report. Of greater concern to troops were the other illnesses plaguing the Great War’s battlefields, including typhus, dysentery, and the flu pandemic of 1918. Trench fever has hardly gone the way of the dodo: the last outbreak in the United States was in Denver this July. It’s one of several old-school bacterial infections that crop up now and again: Elsewhere in Colorado this July, a squirrel tested positive for bubonic plague.
French soldiers at a delousing station in 1919. By the end of the war, most forces had instituted sanitizing protocols. Reeve 15924/CC BY-2.0
Once the connection with unsanitary conditions and trench fever was clear, militaries made efforts to clean up their acts. The United States Army began routine delousings for their troops, Byerly says, which likely helped keep the American caseload at a fraction of that of their European counterparts, whose cases topped half a million.
The thread from the Sicilian catacombs to the wartorn fields of Europe is simple: Cleanliness is key. “You put two million men in trenches and don’t let them do the laundry,” Byerly says. “That’s how epidemics happen.”
A man is tied on the table. A metal cage without a bottom is placed on the victim’s abdomen. The torturer puts a few rats into the metal cage. The victim can feel a tingle of tiny legs and the rat’s nose. Torturer than pours hot coals over the cage.
The cage is quickly heated. The rats start to rush around, desperately searching for the way out. The metal cage is to hard to bite it, but the victim’s abdomen is not. The rats start to dig holes into the belly, tearing through intestines. The man starts to scream ferociously….
A rat can interrogate prisoners far more effectively than even the most skilled torturer can manage.
Rat torture originated in Ancient Rome. A bucket with starved rats inside was tied to the person’s belly. Afterward, the bucket was heated, making the inside extremely hot. The panicked animal could escape only by digging through the soft belly of the victim.
The method was upgraded in Medieval Germany involving a metal cage and heated charcoal and perfected during the Dirty war in Argentina in the 20th century.
The first documented case of usage of rat torture is from the 17th century from Europe. During the Dutch revolt, Dutch leader Diederik Sonay used rat torture to extract valuable information from captured prisoners.
As would Dutch soon learn rat torture was an extremely successful interrogation method. A victim would often tell everything he knew before the hot charcoal was put on the cage.
We have documented cases of rat torture used by several South American military dictatorships: in Brazil (1964–1985), Uruguay (1973–1985), Argentina (1976–1983), and in Chile during the dictatorship of August Pinochet (1973–1990).
During the Dirty war in Argentina (1976–1983), a period of United States backed state terrorism, right-wing death squads perfected rat torture by using tubes to guide rats into victims rectum or vagina.
Rat torture was also a form of animal cruelty. Imagine poor animals being trapped in a cage and forced to dig their way out of entrails full of feces.
There were several other torture techniques involving rats. One of them was called a rat chair. The method originated in Medieval Germany. A victim would be tied down into the chair. The torturer would put a metal cage on the victim’s face. Then he would put into the cage starved rats which would start to eat the victim’s nose, ears, and the face. Rats would simply live in the cage until the victim died.
Another variant of rat torture would involve cutting holes into the victim’s abdomen and stuffing inside the holes live rats. You’ve probably guessed already that this method also originated in Medieval Germany.
Ancient Romans used to tie a person down and open their guts, leaving a person to be eaten by rats. However, the problem with this approach was, the rats could eat the ropes and help the victim to escape.
However, the most common way of using rats for torture was to simply lock prisoners into the room full of rats. Rats would bite poor prisoners and crawled over them while they would sleep. This would instill fear into the victims and made them talk.
Fear is a far more powerful interrogation tool than the pain.