October 1918, Sommedieue Sector, France—Private B. F. Potts trudges along a roadside, head down, hands in pockets. He passes a group of his comrades from Company M huddled around a stool they use as a card table. Between turns, the boys talk about what fun they’re going to have on their upcoming leave.
Potts continues around the camp’s soggy perimeter. A blaring horn that sounds like a goose careening into a puddle behind him interrupts his thoughts.
He stops in the mud and turns. An ambulance driver is hanging an arm out the window at him.
The driver speaks in a smooth Kansas accent. “Your brother’s name’s Roy, right?”
“Well I just saw a Roy Potts at the 117th Field Hospital. He said he had a brother named Ben in the 137th. I reckon that’s you, and I reckon your brother ain’t as dead as you been told.”
“Is he alright?”
“He was smokin’ and jokin’ this morning. I got to drop these boys off here. I’m makin’ another run back to the 117th in a few minutes if you want a ride.”
“Don’t leave without me!”
Potts dashes to division headquarters. The duty officer stands in the door, captain’s bars on a collar. The private halts and assumes the position of attention. “Good afternoon, sir.”
“Good afternoon, soldier.” The captain is a slim man. Round-rim spectacles rest on a triangle nose. “At ease. Have we met before?”
“Didn’t I see you in a shell hole during the withdraw in the Meuse, sir?”
“Yeah, I know you. Thanks for the heads up. We were so busy setting up the observation post, we didn’t notice a whole battalion going back the other way!”
The captain laughs and introduces himself, offering a hand. Potts’s ears perk up as he shakes the hand and gives his name.
“What can I do for you, Ben?”
“My dad [Ben’s son, John Wesley] said Ben had been told that his brother, Roy, had died. Then he ran into someone who said, I just saw your brother over at so-and-so medical. So he went to get a pass, and it was signed by Captain Harry S. Truman.”—John Potts
Twenty-seven years later, the man with the round-rim spectacles and triangle nose, who gave leave to Benjamin Potts to see his brother in a field hospital, who had commanded an artillery battery that fired countless high-explosive rounds upon the enemy in a small corner of France, would give the executive order that unleashed the most devastating weapon mankind has ever known.
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.
The gun jumps, the earth shudders, a shock wave shatters the air and accompanies a roar that bursts between the ears. Powder fumes permeate the air. Explosions count seconds across unending darkness.
…up until 7:40 a.m. when the rolling barrage ceased, we can follow Private Potts’s movement across the battlefield.
Scrawling in a notepad, the commander tears the sheet, folds it, and thrusts it into the runner’s hands.
“Potts, take this message to brigade. Tell them we need artillery now. Go!”
“Let him lie in an artillery shower all night, if you must. But do not disturb a soldier’s sleep, sir, with your orders that change from one minute to the next!”
By morning’s end, the intermingled 137th and 139th regiments gained 500 meters and dug in before Montrebeau Wood. Through the woods and German machine-gun nests and sniper fire, the men fought in the afternoon.
“When I asked him [Grandpa Ben] if he killed anyone, this is what he told me…”
As the men would destroy one machine-gun nest, other enemy gun crews were setting up on both sides of their skirmish line.
In the morning of April 6, 1917, the day the US declared war on the German Empire, American army troops seized the Vaterlund at its mooring in the Hoboken harbor.
When the digging was done, they dropped into the trenches, exchanged shovels for rifles, and pointed them north.
At 3 a.m., October 1, the 35th Infantry was the fourth of Pershing’s nine front-line divisions to be relieved from the front.
“…he was near the spot where a shell landed and was buried under dirt.”
October 26—An Unremarkable Day