Rats and Cats During WWI

07/01/2013 11:38 am ET | Updated Aug 29, 2013

My grandfather on my mother's side talked about the Great War (WWI, la Grande Guerre) every single day of his life. As far as us kids were concerned, he never did anything else.

He talked about how he and his buddy soldiers had to live in a muddy trench for almost a year and how the French government was not feeding them at all. After the first month, food supplies stopped coming -- like they were forgotten by the others -- sending nothing to the troops, so they had to rely on neighboring farms that had been abandoned where a few animals had survived, among them some chickens, one time a pig, a starving horse, a skinny dog, cats and even rats -- barn rats, the kind that even cats don't chase.

They were taking chances coming out of their shelter. They had to survive. The soldiers learned how to make bread with the wheat that had been stored in silos before the farmers left, building a stone hearth for cooking. They were not concerned about flames and fires that could be seen by the enemy. They knew exactly where they were located, as both sides had been there for months and months -- French and Germans facing each other, hearing each other day and night.

My grandfather's name was Jean. His best war friend was Léon. They were 14 other men named Jean in his detail. He was 17 years old, he lied to enter the army, and nobody questioned him much when he enrolled. He was born in 1900 in Brittany, the western part of France, by the Atlantic Ocean, in a rough and poor rocky area. He did not really want to fight for his country; he just had nothing else to do, not much future to consider. He thought the war would bring him pride and recognition.

I think he lost a bit of his soul when he had to kill the skinny horse to feed his entire battalion for a couple of months. They had fresh water from a small running stream that froze in early November. In the summer they had a few wild berries, but so many became sick that they all stopped eating that.

One day a cow came wandering; she was very skinny but all they could see in her was steak meat. They killed the wandering beast and that fed them for over a month, all 350 of them. Can you imagine how many hamburgers you can get out of one cow? One of the soldiers was an apprentice butcher, so that skill came in handy.

They were supposed to kill the enemy soldiers, and some were killed. But mostly they were just holding the fort down, waiting for the siege to end. Barely connected to the outside world, they waited, waited, waited. My grandfather told me the rain, cold, snow and mud were very difficult to bear. That winter of 1916 in the Verdun valley was one of the harshest the area had known.

Located in the northeast part of France, the battle of Verdun lasted 10 months; 150,000 French soldiers died there -- the same amount on the German side. Léon and 2 others close to my grandfather died of malnutrition. Six of his buddies died after returning home, one from tuberculosis. They were all teenagers.

My grandfather said that their only goal had nothing to do with winning a war or not, but was only about survival. They all thought they were going to die the next day or in a week, and it had nothing to do with enemy and weapons -- food was their concern of every minute.

It's ironic that those kids defending their country with their bodies and their weapons, for the glory of somebody else's ideal, ended up starving and dying of nothing but lack of resources. They were called les Poilus, or the hairy, meaning somebody who's got some hair, or some courage.

They all got to have long hair, as very few knives and shavers were available, and besides, longer hair meant warmer necks, so they did not bother. Socks were a big problem too; they became hard with soil and freeze. Some guys tried to eat their leather boots, my grandfather said he wanted to keep his boots on his feet. I don't think he ever took them off for the long months he was in the trenches.

The officers were not better fed -- same lot than the soldiers -- but they got to be rotated quite often with fresh ones, so they never had to suffer from malnutrition like the poor recruits. To this day the fields of the battles are still harboring shrapnel and unexploded ammunition. It's a place where so many young men died, nobody wants to build there or cultivate anything. Memory keeps the fields empty and sacred.

France won that dreadful battle. My grandfather was so very proud of that, knowing that surviving alone was the greatest win to so many of his pals. He never spoke about killing. I don't know if he has. He never spoke against the army or his officers, he never complained about the fear. He did always say that war is useless and shameful.

After the war, and for the remaining of his long life, he never again ate meat. It reminded him too much of rats and cats.

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