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. Yesterday, I read the passage again. 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


Easter Aboard the Manchuria

With orders for home, the 137th Regiment boarded trains at Sampigny on March 7. They arrived in the Le Mans area three days later. The companies were dispersed to surrounding towns and villages, Company M to Monfort-les-Gesnois. Far from the desolate battlefields, the men enjoyed a couple weeks of “the best accommodations since [their] arrival in France,” whether in billets or private homes (Haterius, 197).

Following this respite, they moved to what was known as “the Belgian Camp,” where they slept in tents and were subjected to medical examinations, inoculations, and “cootie baths” to make them presentable to their mothers.

Continue reading "Easter Aboard the Manchuria" »


ABMC Maps

To accompany their series of books summarizing the operations of each US Army division in World War I, the American Battle Monuments Commission produced maps showing each division’s position during the battles in which it participated.

High-resolution digital versions of the two ABMC maps referenced in A Very Muddy Place are given here. Click on a map to view or download the larger image.

On the maps, straight red lines mark division sector boundaries. The ragged red lines show the division’s limit of advance at midnight on the date indicated. Each map is divided into one-kilometer (0.62 miles) squares. Contour lines show elevation in five-meter (16.4 feet) intervals.

 

Grange-le-Comte Sector  September 21-25  1918  Meuse-Argonne Offensive  September 26-October 3  1918Grange-le-Comte Sector, September 21-25, 1918,
Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September 26-October 3, 1918
(ABMC, 1937)

 

30th Division  Somme Offensive  October 3-22  191830th Division, Somme Offensive, October 3-22, 1918
(ABMC, 1938)

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 


Praise for A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

 

“A VERY MUDDY PLACE is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read about the humble soldier’s point of view. It focuses on the experiences of the author’s great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Potts, who fought with the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. The book is a vivid and deft mingling of anecdotes, history, and dramatic fiction, enriched with historic photographs, documents, and detailed maps. This is a captivating and historically important work. I highly recommend it!”

—Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

 

“Far too many histories of the First World War languish in private letters and forgotten family records. In A VERY MUDDY PLACE, Stephen Wendell constructs a narrative with his great grandfather’s stories to open a window on the horrors of that distant war. Using primary source material, he brings the Great War to life in the person of Benjamin Franklin Potts. This book is a delight, an insightful combination of historical narrative and fictional recreation, and we are better for it.”

—Steve Ruskin, PhD History, author of America’s First Great Eclipse

 

“Stephen Wendell crafts a poignant, stirring, and ultimately remarkable account of his ancestor’s service in the Great War. His attention to detail and depth of research is commendable. Interspersed with personal anecdotes and a keen sense of empathy, A VERY MUDDY PLACE is a unique, triumphant work of the highest merit and a tribute unlike anything I’ve ever read.”

—LTC Kevin Ikenberry, USA, Ret., author of The Protocol War series

 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 


A Happy Day in France

It was a happy day in France. April 12, 1919, the 137th Infantry Regiment waved goodbye to the country B. F. Potts later described as “a very muddy place.”

A morning march, loaded with all their gear, took them to the docks [at Brest]. From there, they were conveyed by light boats to a transport ship anchored a mile out in the bay. France, as its final farewell, drizzled rain on them.

—from A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Now, a century later, you can follow Private Benjamin Franklin Potts from Tennessee to the Great War in France and back home again.

 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 


A Very Muddy Place Coming in April

I am pleased to announce A Very Muddy Place: War Stories will be released in April.

May through November last year I wrote the story of my great grandfather in World War I. Over the winter I edited the three dozen articles into a 153-page book and wrapped it up in a paperback cover. To the reader to judge its success.

 

A Very Muddy Place

 

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.

 

A Very Muddy Place
WAR STORIES
 
April 2019


War Stories and Miracle Making

TriopetraAt Triopetra on Crete’s south coast, I learned that its highest rock is the place from which Icarus took off on his mortal flight, too close to the sun. I also learned that, while Icarus fell into the sea, his father and wing maker, Daedalus, flew on to Sicily…

In A Peregrine’s Path issue no. 4: War Stories and Miracle Making, we see the cover of A Very Muddy Place and learn of Stephen’s plans for the year.

 

Follow Stephen’s next adventure on
A Peregrine’s Path
EXPLORATION—DISCOVERY—ADVENTURE

 


Family Keepsake

Benjamin Franklin Potts age 21

The photograph measures 2-3/4 by 5 inches. The image shows a young man, clean-shaven, dressed in wide-legged trousers, coat, and tie. A carnation adorns the left lapel. He wears a wristwatch. He sits, legs crossed, in a chair with a high back and one arm, made of wrapped rattan. The chair rests on a thin rug.

The chair’s single-armed design, according to my brief research, makes it a “ladies chair.” An open side allowed for wide skirts, and it sat low to the ground, so the lady didn’t have to bend so far to remove her shoes.

On the photo’s back, in blue ink, is written “Benjamin Franklin Potts age 21 years 1915.” My cousin Bruce says the writing is that of his father, my great uncle John Wesley Potts.

Postcard back

Also on the back, is printed “POST CARD” at the top, “CORRESPONDENCE” in the middle left, and “ADDRESS,” middle right, beside a stamp box. The stamp box is distinguished by the paper manufacturer’s name and four triangles in the corners, two up, two down.

We notice the sides have been trimmed, its corners cropped round. The lack of any message or postmark suggests the postcard was never used as such. At the bottom in a different hand is a penciled note: “Susie’s picture.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Kodak sparked a revolution in photography with its “Brownie” camera. While the camera and the photograph were invented in the previous century, protecting the photographic plate from light made photography a tedious process.

George Eastman bought the patent for roll film from inventor Peter Houston in 1889. Roll film was protected from light inside a paper wrapping. Eastman put roll film in a box camera and, in 1900, sold the first Brownies for one dollar each.

Kodak sold these cameras at a loss in order to sell the film at a profitable margin. In later decades, the strategy became known as the “razor and blades” model, after the patent ran out on King C. Gillette’s safety razor and competitors began offering the same product at a cheaper price.

The Brownie’s low cost and ease of use put cameras in the hands of many more people, including children. The amateur photographer was born.

The Private Mailing Card Act of Congress in 1898 permitted private industry to print postcards. Also in that year, a special rate for a postcard stamp was introduced. While a first class letter could be mailed for two cents, a postcard went for a single penny.

In 1907, the US Postal Service changed its regulation to allow a written message on the blank side of the postcard, which was until that time reserved for a stamp and delivery address. The regulation stipulated placement: stamp and address on the right, message on the left.

Kodak also made postcard photographic paper, on which a photograph could be developed from a negative. Kodak marketed these as “real photo” postcards. Though the photo was often smaller to reduce cost, the printed paper was 3-1/4 by 5-1/2 inches.

AZO was a Kodak brand manufacturer of photographic paper. The stamp box, like a watermark, can be used to date the paper. According to Robert Bogdan’s Real Photo Postcard Guide, the earliest known date for AZO’s paper with two triangles up and two down is October 1917.

The discrepancy in the date suggests this photograph was developed from the negative at a later time. The photograph or its original may well have been a family keepsake during Ben Potts’s eleven-month absence—perhaps kept by his younger sister, Susie.

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 


From St. Louis to the BnF

From Vauquois Hill to Exermont  Claire Kenamore

A Very Muddy Place readers will recognize the title. I read it from a PDF downloaded at archive.org.

Journalist Claire Kenamore compiled the book from notes and newspaper articles he wrote while following the 35th Division across France during WWI. Back in St. Louis, it was published by Guard Publishing in 1919.

The Klincksieck bookstore in Paris obtained a copy. Klincksieck, founded in 1842, was a German bookstore that also published and printed books at 11, rue de Lille, Paris. Éditions Klincksieck are still in business at 95, boulevard Raspail, 6th arrondissement.

Sometime later, Klincksieck’s copy went to the French national library. The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) is the equivalent of the US Library of Congress.

I took a break from editing A Very Muddy Place today and went to the BnF. From Vauquois Hill to Exermont is not in the stacks. It’s kept in the “magasin” (library storage), because it’s, either, too valuable or not often referenced. I think the latter. I had to request it and wait forty-five minutes for it to be retrieved from its quiet place.

Since I quote from it often, I wanted to hold it my hands, read a few passages, give the book some love.

 


 

A Very Muddy Place: War Stories

Available on Amazon

 


Godspeed

“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" »