There’s no truer way to describe it: Life in the trenches of WWI was absolute hell. If an enemy bullet, artillery shell, or gas canister didn’t kill you, the cesspool of diseases that formed in the puddles at the bottom of the trenches surely would. To make matters worse, the damp, dingy, and dirty environment made for the perfect breeding ground for rats that would carry and spread deadly diseases.
Placing and maintaining rat traps was impractical in such an austere environment, so there was really only one way to deal with the infestation. This particular deterrent also provided a huge boost to morale in an otherwise bleak battlefield. We’re talking, of course, about trench cats.
Throughout the trench systems that ran along the Western Front of WWI, there were an estimated 500,000 cats. Primarily, they were there to cull the rodent population, but as you can imagine, many troops would find comfort in caring for the kitties.
The cats also served at mascots for many of the units fighting in the trenches. Troops would share parts of their rations with the cats who, in turn, would stick around for the food and attention. The cats would mostly crowd around troops’ living quarters, giving them something to play with between conflicts.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the cats, though. Many more troops loved and cared for the cats in between battles and made them part of their unit. Like this Army Air Corps kitty, who’s name was Spark Plug.
As heart-wrenching as it was, cats were also very susceptible to the near-odorless and near-invisible toxic gas used against the Allies. This means that cats would feel the effects of the gas attacks almost immediately. Like canaries in mine shafts, their reaction to the gas would alert nearby troops, who would then rush to put on their gear and get to safety. It’s unknown how many cats died due to chemical warfare, but their losses saved countless GI lives.
The cats were also able to freely cross no man’s land. During the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, many soldiers wished for peace and friendship between the troops of warring factions. So, they would tie messages around the collars of some of the free-roaming kitties and the message would get across to the enemy fortifications.
Unfortunately, not everyone thought such communication was to be taken lightly. One cat by the name of Felix was caught by French officers and put in front of a tribunal. This cat, trying to carry messages of peace and love in exchange for treats, was found guilty of treason and executed by firing squad.
The cats were known to be fiercely loyal to the troops with whom they served. One Belgian officer and scout, Lt. Lekeux of the 3rd Regiment of Artillery, came across a liter of kittens whose mother had perished before the young could open their eyes. Lekeux nursed the kittens back to health, but unfortunately only one survived — he named the cat Pitoutchi.
The cat followed the lieutenant everywhere he went and jumped on his shoulders whenever the trenches were too wet. One night, as Lt. Lekeux was scouting out the German position and drawing their location on a map, German troops almost spotted him. Alerted by some noise, the troops surrounded the artillery crater in which Lekeux took cover. He was trapped; the Germans were sure to shoot him if he fled or bayonet him if they found him in there.
Suddenly, Pitoutchi jumped from Lt. Lekeux’s shoulder and dashed out of cover. The Germans spotted the little kitten and opened fire, but his cat’s reflexes proved too quick. The Germans attributed the noise they heard to Pitoutchi and gave up searching.
This gave Lekeux the window he needed to mount an escape, with the maps and Pitouchi in hand.