A Special Contribution Courtesy of
Professor Robert H. Ferrell

Excerpted from:
Trench Knives and Mustard Gas: With the 42nd Rainbow Division in France

Reprinted by permission of Robert H. Ferrell. Available at Amazon.com

Your Trench

Orientation Tour


Lt. Hugh S. Thompson, 168th Infantry

Trenches Similar to those Discussed Here

After climbing the dugout stairs, Wallace proceeded to show us around. We tried to take in everything explained for our benefit. The rusty klaxon horn at the dugout entrance was for gas alarms. A wooden rack held rocket signals. Wallace explained them: green for gas, six-star red for a twenty-minute barrage from supporting artillery, six-star white asked the artillery to lengthen its barrage, and three- star white signaled for the return of patrols and raiding parties in no man’s land. A test barrage from the artillery was secured by telephone signal from company or platoon dugouts. The words, "trial barrage," sent the distant battery or batteries into action with one shell in front of the signaling zone of frontline trenches.

Wallace continued to hand out useful information. Emergency rations of hardtack and bully beef were not to be opened without orders. Sealed tins of emergency water in company and platoon dugouts were treated with like respect, chow details issuing a canteen ration daily. This supply had to serve for drinking, teeth-brushing, etc.

Messages between battalion headquarters and company and platoon positions were usually written and carried by runners. Liaison patrols constantly kept the isolated positions in touch with one another. The patrols also ensured that the connecting stretches of trench would be kept clear of all but friends.

The 168th Infantry on Parade

We repeated the day’s password, "Versailles." This would identify us to all sentinels. The answer or countersign, "Brittany," would seal the bargain. These signals were changed daily and Wallace explained how important they became after nightfall.

We left the clearing, skidded down a steep communicating trench, and crossed a low place. A bullet pinged overhead; Wallace grinned widely when Malcolm and I ducked in unison. Three shells swished over us in rapid succession and exploded in the direction of Badonviller. I began to get a bit uncomfortable over what was in store for us.

Floundering through mud, we crossed a brook, passed another rustic grave, and pulled up in front of a chicken-wire gate. A sentinel admitted us into another trench.

We splashed by a muddy group that worked with shovels in the trench bottom. Floundering around a corner, we came to a dugout and adjoining shelter, covered with sunken hoods of corrugated iron. A doughboy stood by the blanketed entrance to the dugout. Another, with rifle and bayonet, lay on his belly upon a pile of mud atop. We were at the platoon headquarters of GC9.

Lt. Hugh S. Thompson
Wallace led us around a bayou and into a fire trench. The sight that greeted us brought an immediate and positive reaction. "Desolate" was the only name for it. A mass of rusty barbed wire was strung on crisscrosses of posts that seemed to grow from the ground. Ghost-like trees to the right were splattered with shell scars. Some had fallen into the mass of twisted wire and upturned earth. Others were broken off at various heights, like so many matchsticks. The expanse of desolation sloped up a gentle rise. The German trenches were hidden behind the crest some two hundred yards or more away.

We retraced our difficult steps, following our guide to the neighboring platoon positions. We lurched down soupy, demolished trenches toward GC to. Men in rubber boots, hip high, grunted with shovels, here and there. Others worked in the tangles of mud, splintered stanchions, broken telephone cable, and twisted iron. A Boche plane buzzed overhead as we approached a dark cavity in the earth filled with splintered debris. It was the place where Capt. McHugh had been killed in the German bombardment of the first battalion.

Doughboys with automatic rifles were in outposts jutting out along the line. Two men sat at each gun, while another pair slept under metal and sandbag shelters, close at hand. A heavily manned outpost between GC to and GC11 had its gun set up among the ruins of a farmhouse with the muzzle stuck through a wide slit in a tumbled-down chimney. More men slept in a waterlogged cellar below. A German helmet hung from a spike in the chimney’s mortar, raw flesh and tufts of black hair protruding from the lining.

Wallace took us into GC it, which was out of his company sector. He had a special reason. We were greeted by a sickening odor, as he led us around a turn in a sloppy ditch. The body of a dead German, in muddy, green-gray overcoat lay on the trench bottom.

Sources and thanks: Professor Ferrell is spending his retirement focusing on the AEF. His edited version of Lt. Thompson's manuscript is one of eight projects he is developing. Check back for more of his contributions to the Doughboy Center. MH

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