Military Induction and Entrainment

“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution of the United States.”

The words feel like strangers in the mouth, being, at the same time, repeated after a man in uniform and of such moral import.

The American flag on his right, the Tennessee Tristar, left, the army officer stands before a group of young men. They are farmers, teachers, laborers, and railroad men. All dressed in their best clothes, they’re aligned in loose ranks. A small suitcase or a simple bag, containing a change of clothes and a shaving kit, sits on the floor to each man’s left. Their right hands are raised, palms out.

The officer continues: “I, state your name…”

“I, Benjamin Franklin Potts, do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”

June 27, 1918, one hundred years ago today, my great grandfather spoke these words, right hand raised, at the Houston County Court House in Erin, Tennessee, and so became a private in the U.S. Army.

The two oaths, taken by all commissioned and noncommissioned officers and privates, were defined by the First United States Congress in 1789. The oath for officers changed over the years, but the oaths for enlisted men stayed the same until the mid-20th century.

Following the brief ceremony, Private Potts was escorted onto a train with several dozen other draftees. The train pulled out for Camp Gordon in Chamblee, Georgia, where they would undergo six weeks of military training.

Three months from that day, my great grandfather would be fighting in France.

Form 1029  Provost Marshal General Office

Form 1029, Provost Marshal General Office, showing Benjamin Franklin Potts (12th entry) was inducted and entrained for Camp Gordon June 27, 1918, and arrived two days later

Two of Ben’s three brothers were also drafted for the war. Nine months prior, Roy Albert, two years Ben’s senior, took the same train to Camp Gordon. The youngest, Clyde Brake, would leave for Camp Wadsworth near Spartanburg, South Carolina, in September 1918. Only the eldest, William Rufus, was excluded from the draft, being married with two young children at the time.

 


A Very Muddy Place

My great grandfather, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his wartime experience. His family has only his discharge paper and a few anecdotes.

One hundred years later, I’ve discovered a few documents that bear his name. From draft registration to discharge, I’m following the paper trail of B. F. Potts’ journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

“Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?”
“It's a very muddy place.”

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

As the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service.

Next date:

August 24 — Embarkation, the Tunisian

Choose your own path...


Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

June 5, 1917, the Great War thundered across the fields of northern France. Earlier in the spring, a large-scale attack, called the Nivelle Offensive, failed with heavy casualties, resulting in a series of mutinies and mass desertions in the French army. In the Argonne Forest, a battle of mine-and-countermine, now two years in, was riddling the Butte of Vauquois with tunnels and craters.

In the United States, ten million American men, ages 21 to 30, signed their names to register to be drafted into military service. One of these was my great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Potts.

In April, following the discovery that Germany was negotiating with Mexico to join the war against its northern neighbor, the United States declared war on the German Empire. The Selective Service Act of 1917 was enacted in May. It authorized the conscription of men to raise an army, allowing certain exclusions. Among them, having a dependent parent, or a dependent sibling or child under 12 years old, were considered good reasons to be exempt from the draft.

In addition to this date, three other national registration days were held. One, on the same date a year later, to register men turned 21 during the year, followed by a second, August 24, for the same reason, then a third, on September 12, which broadened the eligibility age, from 18 to 45.

All four sons of Jack and Ellen Potts were of eligible ages. Benjamin Franklin, who was called “Bennie”* by his family, was accompanied that day by his brothers: William “Roofy”* Rufus, Roy Albert, and Clyde Brake.

*The nicknames are recorded in the 1910 census (image) when Benjamin was 16 years old and Rufus, 20.

According to his draft registration card, B. F. Potts was 22 years old, short in height, medium in build. He had gray eyes and dark brown hair. Born September 18, 1894, in Slayden, Tennessee, by 1917 he resided in nearby Tennessee Ridge. He laid and repaired track for the Lincoln & Nashville Railroad. He was Caucasian, unmarried, with no prior military experience and no good reasons not to get some.

Draft registration card  Benjamin Franklin Potts  June 5  1917Draft registration card, Benjamin Franklin Potts, June 5, 1917

Choose your own path...


The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

Photo_240809 063At the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery,
east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France

On September 26 this year, we’ll mark the 100th anniversary of the assault on the Butte of Vauquois by the 35th Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.

My great grandfather, Private Benjamin Franklin Potts, fought there. Thankfully for me and my Potts family kin who came after, he survived. Many of his comrades in arms did not.

Choose your own path...


The Butte of Vauquois

My great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Potts, was a U.S. infantryman in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, near Verdun, France, in 1918.

My Nanna once asked him, “Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?”

He said, “It’s a very muddy place.”

At 24 years old, B.F. Potts was a soldier in the 137th Infantry Regiment, which was part of the 35th Infantry Division. In September 1918, the 35th was ordered to take the “Vauquois Zone,” a sector with a 2-mile wide front which included the Butte of Vauquois (pronounced /voh-qua/).

The Butte of Vauquois is a hill raising up 290 meters above the surrounding countryside. That’s almost 1000 feet, about the height of the Eiffel Tower. The hilltop provides a commanding view of the terrain on three sides, including the strategic railway from Verdun to Paris.

The German army moved into Vauquois in early September 1914 at the beginning of the war. By the end of the month, the French tried to retake the hill, and the battle for the Butte of Vauquois began. The battle here would rage for four long years.

Before the war, a couple hundred people lived in the village of Vauquois at the top of the hill. From the start of the battle until the end, the hilltop was showered with artillery. In the spring of 1915, when ground offensives became ineffective, a war of mine-and-counter-mine began. 

Summit of the Butte of Vauquois
Summit of the Butte of Vauquois, August 2009, showing German trenches (foreground), mine craters (middleground), and the French monument to the combatants and the dead of Vauquois (background)

After several months in place, the German troops had constructed a network of trenches that, coupled with the steep terrain, made a formidable defense against ground attack. So the French would dig a tunnel from a protected side of the hill to a position they gauged to be beneath the enemy trenches, pack in a few tons of explosives, light the fuse, and run like hell. The resulting explosion would create a crater on the surface, its size roughly corresponding to the amount of explosives used.

That’s what “mining” means to a ground army. When the enemy catches on to what you’re doing and starts listening to the ground and making their own tunnels beneath your tunnels and packing explosives in them, that’s what they call “counter-mining.”

The largest mine used at Vauquois was set by the Germans. It contained 60 tons of explosives. It made a surface crater 80 feet deep and 300 feet wide and killed 108 French soldiers in two lines of trenches. The war of mine-and-counter-mine went on for three years, until April of 1918.

By the time Private Potts arrived in September, France must have been a very muddy place, indeed.

 


Sources: I put together this article from a few photocopied pages of a larger work of family genealogy and history assembled by my great uncle, John Wesley Potts, and a visit to the area and its museums in 2009.

After the war, the ground was littered with explosives and still is today. The former inhabitants of the hilltop village re-established their community at the foot of the hill.

The website of the Association of the Friends of Vauquois and its Region has a couple of nice photos and information on visiting the site.

The guided tour of the underground galleries where the mine war took place is enlightening, educational, and horrific.


A Very Muddy Place

My great grandfather, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his wartime experience. His family has only his discharge paper and a few anecdotes.

One hundred years later, I’ve discovered a few documents that bear his name. From draft registration to discharge, I’m following the paper trail of B. F. Potts’ journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.

Choose your own path...