Prior to battle, musical instruments are confiscated and stored, and band members become guards, messengers, first-aid providers, and stretcher bearers. Carl E. Haterius played a horn in the 137th Regiment Band. While strictly forbidden in order to protect operational security, he kept a journal throughout his military service. After the war, he compiled the entries into a book Reminiscences of the 137th U. S. Infantry (Crane & Company 1919). In it, he records the ambiance of the wartime environment and provides insight into the soldier’s life.
While the 35th Division waited in reserve in the Haye Forest, Haterius made notes that became the following passage. Perhaps long-winded for our time, I cite its entirety. For it expresses a sentiment with which, I suspect, a soldier who has “passed through the inferno” can identify, and from which family members might gain understanding.
“Our life here in this forest was a dismal one, and in passing I might add, that often as we lay there in our little pup tents during some dark night listening to the patter of raindrops on our little canvas tents, our thoughts would often revert back over the miles of cruel distance, far back across the ocean, and out to where the ‘West begins.’ We were now learning the grimness of war and were commencing to realize that it was no child’s play. It called for men, big, strong, robust, vigorous, strong-hearted men. It was no place for a weakling. The ‘mind willing but the flesh weak’ did not harmonize in our picture. Many times when conditions were almost unbearable, we must needs urge ourselves onward, with little time for the thought of home or old environs, for to have given an absolute free rein to our thoughts and emotions would have proved a difficult handicap to overcome. The less we thought about it the better off we were. It was no use in becoming more miserable than we were at times. Many times, while sitting in some lowly billet or bivouacked in some dark, overshadowing wood, and while writing to loved ones at home, we would intentionally leave out much concerning our life at that particular time. Many stories sent back home were but half told. They must not know, as it would only cause their anxiety to increase. Those at home were fighting their battle, and sometimes I have been inclined to believe that theirs was the hardest battle. No one will ever know just what the fathers, mothers, wives and other loved ones suffered. They in turn bore their burdens in silence, and little was said or made known. The spirit of all was wonderful to behold. Even over there time after time that home feeling would creep into our souls like a thief in the night. We were but human after all. Those times were perhaps the hardest battles we had to fight. Only a soldier who has been over there and passed through the inferno can realize the meaning of these lines.” (118-119)
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’s journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.