“Each infantryman carried his rifle, bayonet, steel helmet and gas mask. He had 250 rounds of rifle ammunition, carried in a belt, and two bandoliers, each one swung over one shoulder and under the other arm. On his back was his combat pack, in his pack carrier. This contained his raincoat, if he was not wearing it, his mess-kit and two days’ ‘iron ration,’ which usually was two cans of corned beef and six boxes of hard bread.” Kenamore 88
Gear issued and packed the afternoon before the battle, Private Potts had a “large hot meal” with his comrades of the 137th Infantry Regiment, crouched in the Hesse Forest.
“After dark, the infantry moved forward through the woods in approximately the formation they were to employ the following day. The men lay down among the big guns and tried to sleep. Each one, according to orders, first loaded and locked his rifle.” (88, emphasis mine)
The initial artillery fire began at 11:30 p.m. The guns were aimed east of the Meuse and west of the Argonne Forest, that is, either side of the next day’s objective. It was deceptive fire, intended to make the enemy believe the assault would target those points. Hopefully, he would shift his reserve forces there.
“At 2:30 a.m. [on the 26th] all the other artillery concentrated between the Meuse River and Argonne Forest went into action.
“All adjectives fail to give even a fair impression of the awful grandeur of such artillerying. No combination of words is effective. It seemed that for a while the lid of Hell had been pushed back a little space. The long line on either hand leaped into flame, the horizon was lit by the bursting shells, and from the trenches where the enemy had lain so long there rose the many colored rockets with which he appealed to his guns for succor. What each signal meant I do not know, but they plentifully told the tale of his distress.” (89)
A steel chamber holds a brass shell. Inside it, a pin ignites propellant. The confined explosion shoots a projectile and a gout of flame from the 75mm (3-inch) bore. The gun jumps, the earth shudders, a shock wave shatters the air and accompanies a roar that bursts between the ears. Spent, the brass shell slides to the ground with a hallow shing! Another round replaces it and, as soon, ignites. Powder fumes permeate the air. Explosions count seconds across unending darkness.
In this infernal night lies our young private, waiting, suspended in time, between sleep and prayer.
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.
“Well, Daddy, what did you think about France?”
“It's a very muddy place.”
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.
“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…”
“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it!”
In his first ocean voyage, B. F. Potts crossed the submarine invested waters of the North Atlantic in a convoy of steamers escorted by a warship.
Grandpa owned matched pairs of horses. Him and the boys [Ben and his brothers] cut and snaked logs out of the wood to the roads. He got a dollar a day plus fifty cents for the horses.
“Some of the guys disobeyed orders, went into the town, broke into a bakery, and stole all the bread and baked goods…”
The battle of Saint-Mihiel (September 12-15) would be Pershing’s first operation as army commander. He assigned the 35th to the strategic reserve, whose purpose is to replace a weakened unit or to fill any gap in the line created by the enemy.
“Private Potts, how tall are you?”
The soldier, looking into a button of the captain’s coat, says, “Five foot three, sir.” The wide brim raises.
On the front now, the 35th was in range of artillery fire, and enemy planes made nighttime bombing raids over the countryside.
On the left, the 137th would take the “V of Vauquois,” a formidable network of trenches, zig-zagging from the hill’s west flank to the village of Boureuilles, a mile away.
September 26—Battle of Vauquois