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" »


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.
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" »