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Today's Story by Philip Leibfried

This war has introduced many new weapons – flame throwers, machine guns and poison gas, to name a few.

The Terror in the Trench

When the black clouds of war above Europe swept over Great Britain in August 1914, Charles Woodley and his life-long friend Edward Cutter enlisted immediately and were assigned to the Royal Warwick Regiment.  The two were partners in a pest control business called “Great Exterminations”, so named due to their mutual love of the works of Dickens.  Highly successful, they were especially adept at eliminating rats, due to a virulent poison they had concocted.  Although loath to leave their lucrative venture, the patriotic pair felt that the war would not last and they would soon be back home.

As was the practice at the time, all the men who enlisted or were drafted from a given location were assigned to the same regiment.  Those assigned to the Royal Warwick were from a small town, so had a jolly good time on the trip to the continent, since most of them were already acquainted.  Then they reached the front.

Twenty-six months later, Woodley and Cutter found themselves in a trench in France near the Somme River, soaked to the skin from the incessant rain.  Unable to light a cigarette, Charles searched his pockets for some chewing gum.  Finding some, he unwrapped it quickly and shoved it into his mouth before it got wet.

“Would you like a piece, Edward?” he asked his friend.

“No, thanks.  If I cannot have a fag, I’d rather have nothing.”

“War has certainly changed since Queen Victoria’s day.  No more dashing cavalry and handsome uniforms. And the boredom!” moaned Charles.

“That’s certain.  I’d rather be going toe-to-toe with a Fuzzy Wuzzy or a Zulu than stand around in this muck waiting for the enemy or us to make a move,” replied Edward.

Laughing, Charles added, “You know, as the enemy charges at us, they look like so many rats in their gray uniforms.”

“You might call them ‘German vermin’,” said Edward.  Both laughed heartily.

This war has introduced many new weapons – flame throwers, machine guns and poison gas, to name a few.  It has also seen the birth of new tactics, due to the use of trenches by all the armies.

A trench was the most miserable accommodation known to man, more squalid than the meanest slum.  It was basically a long, narrow trail dug in the earth in a zigzag pattern with duckboard “floors” and sides bolstered with sandbags and wire mesh.  When it rains, which it does often, the place became a quagmire.  The dugouts where the soldiers slept and ate were no better.  The Royal Warwick has been bogged down here for three months now – ninety days of mostly inclement weather, with only rare views of the sun. The Germans have taken a heavy toll of the British Tommys every time they have gone over the top.  A new British weapon, some- thing called a tank, was initially effective, but those large, ungainly machines have gotten stuck in the morass of No Man’s Land, unable to proceed.

Each attack brought thousands more casualties.  There were so many bodies that they could not be buried quickly enough.  The stench was so awful that the men had to don gas masks to keep from vomiting.  Many of Woodley and Cutter’s chums were killed, but there was little time to mourn, as the business of war took priority.  That, along with the dampness and the cold, were not enough to endure; then the rats came.

At first they were few and picked among the piles of garbage that were kept at one end of the trench.  They soon grew bolder and began nibbling on the corpses.  The men shot at them, but were ordered to conserve their ammunition, so they took to killing them with bayonets and shovels.  The rats were quick, though, and the soldiers were unable to make a dent in their population, which seemed to grow by leaps and bounds in very short order.  The furry ghouls seemed to mock the living as they feasted on their dead comrades.  It was a ghastly sight as they gorged themselves on the bloated bodies of the slain.  And all the while they grew larger, a fact not lost on the weary fighting men.

Day by day the rats grew larger.  After a week they were the size of small dogs.  Another week and they were as big as Great Danes.  The men discovered that if they killed one, the others would devour it, making it somewhat easier to kill them while they were so engaged.  There were so many, though, that the soldiers could not kill them fast enough.

It was raining again, so their Teutonic enemies were quiet.  The Tommys forgot about the Germans as they dealt with this new and equally deadly foe in their midst.  Constantly alert for any new maneuver by the rats, none dared sleep for fear the ravenous rodents would grow even more brazen and attack the living.

One overcast day that fear was realized as the rats scurried into the makeshift hospital in a body and assaulted the wounded men.  The medics slashed at the vermin with scalpels, but were quickly overwhelmed.  One of them rushed outside wide-eyed with fear, only to be over- taken and eaten by two of the creatures. The blood-curdling screams of the wounded as they were mangled and eaten froze the very marrow of even the bravest soldier.  The beasts were as big as ponies now and made short work of everyone in the hospital area.  Emerging from the place with bloody jaws, they charged en masse at the remaining troops.  Orders were forgotten as every man shot and jabbed at them until the horrid creatures engulfed them.  Limbs, faces and even heads were bitten off in order to satiate their voracious appetites.  Then only Woodley and Cutter remained.  It was ironic that the last soldiers left had been exterminators in civilian life.  Or did the rats know that?

The hungry creatures surged toward the hapless pair, a furry wave of death.  Before they reached the erstwhile exterminators, a sonorous growling was suddenly heard above their din and they stopped and turned.  Behind them emerged something that Charles could not believe he was seeing.  Around a bend in the trench the head of a rat the size of a stallion came into view, its red eyes aflame with hunger.  It lumbered down the trench towards the two survivors, whiskers bristling and mouth agape.  Cutter panicked and began climbing a ladder; he glanced at his old friend one last time as he was dragged down by three of the beasts and consumed before Woodley’s disbelieving eyes.  Turning his attention back to the monster, Charles rapidly re- treated several yards, firing his rifle until he ran out of ammunition, then fixed his bayonet and stood ready.


Philip Leibfried’s published efforts are in the area of film history. A resident of New York City, he now concentrates on fiction and limericks.

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