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“It happened on Monday, February 17th, that the units of the 35th were called out and formed on a wide level stretch of the Meuse Valley near Commercy. Here twenty-two thousand men of the division passed in review of the Commander-in-Chief and the ‘petit’ Prince of Wales, who was the guest of honor.” (Haterius 192)

Prince of Wales with General John Pershing inspecting troops of the American 35th Division between Vignot and Boncourt  17 February 1919Inspection by the Commander-in-Chief, February 17, 1919
Prince Edward of Wales (middle left in visor cap) and General John J. Pershing (center) inspect the troops of the 35th Infantry Division near Commercy, France.

Twenty-four-year-old Prince Edward, who would become Edward VIII, King of England, and abdicate the throne to marry an American divorcée, made small impression on the men of the 35th. Ted Powell, in his book King Edward VIII: An American Life (2018), writes:

“The doughboys [of the 35th] were in awe of ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, leading the inspection with a group of senior officers on horseback, but were disappointed by the Prince of Wales… the Prince went out of his way not to look like a ‘prince,’ for example refusing to wear the Croix de Guerre that the French had awarded him, on the grounds that he had done nothing to deserve it.” (29)

In their History book, the men of Ambulance Company Number 139 (collective authors) are more specific about the parade ground location, placing it north of Commercy between the villages of Vignot and Boncourt-sur-Meuse. “The field itself, located on a broad stretch of the Meuse basin, was mush-like with mire and patched with pools of water” (74).

They describe the inspection and passing in review:

“The columns of the Division were drawn up into platoon fronts… After riding around the Division, General Pershing and his party personally inspected each platoon, winding back and forth, asking questions of the company commanders and speaking with the men.

“Having completed the personal inspection, the General and his party took position in the reviewing stand on the right. At the command ‘Pass in Review’ by the Division Commander, each battalion executed successively ‘Squads Right,’ and swept down the field in a line of platoons. It was indeed a most impressive sight, and, although the sky was cast heavy with low-hanging clouds, the sun, as if to lend color to an already beautiful picture, broke through and shone for a few moments. Then, as each column swung out upon its own way home, the rain began again…

“Although participation in the great event required that the men wear full packs for almost nine hours without removing them, and undergo a hike of twenty kilometers in the rain, not a man regretted the experience. It will be long remembered with pride by those who took part.” (74)

Recognition from leaders is the soldier’s reward. He risks life and limb and suffers daily hardships, not for pay, but for country: its values and its purpose. His recompense is the country’s gratitude for duty done with honor. It marks the personal achievement, which each soldier, before it’s met, wonders in his heart of hearts if he can accomplish.

For the troops, the AEF commander embodied the country. The commander’s acknowledgment of a job well done set the laurel on their victory.

Later that day, in an address to officers, General Pershing announced the 35th’s imminent departure and “wished the officers and men of the division Godspeed on their homeward journey” (Haterius 193).

“When Pershing visited, Grandpa was one of two men that put new shoes on his horse. When the general was ready to leave, Grandpa held the horse’s reigns while he mounted.”

—Bruce Potts


History of Ambulance Company Number 139, Kansas City: E. R. Callender Printing Co. n.d.

Powell, Ted, King Edward VIII: An American Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018


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—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 "Godspeed" »

Alternate Scenario

A Very Muddy Place outlines a possible itinerary for B. F. Potts’s journey. But what if I’ve got it all wrong?

The enlistment record shows B. F. Potts in the Sommedieue sector from October 14 to November 6. It does not show the Meuse-Argonne.

An administrative oversight? Suppose, for whatever reason, the lieutenant scribe didn’t have the proper documents for Potts’s participation in the Argonne battle. The soldier on his way home, already putting the war behind him, may not care enough to insist. Even if he did, without the document his argument would lack conviction.

Or is it possible that Private Potts left the States on August 24 and didn’t join the 35th Division until mid-October? The following anecdote from Haterius suggests it is.

Amid the Armistice celebrations, a truck pulled up to the front, writes Haterius:

“Over the tailboard… there gazed a boy who had been drafted in the heart of America some six months before, and who with stop-offs for tedious training on the way, had slowly journeyed from his home to the Ardennes. It had taken him six months…” (184-185)

Furthermore, Haterius mentions the reception of “a large number of replacements” after the Argonne battle, on October 11 at a camp between the villages Benoîte Vaux and Récourt-le-Creux. “These men hailed from Camp Gordon. They were natives of the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi” (172).

That Haterius or any other chronicler doesn’t mention receiving replacements after coming out of the Vosges (“Rendezvous with the 35th Division”) is not surprising. The hundred men replaced among the three-and-a-half-thousand strong division would be hardly notable.

In any case, an alternative scenario is that B. F. Potts, after landing at a French port in early September, as described in “Rendezvous,” spent a month in a depot division (as did Clyde Brake—see “Nightmare at Sea”), before joining his unit on October 11.

Considering Grandpa Ben’s war stories, three concern the period in question:

  1. Entrained soldiers, stopped for the night on the tracks, might have burgled the bakery (“Rendezvous”) during the ride to the supposed depot division, or from it, to the rendezvous with the 35th.
  2. The nighttime bombardment of an empty building (“A Potts Family Day of Thanks”) could have happened during the march into the Sommedieue sector. However, none of our journalists mention any bombing on the way, including Haterius who goes into some detail about the movement. Of the night of October 11, he writes: “we commenced hearing the distant detonations of guns and saw occasional flashes off to the east and north…” (172). This seems an opportunity to include a nearby bombing if such had occurred.
  3. Lastly, “Encounter at Creek’s Edge” hints at Grandpa Ben’s presence in the Argonne battle. The scenario seems unlikely in the Sommedieue trenches, where the battle lines are firm. Neither soldier would wander across No Man’s Land, not alone, and not in daylight.

The reader may draw his or her own conclusions.

Discharge and Enlistment Record

Included here are Benjamin F. Potts’s discharge and enlistment record, two sides of the same paper, accompanied by a transcript, including that of stamps and pencil marks on the latter.

Based on the penmanship (in which I am no expert), the lieutenant, signatory of the enlistment record, seems to be the scribe.

In the transcript, handwritten text is shown in italics. Where the original is illegible, I have compared with other handwritten text in the document and with similar records to derive a probable text, which I enclose in brackets. Where this is impossible, I leave an ellipsis between brackets.

The following information about the form is given in the footer margins:

Form No. 525. A. G. O. [Adjutant General’s Office]
Oct. 9-18.

Asterisks (*), daggers (†), and double daggers (‡) indicate footer notes on either side of the form. Bracketed numbers mark my own notes.

Honorable Discharge from The United States Army


         This is to Certify, [That* Benjamin F. Potts]
3501865[1] Private Co “M” 137th Infantry
THE UNITED STATES ARMY, as a Testimonial of Honest and Faithful Service is hereby Honorably Discharged from the military service of the United States by reason of‡ Exp. Of Ser. Per Cir. 106 W. D. 12/3/18[2]

         Said Benjamin F. Potts was born in Slayden, in the State of Tennessee.
When enlisted he was 23 9/12 years of age and by occupation a R. R. Foreman.[3]
He had Blue eyes, D. Brown hair, Fair complexion, and was 5 feet 3 1/4 inches in height.

         Given under my hand at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga this 12th day of May, one thousand nine hundred and nineteen.

[G. H. Blankenship][4]
Major 46th Infantry
U. S. A.

 * Insert name, Christian name first: e.g., “John Doe.”
† Insert Army serial number, grade, company and regiment or arm or corps or department, e.g., “1,620,302”; “Corporal, Company A, 1st Infantry”; “Sergeant, Quartermaster Corps”; “Sergeant, First Class, Medical Department.”
‡ If discharged prior to expiration of service, give number, date, and source of order or full description of authority therefor.

Benjamin Franklin Potts - Honorable Discharge

Benjamin Franklin Potts - Enlistment Record


Name: Benjamin F. Potts     Grade: Private
Enlisted, or Inducted, June 28, 1918, at Erin, Tennessee
Serving in First enlistment period at date of discharge.
Prior service: * None
Noncommissioned officer: [Never]
[Marksmanship, gunner qualification or rating: † None of record]
Horsemanship: [Not mounted]
Battles, engagements, skirmishes, expeditions: Sommedieue Sub-Sector Bouee Defense Oct. 14 - Nov. 6, 1918[5]
Decorations, Medals, Badges, Citations; None
Knowledge of any vocation: Rail Road Foreman
Wounds received in service: None
Physical condition when discharged: Normal
Typhoid prophylaxis completed: Aug. [] 1918
Paratyphoid prophylaxis completed: Aug. [] 1918
Married or single: Single
Character: Excellent[6]
[Remarks:] No A. W. O. L. [under] G. O. 31/12 or 45/14[7]
Soldier entitled to travel pay to Erin, Tenn.[8]
Served with the A. E. F. from Aug. 23, 1918 till April 23, 1919
Signature of soldier: Benjamin F. Potts

[W. C.] Thurman
1st Lt 46th Infantry
Commanding Casual Det[9]

* Give company and regiment or department, with inclusive dates of service in each enlistment.
† Give date of qualification or rating and number, date, and source of order announcing same.

On the enlistment record, lower left corner, are faded stamps in red and blue and a number in pencil. The red stamp, shown first, may well be three separate stamps, separated in the transcript by em dashes.

Stamp in red ink:

PAID IN FULL 89.05[10]

MAY 12 1919

CAPT [Q. M. C.][12]

Stamp in blue ink:

MAY 13 19


[1] The numeral 1 here could be a 7. Other documents, like the Tunisian’s passenger list, show a 1.

[2] Expiration of Service per Circular 106 War Department, December 3, 1918. Circular 106 stipulates that a soldier must be discharged from the Army post closest to home.

[3] During his service, B. F. Potts was not promoted in military rank. He was, however, promoted from railroad trackman at induction to foreman.

[4] I made out some letters and guessed the rest. An Internet search reveals a Major G. H. Blankenship of the 46th Infantry signed other discharges at Fort Oglethorpe.

[5] No mention of the Argonne battle. See forthcoming article, Friday.

[6] Other discharge papers imply the Army honorably discharged only persons of “excellent” character.

[7] No Absence Without Leave under General Orders No. 31, War Department, 1912, or No. 45, War Department, 1914.

[8] The Army paid five cents per mile. The distance was near 200 miles, which would be $10.00.

[9] Casual Detachment. A “casual” is a soldier not assigned to a unit.

[10] The penciled number is a dollar amount. A private earned $30 per month. A prorated portion, $12, plus the $60 bonus, from $89.05, leaves $17.05. The army paid five cents a mile, which makes 341 miles, the distance from Chattanooga through Nashville to McKenzie, TN, on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, then to Erin on the Louisville & Nashville.

[11] Within days of the Armistice, the US Congress adopted Section 1406 as an amendment to the year’s revenue act, which was approved in 1919.

[12] Quarter Master Corps

[13] Boarding the train at Chattanooga’s Terminal Station, outside of Fort Oglethorpe, Ben Potts was already in his home state.


A Very Muddy Place
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A Very Muddy Place

An intimate account of a soldier’s experience in World War I, A Very Muddy Place takes us on a journey from a young man’s rural American hometown onto one of the great battlefields of France. We follow Private B. F. Potts with the 137th US Infantry Regiment through the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. We discover a personal story—touching, emotional, unforgettable.

In 1918, twenty-three-year-old Bennie Potts was drafted into the US Army to fight in the World War. He served with the American Expeditionary Force in France. At home after the war, he married and raised a family, and the war for his children and grandchildren became the anecdotes he told them.

A century later, a great grandson brings together his ancestor’s war stories and the historical record to follow Private Benjamin Franklin Potts from Tennessee to the Great War in France and back home again.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

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Success, Freedom, and Castles in the Air

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

I’ve lived with this quote, the first sentence of a paragraph from Thoreau’s Walden, the past several months. It’s written on the inside cover of my pocket notebook. Yesterday, I read the passage again from the secondhand paperback on the shelf. It goes on and ends with another familiar citation. Between, the text is more complicated and less quotable, though it is, in my experience so far, equally true.

“He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

View from a castle in the airView from the parapet of a castle-in-the-air, foundation under construction

Photo from the ruins of a Turkish fort atop a hill above Kounoupitsa, looking over Kissamos and the Gramvousa and Rodopou Peninsulas on either side of Kissamos Bay, Crete