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British soldiers show off results of 15 minutes of rat hunting in trenches in France. (BBC Photo)

POISON ON TWO FRONTS: WWI Soldiers Hunt Rats for Meals in Trenches

November 12, 2017       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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The first Battle of the Marne, just outside Paris Sept. 6-13, 1914, was the epitome of modern warfare. More than a million soldiers were involved; about 250,000 casualties were recorded. The Old Guard dies, it does not retreat, was an ancient French axiom swiftly becoming out-moded in the face of ruthless Prussian military efficiency.

Combatants included a motley collection of angry nations who sent soldiers of all varieties who knew little of why they fought: puttee-wearing English Tommies, flamboyant French Foreign Legionnaires, superbly mounted Arabian Cavalry, swaggering Russian Cossacks and slogging Moroccan infantry in multi-colored turbans, besides the pickaxe bonnet Boche displaying their arrogant Prussian superiority. Their troops goose-stepped with precision, just as Field Marshal Leopold I had taught the Prussians in the mid-18th Century.

The Germans had hoped to sweep into Paris and end the war quickly, but their offensive was halted at the Marne and both sides dug in for trench warfare. Thus began a Western Front stalemate that would last an excruciating four more years and cost millions more lives, broken bodies and minds. A new weapon, poison gas soon was wafted over the trenches and legions of injured stumbled to the rear after each attack; more effective methods were deployed each time. The French and British learned to make the Satanic mist and fight back with this new and terrible weapon, although their production was minimal.

Obviously sensitive to public opinion, German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenberg was seen taking soldiers blinded in gas attacks for outings in buses even as columns of smiling troops and horse-drawn artillery marched smartly through the Brandenburg Gate to new battlefields. Not everyone in Berlin thought the Kaiser was God. Berliners could display anti-war sentiment by paying one to five marks to drive a nail in a wooden replica of the Iron Cross, the symbol of Teutonic militarism, to raise money for the Red Cross, a U.S. charitable institution. Such anti-government feeling would lead to the German Revolution of 1918-1919.

Granville Fortescue, a newspaper correspondent who had served as a Rough Rider with his cousin, Col. Roosevelt in 1898, visited the battle line beyond the Somme and wrote of the spirit of the French: "It had rained for two weeks and it still rained. The battleground, a great patch of black, desolate earth, looked as if for an age it had been submerged beneath the slimy waters of the flood. As I passed along the communication trenches I heard a voice in blithe song issuing from the depths of a dugout. In a moment a mud-spattered soldier appeared, saying a cheery "good morning" as he threw the carcasses of two huge rats over the parapet with the comment: 'There goes the night hunting.' The cheerfulness of this soldier personified the spirit of France."

The French relied on the ancient Napoleonic tactic -- the mass firing of artillery concentrated on a given point in the enemy lines. But the light French guns were not effective against troops in trenches; heavy artillery was too cumbersome in muddy conditions. Barrage fire of curtains of cascading iron became a new strategy the French had mastered.

In America, every mother was humming the popular song "I Didn't Raise My Boy to be a Soldier." Then came the Zimmerman Note that took the nation back seventy-five years. The Zimmerman Note was a telegram from the German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman, to Heinrich von Eckhardt, the German ambassador to Mexico. Decoded by British cryptographers, the note was inflammatory. If the U.S. declared war against Germany, the note proposed that Mexico ally with them; in return, Germany would help Mexico recover Texas, New Mexico, California and Arizona lost in the 1846 war with the U.S.

Early in 1918 came the force that would break the stalemate: the Americans. Narrowly elected on the slogan "he kept us out of war," Woodrow Wilson the following year declared "the world must be made safe for democracy." But it took another year to marshal our forces and get one million men trained and shipped overseas.

The President called for an outpouring of arms from the nation's factories. Those weapons included poison gas from a tiny chemical plant in mid-Michigan, soon the Yanks had the ultimate tool of Mars, the God of War -- mustard gas -- to match Haber's evil clouds.

The idea that country bumpkin chemists in a small company could defy the Kaiser's sophisticated laboratories, powerful chemical companies and world-famed scientists led by Fritz Haber were just as outlandish as the idea of ill-equipped American doughboys fighting Prussian military paragons. Those ideas were laughable to all but "Crazy" Chemist Whittaker Barnes and the U.S. Army's General Black Jack Pershing.

I had driven the company's big 1916 Packard Twin Six Touring car -- the one with the cloth top -- to Detroit for Mr. Barnes to attend a meeting; it was a temporary assignment by Aldridge who I supposed was currying favor with the big boss. Standing back with the waiters I got a chance to see how the rich and famous live and to overhear some big talk.

Gray-haired executives in black three-button cutaway coats, stiff collars, and bow ties mingled genially, and from all appearances confidently, at the Detroit Athletic Club. But their confidence was misplaced. War in Europe had been underway for three years, and suddenly was looming wider and posing a bigger threat to the world than any previous conflict.

"What would Queen Victoria have thought about her grandson, the war-mongering German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II?" asked paunchy auto tycoon Horace Dodge, Scotch in hand. Standing beside him was my passenger, bespectacled, academic Whittaker Barnes, chemical firm founder, who drank nothing stronger than Detroit's famous "pop," Vernor's ginger ale. Barnes was a member of the club for scions of Detroit even though he was a strict teetotaler and lived nearly 100 miles north in Brinewell Center.

There had been no income tax since the Civil War and hundreds of millionaires populated the onetime lumber centers of the state, like Brinewell Center, as well as perhaps thousands of well-fed plutocrats in what already was being called "The Motor City," Detroit.

Reading up on it later, I learned the Dodges, 50-year-old Horace and elder brother John, had been making motorized trucks, ambulances and other vehicles for the British and French, piling up huge profits without a thought that the U.S. would have to enter the war.

Similarly, Barnes's Woodland Chemical Company had been shipping thousands of barrels of bromine to industries and phenol to munitions firms out East for explosives without the urgency now presented in the need for mustard oil. The Kaiser's evil mist was spreading and must be combated; evil for evil compounded.

Mr. Dodge expressed the widespread fear that the Kaiser, he of the withered arm from a childhood injury who it was said actually hated his famous grandmother, was bent on world domination. And he despised the world outside Germany.

(To be continued.)

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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