Ratters: War Dogs in the Trenches

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 going through the horrors of battle and life in the trenches.