Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Trench Knives and Mustard Gas: With the Rainbow Division in France — Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

Trench Knives and Mustard Gas: 
With the Rainbow Division in France
by Hugh S. Thompson, edited by Robert H. Ferrell
C. A. Brannen Series, Texas A&M University Press, 2004

The Rainbow Division in Action During the Second Battle of the Marne

Originally published serially in the Chattanooga Times in 1934, Hugh S. Thompson's memoir of his time as an officer in Company L, 168th Infantry Regiment, 42nd Division, is a graphic, personal view of one man's war. Thompson wrote this as a result of an exchange of letters with the parents of a young man in his platoon who had died right after Thompson had written a letter to his parents assuring them that their son, although wounded, was recovering nicely. The young man's mother wrote a scathing letter back to Thompson. This upset him greatly, but he developed a relationship of sorts with the mother, and she eventually asked that Thompson write a description of the final days of her son's life. The memoir is in part a result of her request.

From a prominent Chattanooga family, Thompson joined the army early and was sent to France as part of the first group of casual officers to report to the American Expeditionary Forces; he was eventually assigned to the 42nd "Rainbow" Division as a platoon leader. In early 1918 Thompson and his regiment went into the line in Lorraine. Shortly afterward he was gassed and evacuated, the first of three wounds he would suffer. After each of his first two hospital stays, Thompson pushed to get back to his regiment even though he had a chance to stay behind a little longer or even to be assigned to a depot division. But Thompson, in common with most Doughboys, had found a home and family, of sorts, with the men of his platoon and company.

Order Now
Thompson gives us an honest account of the feelings of a young junior officer leading men in combat. He describes his affection for some of his fellow officers and men, and, refreshingly, he is not afraid to admit his fear as he enters combat. More than once he feels as if his decision to return to the front, rather than remain in a depot division, was a mistake. After his second wound, he had a chance to remain in the depot division. His thoughts must have been the same as other young men in his situation: "Why rush to get back into the war? Why not let nature take its course until the memories of the Champagne had thoroughly washed out?"

Thompson's account is replete with well-written descriptions of the things he witnessed. Although not an author, Thompson succeeds in helping us to feel what he felt at the time. For example, while providing security for a wiring party in no-man's-land, near German lines, in the eerie pitch black night, Thompson relates what surely caused some wracked nerves:

Sawyer [the officer in charge of the work party] and his gang got busy with their stakes and mallets. There was a rattling of wire and smothered curses. The hammering of mallets on stakes split the inky darkness. Somebody whispered nervously, 'My God, them -------s 'll wake up th' Kaiser'.

In another case, Thompson describes watching one of his platoon members, a young enlisted man, die at a hospital. "How much more would a man have to see?" asks Thompson. He also tells us what it was really like for a platoon leader waiting for H-hour prior to leading his men "over the top". Thompson makes us feel the suspense and fear that gripped him during the time just before jump-off as he counts down the minutes while making the rounds of his men, seeing to final dispositions and exchanging good luck wishes with them. All this serves to drive home the fact that Thompson was above all a rational person with feelings and desires that are common to us all.

American Gas Victims Receiving Care Near the Front

Thompson's description of his gassing and subsequent evacuation is vivid; it left me feeling suffocated and claustrophobic. The story of his wounding by shellfire gave me an inkling of the confusion, terror, and noise associated with such an event. Thompson's writing reflects the platoon leader's view; there are no lengthy descriptions of strategy or even of division-level action. His war, like the majority of enlisted men and junior officers, centered around his platoon and, at the most, his company. His concern for other companies is only evident in his desire to know how some of his friends, platoon leaders in those other companies, are getting along.

Historian and author Robert H. Ferrell edited this new release, and he wisely kept his explanatory notes to a minimum; Thompson's narrative is sufficient in itself and needs only slight elucidation. In my opinion Ferrell has made a few minor errors in interpretation, but these fall into the "nit-picking" category. His introduction is helpful and puts Thompson and his family in context.

Professor Ferrell and Texas A&M University Press are to be commended for publishing this and making it available to another generation of readers. Although the book has been in print since 2004, I think a review in this blog is warranted. Thompson wrote a memoir well worth reading. For anyone who would like an unvarnished view of an American junior officer's war, Trench Knives and Mustard Gas will provide entertaining reading.

Peter L. Belmonte