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Cruel Days in Sampigny

With the ceasefire signed, the fighting was over, but the war wasn’t ended. Though the possibility diminished as the German army withdrew and gave up its equipment, hostilities might recommence at any moment. The Allies’ strong military position brought the Germans to Compiègne. Continued pressure, in the form of a military occupation, would keep them at the negotiating table. Furthermore, the vanquished enemy’s capacity to make war must be reduced.

He is not informed, nor does he care, about the greater military and political machinations. The soldier, once the job is done, turns his mind to home and family. Private Potts, with the 137th’s Third Battalion, was billeted in Ménil-aux-Bois, a village outside Sampigny in the Saint-Mihiel area. There, he awaited orders and fought the soldier’s fiercest enemy: boredom. Haterius calls it the Battle of Sampigny.

“We now entered upon what was to prove a long, cold, dark winter of training. Doniphan* days over again. Although the armistice had been signed and hostilities had ceased, it must be remembered that we were still in a state of war, and the enemy was engaged, but in a somewhat different manner. All units upon foreign soil must ever remain in a state of preparedness. Efficiency and co-operation were still the watchwords. All during the cold, wet winter months the boys underwent daily drill out on the rain-soaked fields and roads. Close order drills, field maneuvers, tactical problems, simulated battles, rifle practice, and parades and inspections, constituted the curriculum. We were now resigned to the game of watchful waiting, and this proved far more unenduring than the game of war, so it seemed. It was a most disagreeable existence, and all in all, we hardly saw six days of sunshine during all the winter.” (Haterius 187)

*The 35th trained at Camp Doniphan, Oklahoma.

Colonel Ira L. Reeves, who had taken command of the 137th Regiment in the Sommedieue trenches, is credited with the establishment of an athletics program to replace part of the daily drill. Colonel Reeves also consented to theatrical performances and organized a school, which offered lessons in English, French, and history to the regiment’s officers and men. During this time, six issues of a regimental newspaper, The Jayhawkerinfrance, were printed on a local printing press. Thanksgiving and Christmas were observed with special menus and concerts by the regimental band.

A more devious foe in the Battle of Sampigny was the rumor. One day, embarkation for the States was imminent. The next day, the division was to be part of the occupation army and march to Germany. Haterius writes, “Brutus, those were cruel days.” (192)


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’s journey to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.

Upcoming dates:

April 20, 1919—Easter Aboard the Manchuria

May 13—Homecoming

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

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

Continue reading "Cruel Days in Sampigny" »

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The church bell rang this Thursday morning. Long, measured strokes echoed through the neighborhood’s narrow, paved streets. Howling dogs answered.

I closed the door behind me as I left on daily errands. My neighbor stood on the terrace before her house, facing the street.

Marianna and I always exchange greetings. She doesn’t speak English, and she knows my Greek is limited. That doesn’t stop her, though, from smiling and talking at length about the cats, her husband, or the olives she crushes into paste. Catching what I can, I smile back, nodding, and say, “Nai,” which means yes.

“Kaliméra, Marianna!”

She turned toward me, blowing her nose into a tissue. Her eyes, wet.

My smile dropped. “Ti kánis?” I asked, How are you?, nearing the frontier of my proficiency in the language.

She gestured toward the house across the way and spoke. Among the words, I heard “fíli.” Friend.

I nodded and said, “Nai,” while Marianna went on talking between sobs.

At a pause, I opened my arms. Her head fell on my shoulder. Blubbers and murmurs. Eyes closed, I took a long breath and held it.

She pulled back and blew her nose again. “Efcharistó,” she said, Thank you.

I walked away, hand on heart, where wounds yet weep.