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Trench Knives and Mustard Gas

With the 42nd Rainbow Division in France

By Hugh S. Thompson; Edited by Robert H. Ferrell

Publication Year: 2004

Trench Knives and Mustard Gas: With the 42nd Rainbow Division in France is the memoir of a soldier on the front lines of World War I. Hugh Thompson’s memoirs of his time in France demonstrate a keen eye for detail and a penchant for philosophy. Thompson combines the fast-paced prose of the jazz age and the passionate observations of an engaged intellectual. Originally serialized in the Chattanooga Times in 1934, this newly edited version allows the author to tell his story to a whole new generation. Thomspon takes the reader on an intense journey with the 168th regiment of the 42nd Rainbow Division through the villages, towns, battlefields, and hospitals of France. He points out the sights along the way and has a knack for compressing a complex reflection on life into a single sentence. Severely wounded in his arm and back, Thompson reassesses his situation after visiting comrades who lost arms or legs. “I went back to my tent,” he recalls, “almost ashamed of my own lucky wounds.” Homesick for the States during his first months overseas, Thompson discovers that his platoon has become his second family. He becomes increasingly estranged from his old one and accustomed to the war’s distortion of time and values. Friendships form and disappear in the hour it takes a stranger to die. When he is wounded, Germans serve as his stretcher bearers. And things never happen when they take place, but later when one learns of them from a letter or from a soldier passing through. War does not destroy the physical man. It leads to strange experiences. Trench Knives and Mustard Gas brings the front lines of World War I, the Great War, to the hearts and minds of its readers. The book is an indispensable guide into the past, told by a man who was there.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: C. A. Brannen Series


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pp. v


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pp. vi

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pp. vii-viii

I am indebted, first of all, to Betty Bradbury for a most difficult task, namely, putting this manuscript on a word processor and thus enabling subsequent editing. The original memoir of Hugh S. Thompson had appeared in serial form in the Chattanooga Times of 1934, but the copy sent to the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, ...

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Editor’s Introduction

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pp. ix-xii

One of the most celebrated units sent to France during the United States’ participation in World War I was the 42nd Division, or Rainbow Division. This famed organization was so named in 1917, following a proposal by (then) Major Douglas MacArthur to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. ...

A Note on the Editing

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pp. xii

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Preface to the Original

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pp. 3-4

I am incapable of analyzing my motives for having written this narrative of war, or more precisely, that part of a moving cyclorama that I saw firsthand. No doubt, the real reason is the presumptuous one of believing that the story may prove a valuable or at least an enlightening cross-section of America’s brief but vital part in the cataclysm of 1914–18. ...

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Chapter 1 On the Way

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pp. 5-13

The time was September, 1917. The place was a New York dock, overflowing with humanity. The transport Kroonland, with its cargo of newly commissioned reserve officers, made ready for sailing. Western Union boys scurried up and down the gangplank; ...

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Chapter 2 Somewhere in France

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pp. 14-23

Agripping, cramped-muscled crew descended from the cars at a bleak station. We had been two nights and a day on the hard benches of third-class carriages. ...

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Chapter 3 Rimaucourt

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pp. 24-33

Rimaucourt now swarmed with troops. The first and second battalions, the headquarters and supply companies, the band, and part of the sanitary detachment filled its barns and stables.1 ...

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Chapter 4 The Raid

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pp. 34-43

The column of two battalions clambered up the slick hill from Rimaucourt and made the neighboring village of Andelot. Our band met us and march music was the order of the hour. Singing followed. A hiker yelled “Let’s go, gang!” and the gang responded: ...

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Chapter 5 The Trenches

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pp. 44-52

Turk, High, Tim, Setliffe, Malcolm, and I made the hill above Neufmaisons on the way to the front. We fixed our gas masks at alert. Patches of stubborn snow fringed the Pexonne-Badonviller road and spotted the rolling fields ahead. ...

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Chapter 6 More of Same

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pp. 53-63

Back in Neufmaisons after a glimpse of a “quiet sec tor,” rest and hearty companionship erased the images of mud, wire, and desolation. It was not for long. Platoon commanders were immediately busy getting rid of cooties and trying to pass on to the men the knowledge gained of life in the trenches. ...

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Chapter 7 To Bru and Back

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pp. 64-73

Aspring sun lavished itself upon the village of Bru. Men of the second and third battalions wallowed in its friendly rays. Chickens and geese strutted about unconcerned with the affairs of the new arrivals. The smell of animals, even the luscious manure piles, was welcome after the stinking trenches. ...

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Chapter 8 Badonviller

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pp. 74-84

The loop of ditches called GC9 was the old familiar mudhole, with a few exceptions. A welcome sun that made life a bit more comfortable than formerly also accentuated the sewer-like odors of my dripping, ratinfested shelter and an adjoining sump-hole latrine. ...

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Chapter 9 The Last Trench Days

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pp. 85-94

Even a labyrinth of ditches can have its own distinct personality. GC12 offered a variety of vices and virtues. Birds twittered now and again in a scrawny apple tree behind my shelter of timbers and corrugated iron. ...

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Chapter 10 Paradise

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pp. 95-106

Neufmaisons was a town of hot and dusty streets, of primitive houses and barns, of smelly caf

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Chapter 11 Hospital and Home

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pp. 107-118

Vittel, a jewel-like resort of the Vosges, was no longer a playground for the continental rich. Its ornate Central Hotel, Nouvel Hotel, and other famous hostelries were now inhabited by gassed and wounded convalescents of the 42nd Division. ...

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Chapter 12 Wounded Again

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pp. 119-131

Forty-eight hours in the hot and dusty thickets of the Champagne afforded a working knowledge of what the labyrinth of trenches, the dugouts, the barricades, the camouflage, and the thumping artillery were all about. Perce and Wally explained the defensive setup for the big doings to come, while Sergt. Ford was outfitting me with mask, helmet, web belt, and “45.” ...

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Chapter 13 Recovery

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pp. 132-143

The ambulance in which Dearing, the two I company men, and I were riding rumbled through a cluster of buildings, hummed along an endless ribbon of dust, and lunged into a stretch of pavement. Carson groaned with his fractured hip when the vehicle came to a jerky halt in Ch

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Chapter 14 Home Again

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pp. 144-155

Four days at the headquarters of the 96th Aero Squadron offered a welcome change from the depressing hospital scenes, but only spasmodic relief from persistently intruding memories of the Champagne. ...

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Chapter 15 Preparation

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pp. 156-165

Myriad hobnails pounded on toward the St. Mihiel salient through alternate stretches of murky darkness and pouring rain. The new men were holding their own, with the aid of veteran comrades, now loaded down with extra rifles and packs. ...

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Chapter 16 St. Mihiel

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pp. 166-178

Shells whirred and wailed above the water-logged ditch, where I huddled with Wally, Wheeler, and Jim. “Seventy-fives” barked, almost on line with us. Faroff machine guns chattered dully, in angry fits and starts. Exhausted men slept at our feet, oblivious to the noise and rain. ...

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Chapter 17 The End

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pp. 179-190

Six months. Six endless, agonizing months since that fatal day in September when I had come out of the St. Mihiel salient with my own life, but without many more comrades whose places could never be refilled; six months that were sometimes blurred, sometimes vivid, but always fantastic, ...


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pp. 191-198

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Further Reading

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pp. 199-200

The 42nd Division’s constituency, the source of its personnel, was widespread, and perhaps that is most of the reason why the division inspired so many books. It may also have been the division’s popular name—the Rainbow. A lesser reason for the books was the “Fighting 69th,” the New York City regiment of the National Guard, ...


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pp. 201-205

E-ISBN-13: 9781603446549
E-ISBN-10: 1603446540
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585442904
Print-ISBN-10: 1585442909

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 18 b&w photos. 4 maps.
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: C. A. Brannen Series

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Subject Headings

  • United States. Army. Infantry Division, 42nd -- Biography.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Campaigns -- France.
  • Thompson, Hugh S.
  • World War, 1914-1918 -- Personal narratives, American.
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