“The injury that forced Uncle Roy into the field hospital was he was near the spot where a shell landed and was buried under dirt. He was rescued due to the fact that only his hand was above ground and someone saw it moving and dug him out.”—Bruce Potts
For all the fuss over our ancestor Benjamin Franklin Potts, we mustn’t ignore his older brother, Roy Albert. Not only did Uncle Roy precede Ben to Camp Gordon by nine months, he shipped to France in May 1918, fought in the Somme, was wounded in battle, and still didn’t get home until April 1919, a month before Ben’s homecoming.
Here, then, is the story of Roy Albert Potts. I regret its brevity and that I never knew Great Uncle Roy.
Induction and entrainment
Roy Albert Potts, 24, was inducted into military service September 21, 1917, at the Houston County Courthouse. The next day, he entrained to Camp Gordon, Georgia, for basic training. In October, he went to Camp Sevier, South Carolina, where he joined the 30th Infantry Division. On May 11, 1918, Roy Albert embarked with his unit aboard the Anselm, part of a convoy headed for Liverpool, England.
In France, the 30th Infantry Division fought under British command in the Somme, to the west of the Argonne Forest, near St. Quentin.
On October 6, the division relieved the Australian 5th Division and took command of a sector that included the town of Montbrehain. In difficult fighting the previous day, the Australians had taken Montbrehain but left a salient on the division left (lower left on the map).
The British Fourth Army, under which the 30th Division served, had issued orders for a general attack on October 8. In order to straighten the line of departure, the 30th Division commander ordered the salient reduced in a preliminary operation the day before the general attack. The division’s 117th Infantry Regiment was in the line before the salient.
The American Battle Monuments Commission published a series of books in 1944 summarizing the operations of each division in World War I. In the volume concerning the 30th Division, operations down to company level and sometimes platoon level are noted. The following excerpt contains the only mentions of the 117th Infantry Regiment’s Company K, which was part of Third Battalion.
October 7, 1918, 5:15 a.m.—“The 3rd Battalion, 117th Infantry, attacked with Companies M, L and I in line from right to left, and Company K in close support. Company F was attached to the battalion as reserve. Strong resistance was encountered at once, but Company M gained its objective and established liaison with the 118th Infantry [on its right]. Companies L and I received heavy fire from the vicinity of Bois de la Palette, Genève and Ponchaux. The [friendly] artillery did not completely cover the left of the line and the British did not advance on that flank. Elements of the center reached the objective, but the left detachments made only a small gain. At 6:40 a.m. detachments of Company K were sent in to fill the gap which had developed between Companies L and I.” (21-22)
While Roy Albert could have been buried by the fallout from an artillery shell in fighting on any number of days before or after, the fight to reduce the salient is one in which we have an historical document noting Company K’s participation. Furthermore, according to statistics given by the American Battle Monuments Commission (pages 10, 35), the 117th took a large proportion of their wounded casualties in the period October 3-14. This, plus the excerpt’s mention of heavy artillery on the left of the salient fight, makes October 7 a likely date for the incident.
After being pulled from an early grave, Roy Albert was taken to a field hospital.
Some time later, at Vavincourt, 130 miles to the southeast, Private Benjamin Franklin Potts received word that his brother Roy was killed in action.
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.
October 7—Permission for Leave