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.
3—3164

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

TO ALL WHOM [IT] MAY CONCERN:

         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
Commanding
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

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]
INCLUDING $60 BONUS
[PRO]VIDED IN SEC 140[6 REVENUE ACT]
OF 1918 APPROVED [FEB 24TH]
1919.[11] FT OGLETHORPE

MAY 12 1919

GEO. [H. CHASE]
CAPT [Q. M. C.][12]
FINANCE [OFFICER]

Stamp in blue ink:

TICKET OFFICE
MAY 13 19
CHATTANOOGA[13]

__________

[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

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:

February 15—Alternate Scenario

February 17—Godspeed

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

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


The Truman Encounters

In A Very Muddy Place, scenes told in present tense are fictional. Three such scenes recount Private Potts’s encounters with an artillery officer, who gives him permission for leave in the final meeting. In the first, the officer helps to pull a gun through the mud. In the second, we recognize the same officer setting up an observation post in a shell hole, not noticing that the troops are withdrawing.

While, again, the encounters are fictional, the first and second are drawn from actual events. Future president Harry Truman served in the Missouri National Guard’s 2nd Field Artillery Regiment as an enlisted man from 1905 to 1911. In 1917, as a first lieutenant he rejoined the regiment, which was later federalized, becoming the 129th Regiment in the 60th Field Artillery Brigade, 35th Infantry Division. Promoted to captain in July 1918, Truman was assigned command of the 129th’s Battery D.

D. M. Giangreco, 20-year editor at the US Army’s Military Review, studied Truman’s handwritten notes, extensive oral histories of the soldiers who served under his command, and records of other commanders in the 129th. He collated this information with battalion and division orders to derive a detailed timetable of the captain’s movements during the Argonne battle. Giangreco published his findings in the Journal of the Royal Artillery, Autumn 2003 (130:56-59), reproduced at Worldwar1.com’s “Doughboy Center.”

The initial encounter takes place September 26, the battle’s first day. Of the afternoon, Giangreco writes:

“Truman and his battery then followed the rest of his regiment across no man’s land and was often forced to pull his guns one at a time by double teaming—that’s 12 horses—in order to get them through the muddy, shell-torn German minefields.”

In the narrative, the second encounter takes place on the battle’s fourth day. However, Giangreco’s research puts Truman in the precarious position on the second day, September 27:

“Truman was again sent forward to observe and direct fire in support of the assault on Charpentry. And, again, was unable to link up with anyone from the infantry regiment’s HQ but did have a ringside—if rather hot—seat… above an unsupported tank assault into the German reverse-slope positions being shelled and the town.

“Unnoticed, however, some quote ‘shifting and straightening’ of the US infantry’s lines had begun. The result? Truman’s shell-crater OP ended up… some 200 yards in advance of the regiment it was to support. So intent had he and his small group been at observing fire and setting up wire communications, that they hadn’t recognized the full-blown pullback in the smoke and confusion, and disaster was prevented by one of the last infantrymen out who warned them of the move.”

Private Potts’s third encounter with the artillery officer is based solely on Grandpa’s anecdote.

Captain Harry Truman 1918Captain Harry Truman, France, 1918

 


D. M. Giangreco is the author of several books on military and sociopolitical topics, including two about Harry Truman: Dear Harry…: Truman’s Mailroom, 1945-1953 (Stackpool Books 1999) and The Soldier from Independence: A Military Biography of Harry Truman (Zenith Press 2009).

 


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 from Tennessee to the battlefields of the Great War in France and back home again.


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" »


Armistice, or A Railcar in the Woods

The wood is primeval. Prehistoric relics indicate human presence in the area of the Compiègne Forest since time immemorial. Beech, oak, and hornbeam trees sheltered game in Roman times. Since then, the forest has been the hunting ground of kings and emperors, the playground of princes and princesses, as well as a battleground. Julius Caesar fought the Gauls beneath its canopy. Merovingian kingdoms Austrasia and Neustria exchanged blows between its stout trunks.

During three days in November 1918, the ancient forest served as secret meeting place for negotiators of two warring sides seeking peace. A delegation for the German Empire arrived November 8. The Allied delegation was led by the supreme commander, French General Ferdinand Foch.

Negotiations took place in a railcar, arranged for the purpose, positioned in a secluded glade near the French village of Rethondes, a hundred kilometers (60 miles) north of Paris. General Foch chose the site to keep journalists at bay and to avoid distractions.

Playing from a position of strength, Foch presented himself to members of the German delegation on the morning of the 8th, gave them a document listing the terms of a ceasefire, and told them they had 72 hours to sign it. He would return only once more.

The terms were strict: withdrawal of all German forces back to pre-war borders, plus evacuation of the Rhine Valley on Germany’s western flank; surrender of all military equipment (artillery, machine guns, ships, aircraft), including trains and trucks; renunciation of two earlier treaties with Russia and Romania, and restoration of booty taken from Russia, Romania, and Belgium. All infrastructure of evacuated territory was to remain intact, and the naval blockade of Germany would continue. The terms included no concessions by the Allies.

Hopeless as was their military position and with worsening social conditions at home, the Germans had no choice but to agree to the terms.

Between 5:12 and 5:20 a.m. on November 11, four members of the German delegation and a leading Allied representative signed the armistice. General Foch entered, examined the signatures, and, after adding his own mark to the document, departed for Paris. According to the conditions of the ceasefire, fighting would end within six hours.

In the Sommedieue sector, Carl E. Haterius, 137th Regiment Band, recorded the scene in his journal. Private Benjamin Franklin Potts, Company M, must have been within earshot. Through the journalist’s words, we may relive the moment with our ancestor:

“At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, hostilities came to an end from Switzerland to the sea. Early that morning from the wireless station on the Eiffel Tower in Paris, there had gone forth through the air to the wondering, half-incredulous line the Americans held from near Sedan to the Moselle, the order from Marshal Foch to cease fire on the stroke of eleven.

“On the stroke of eleven the cannon stopped, the rifles dropped from the shoulders, the machine guns grew still. There followed then a strange, unbelievable silence, as though the world had died. It lasted but a moment, lasted for the space that the breath is held. Then came such an uproar of relief and jubilance, such a tooting of horns, shrieking of whistles, such an overture from the bands and trains and church bells, such a shouting of voices as the earth is not likely to hear again in our day and generation. When night fell on the battlefield, the clamor of the celebration waxed rather than waned. Darkness? There was none. Rockets and a ceaseless fountain of star-shells made the lines a streak of glorious brilliance across the face of startled France, while, by the light of flares, the Front and all its dancing, boasting, singing peoples was as clearly visible as though the sun sat high in the heavens.” (Haterius 181-182)

 

The ceasefire was prolonged three times before the final agreement, which included a clause that placed the blame for the war and all its ramifications on Germany. The intent was to prepare a legal case for war reparations, but when Germany signed the treaty on June 22, 1919, it humiliated the German people as well. Ratified on June 28, the Treaty of Versailles would bring the first of the world’s two great wars to an end.

After a time in a museum at Les Invalides in Paris, the railcar in which the signing took place was moved back to the site in the Compiègne Forest, which became an historic monument and place of pilgrimage for tourists and survivors of veterans and war dead.

There, in the same secluded glade in the primeval forest, in the same railcar originally chosen by General Foch, another armistice would be signed twenty-two years after. June 22, 1940, Adolf Hitler chose the site for the formal surrender of France to Nazi Germany.

 

Reminiscences of the 137th US Infantry  Haterius - the 11th hourReminiscences of the 137th U. S. Infantry by Carl E. Haterius, Topeka, Kansas: Crane & Company, 1919

 


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:

December 22—Cruel Days in Sampigny

April 23, 1919—Return 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 "Armistice, or A Railcar in the Woods" »


A Very Muddy Place in Print

Tomorrow, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, we’ll relive a big moment with Private Potts in A Very Muddy Place.

Today, I assembled the twenty-six articles of the series into a single document. At 17,000 words, the 80-page manuscript should make a print book of something over a hundred pages.

 


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.


An Unremarkable Day

Nowhere in my research did I find that anything worth noting happened in the life of Benjamin Franklin Potts on this day a hundred years ago. He was in the Sommedieue sector, south of Verdun, in the trenches with the 35th Division. Haterius reports a few engagements during the week, involving other companies of the 137th Infantry Regiment, but Company M seems to have had an uneventful tour.

Between rotations in the trenches, the men read the international newspapers, where they learned that the Central Powers were showing signs of collapse. In previous weeks, Bulgaria had signed an armistice. The Ottoman Empire, without Bulgaria on its flank, was vulnerable to invasion, and ruler, Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha, had resigned with his entire ministry. The German army was retreating before the Allied advance on the Western Front, and talk among the troops was of an end to the war, of peace, of going home.

October 26, 1918, is now significant only because fifty years later, one of Ben’s granddaughters would add to his legacy of great grandsons. And fifty years after that, the great grandson would write that nothing worth noting happened in the life of his great grandfather a hundred years before.

We might guess that Private Potts on that day, like his sixth great grandson today, was thankful to have another day behind him, in which his life was not threatened, and another day before him, in which everything is possible.

 

Benjamin Franklin Potts 1946Benjamin Franklin Potts
at 52 in 1946

Stephen Michael Wendell 2018Stephen Michael Wendell
at 50 in 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.


Denouement

Today’s is the last of my great grandfather’s war stories. The rest—the Armistice, his return trip, and homecoming—is denouement (articles forthcoming). I appreciate all of you who have commented on social media and sent private messages and emails. Your encouragement is invaluable to me. Among other things, it gives me hope that the text may hold interest to readers outside Ben Potts’s family.

When I set out on this journey in May, I thought it would be easy: recite the anecdotes, give a little context, throw in some ambiance… As I got deeper into the research, though, I discovered more than I bargained for. There’s a lot of history in those six months of 1918, and in that short time, there are only so many occasions that certain of the anecdotes could have taken place. That I could narrow down the times and places of most of the stories to within a few likely days of Ben Potts’s journey has been a tremendous reward. 

I wish I could sit down with Grandpa and show him my notes. With what I’ve learned, I’m sure I could jog his memory and get a few more stories out of him. You’d all be invited, of course. Granny would make another pitcher of iced tea.

Benjamin Franklin Potts
Benjamin Franklin Potts reverse


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.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

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

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

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.

Military Induction and Entrainment

“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…”

Army Training at Camp Gordon

“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it!”

Embarkation, the Tunisian, and the Bridge of Ships

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.

Enterprise, Tennessee: The Town That Died

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.

Rendezvous with the 35th Infantry Division

“Some of the guys disobeyed orders, went into the town, broke into a bakery, and stole all the bread and baked goods…”

In Reserve at Saint-Mihiel

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.

Special Job for Private Potts

“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. 

A Potts Family Day of Thanks

On the front now, the 35th was in range of artillery fire, and enemy planes made nighttime bombing raids over the countryside.

Planning the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

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.

Prelude to Battle

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.

Taking Vauquois

…up until 7:40 a.m. when the rolling barrage ceased, we can follow Private Potts’s movement across the battlefield.

The Fog of War

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!”

Night Attack

“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!”

Montrebeau Wood

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.

Encounter at Creek’s Edge 

“When I asked him [Grandpa Ben] if he killed anyone, this is what he told me…”

Charge to Exermont

As the men would destroy one machine-gun nest, other enemy gun crews were setting up on both sides of their skirmish line.

Clyde Brake Boards the Leviathan

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.

The Engineers’ Line

When the digging was done, they dropped into the trenches, exchanged shovels for rifles, and pointed them north.

Relieved

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.

Roy Albert Buried Alive!

“…he was near the spot where a shell landed and was buried under dirt.”

Permission for Leave

“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…”

Upcoming dates:

October 26—An Unremarkable Day

November 11—The Armistice

April 23—Return Aboard the Manchuria

May 13—Homecoming


Permission for Leave

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.

“Hey, Potts!”

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?”

Potts nods.

“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?”

“Well, sir…”

 

“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. 

 


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.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

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

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

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.

Military Induction and Entrainment

“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…”

Army Training at Camp Gordon

“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it!”

Embarkation, the Tunisian, and the Bridge of Ships

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.

Enterprise, Tennessee: The Town That Died

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.

Rendezvous with the 35th Infantry Division

“Some of the guys disobeyed orders, went into the town, broke into a bakery, and stole all the bread and baked goods…”

In Reserve at Saint-Mihiel

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.

Special Job for Private Potts

“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. 

A Potts Family Day of Thanks

On the front now, the 35th was in range of artillery fire, and enemy planes made nighttime bombing raids over the countryside.

Planning the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

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.

Prelude to Battle

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.

Taking Vauquois

…up until 7:40 a.m. when the rolling barrage ceased, we can follow Private Potts’s movement across the battlefield.

The Fog of War

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!”

Night Attack

“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!”

Montrebeau Wood

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.

Encounter at Creek’s Edge 

“When I asked him [Grandpa Ben] if he killed anyone, this is what he told me…”

Charge to Exermont

As the men would destroy one machine-gun nest, other enemy gun crews were setting up on both sides of their skirmish line.

Clyde Brake Boards the Leviathan

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.

The Engineers’ Line

When the digging was done, they dropped into the trenches, exchanged shovels for rifles, and pointed them north.

Relieved

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.

Roy Albert Buried Alive!

“…he was near the spot where a shell landed and was buried under dirt.”

Next date:

October 26—An Unremarkable Day


Nightmare at Sea

September 5, 1918, Clyde Brake Potts followed his two older brothers’ steps to the Houston County Courthouse, where he took the oaths of an enlisted man in the United States Army. Unlike his brothers, who received military training at Camp Gordon before going overseas to combat the enemy, Clyde Brake neither went to Camp Gordon nor received military training. Fortunately, he didn’t see combat, either. His voyage to France, however, was a nightmare.

The 57th Pioneer Infantry Regiment was organized in February 1918 at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, made up of 500 officers and men from the 1st Infantry Vermont National Guard. After six months of training, they were due to ship out in September.

To bring the unit up to strength, twenty-five hundred Tennessee draftees were assigned to the 57th on September 12. Private Clyde Brake Potts became a member of Company G, which was part of Second Battalion. Eleven days later, the regiment entrained to Camp Merritt outside of Hoboken to prepare for boarding on the 29th.

In a Vermont newspaper article, published in 1920, the regiment’s personnel adjutant at the time, Captain E. W. Gibson, recounts the trans-Atlantic voyage. Describing the march from Camp Merritt down to the docks, where ferries would take them to the Leviathan, Gibson writes:

“The second and third battalions marched out from their barracks about 1 a.m. on the morning of the 29th of September. We had proceeded but a short distance when it was discovered that men were falling out of ranks, unable to keep up… The column was halted, the camp surgeon was summoned…”

The diagnosis: Spanish flu.

The 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic became the most deadly ever recorded. Caused by the H1N1 influenza virus, it was named after the country that seemed to have been hardest hit. However, this is an effect of censorship. Warring nations suppressed news reports about the virus’s impact at home. Neutral Spain did not.

In fact, Spanish flu was indifferent to national borders. From 1918 through 1920, it circled the globe in waves, infecting a third of the world’s population. With a mortality rate of at least ten percent, it killed up to one hundred million—five percent of humans on the planet at the time.

Its symptoms were like any flu: fever, aching joints, nausea, and diarrhea. Unlike most flu viruses, which kill more infants and elderly, Spanish flu killed more otherwise healthy adults. Many victims developed pneumonia. Often, prior to death, a victim turned blue, suffocating as the lungs filled with blood.

Despite a military organization’s dependence on strict adherence to orders, leaders are encouraged to analyze a developing situation, and if necessary, disobey an order. In that case, the leader takes the responsibility of subsequent outcomes, whether good or bad—the results of his or her “command decision.”

In the 57th’s case, while common sense might have dictated immediate quarantine, no operating order countermanded the regiment’s orders to embark. Some would argue the commander failed to make a command decision. Be that as it may, the sick were carried back to the camp hospital, and the 57th Pioneer Infantry Regiment boarded the Leviathan as ordered.

The Leviathan was not only the largest ship on the seas, she was also the fastest. At twenty-two knots, she would cross the Atlantic in eight days. German U-boats, much slower, would have to be in her path to fire upon her. No need for a warship escort, the Leviathan steamed out of New York’s Lower Bay and set out across the Atlantic Ocean alone.

Although a similar flu outbreak aboard the President Grant claimed more lives, Alfred W. Crosby uses the Leviathan’s September 29 voyage in America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (2003), because “the Leviathan’s records are more complete, and her story is gruesome enough to illustrate what the very worst was like.” (126)

The quarters were cramped. The vessel carried 6,800 passengers as a peacetime cruise liner. As a troop transport, bunks were stacked four high. With the 57th’s 3,400 men, an additional 6,000 troops—mostly draftees, 2,000 crew, and 200 Army nurses, the total passengers aboard the Leviathan approached 12,000.

By the time the men found their bunks, more of them were falling ill. The nurses, on their way to Army hospitals in France, went to work, assisting the ship’s overwhelmed hospital staff. By the evening of the 30th, seven hundred flu cases spilled out of sick bay. One man was already dead.

Crosby cites an official report, which describes the scene on the night of September 30:

“Pools of blood from severe nasal hemorrhages of many patients were scattered throughout the compartments, and the attendants were powerless to escape tracking through the mess, because of the narrow passages between the bunks. The decks became wet and slippery, groans and cries of the terrified added to the confusion of the applicants clamoring for treatment…” (Quoted in Crosby 132)

Captain Gibson uses the same words in his 1920 news article, adding:

“Everyone called for water and lemons and oranges… but within a few minutes of the first distribution of the fruit, the skins and pulp were added to the blood and vomitus upon the deck.”

Crosby continues:

“The troop compartments of the Leviathan were so crowded that the slightest inattention to daily cleaning would quickly turn them into impassable sties especially with flu causing nosebleeds among 20 percent of the sick and seasickness causing vomiting among the sick and healthy.” (132)

On the third morning at sea, when their officers ordered the men to clean the troop compartments below decks and carry out the sick and the dead, they refused. When a soldier disobeys a lawful order, it’s called insubordination. Punishment can be as severe as time in jail with hard labor. When more than one soldier disobeys a lawful order, it’s called mutiny and is punishable by death.

By that evening, October 2, a second victim succumbed to the flu. The next day, three more. Seven more the day after.

Then, from the ship’s War Diary, October 5:

“Total deaths to date, 21. Small force of embalmers impossible to keep up with rate of dying.”

October 6:

“Total dead to date, 45. Impossible to embalm bodies fast enough. Signs of decomposing starting in some of them.” (Quoted in Crosby 133)

Estimates put the total flu cases during the voyage at 2,000 out of 12,000 aboard. Ninety of those died.

October 7, the ship arrived at Brest. After disembarking, Private Clyde Potts marched, with those of the 57th who were able, through pouring rain to a muddy camp five miles away. On the march and at the camp, more men fell. Crosby counts upwards of 170 flu deaths from the division after the landing (134-135).

Clyde Brake escaped the Spanish flu. By the end of October, he was far from the front, near Le Mans. There, we lose his trail until September the next year.

According to The US Army in WWI: Orders of Battle (Rinaldi 2005), the 57th Pioneer was due to be converted to the 398th Infantry when the Armistice was signed. A fellow September 5 draftee, Henry F. Forte, wrote in a 1975 letter that he was transferred to the 329th Regiment, 83rd Infantry Division, in the days prior to November 11. The 83rd Division, in the Le Mans area at the time, was a “depot division,” from which troops were rationed out to other units as replacements.

From Le Mans, we don’t where the Army took Uncle Clyde. All we know is that Potts, Clyde B., returned to the US, from Brest to Hoboken, aboard the Agamemnon one year later. In that time, he had been promoted to corporal and made a cook in the Army Service Corps.

Clyde Brake Agamemnon Brest Hoboken Sept 26 1919Clyde Brake Potts aboard the Agamemnon
Back home, his brothers may have chided him for being a cook, but their little brother outranked them.

 


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.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

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

 


Gibson, E. W., “Leviathan a Charnal Ship,” reproduced on the Cow Hampshire: New Hampshire’s History Blog

Crosby, Alfred W., America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003

Rinaldi, Richard A., The United States Army in World War I: Orders of Battle, Ground Units, 1917-1919. Tiger Lily Publications 2005

Forte’s letter is reproduced in a submission by Pat Kelly, CAPT, USN, Ret., on the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association website.


Roy Albert Buried Alive!

“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.

 

Roy Albert Induction and Entrainment

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.

Roy Albert Anselm Brooklyn May 11 1918Roy A. Potts (left column 100), Company K, 117th Infantry Regiment, 30th Division, aboard the Anselm from Brooklyn, New York, May 11, 1918

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).

30th Division  Somme Offensive  October 3-22  1918  American Battle Monuments Commision 193730th Division, Somme Offensive, October 3-22, 1918, American Battle Monuments Commision 1937

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.

 


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.

Previous articles:

The Butte of Vauquois

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

Benjamin Franklin Potts Registers for the Draft

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.

Military Induction and Entrainment

“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…”

Army Training at Camp Gordon

“If it moves, salute it. If it doesn’t move, paint it!”

Embarkation, the Tunisian, and the Bridge of Ships

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.

Enterprise, Tennessee: The Town That Died

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.

Rendezvous with the 35th Infantry Division

“Some of the guys disobeyed orders, went into the town, broke into a bakery, and stole all the bread and baked goods…”

In Reserve at Saint-Mihiel

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.

Special Job for Private Potts

“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. 

A Potts Family Day of Thanks

On the front now, the 35th was in range of artillery fire, and enemy planes made nighttime bombing raids over the countryside.

Planning the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

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.

Prelude to Battle

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.

Taking Vauquois

…up until 7:40 a.m. when the rolling barrage ceased, we can follow Private Potts’s movement across the battlefield.

The Fog of War

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!”

Night Attack

“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!”

Montrebeau Wood

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.

Encounter at Creek’s Edge 

“When I asked him [Grandpa Ben] if he killed anyone, this is what he told me…”

Charge to Exermont

As the men would destroy one machine-gun nest, other enemy gun crews were setting up on both sides of their skirmish line.

Clyde Brake Boards the Leviathan

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.

The Engineers’ Line

When the digging was done, they dropped into the trenches, exchanged shovels for rifles, and pointed them north.

Relieved

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.

Next date:

October 7—Permission for Leave