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


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


Looking Ahead from A Very Muddy Place

As the climactic battle draws near, we’re picking up the pace this month in A Very Muddy Place. Private Potts has no idea that this is his itinerary for the rest of September—a hundred years ago:

September 12—In Reserve at Saint-Mihiel

16—Special Job for Private Potts

19—A Potts Family Day of Thanks

24—Planning the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

25—Prelude to Battle

26—Taking Vauquois

26—The Fog of War

27—Night Attack

28—Montrebeau Wood

29—Charge to Exermont

29—Clyde Brake Boards the Leviathan

30—The Engineers’ Line

October 8—Roy Albert Buried Alive!

Plan of Attack, First Army


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.

 


Enterprise, Tennessee: The Town That Died

My great uncle John Wesley Potts, one of Ben Potts’s boys, was the family genealogist. To him the Potts family is thankful for much of the information we have concerning our family history. I have several photocopied pages of the family tree, which includes old photographs and a few stories. These last are in Uncle Wesley’s words, typed by his hand.

I’m fond of one story in particular. It reminds me of my favorite Dr. Seuss book, and like The Lorax, it remains pertinent. Furthermore, as it gives context to the childhood of our present subject, I think it appropriate at this point to transcribe the story of a town named Enterprise as told by John Wesley Potts.

Enterprise, Tennessee:
The Town That Died

Enterprise was a sawmill town on the banks of Lewis Branch. Around 1900, there were sawmills, stave and shingles. The town was aptly named because it was growing. It grew in size between 200 and 300 people.

The timber was plentiful. Virgin oaks, beach and hickory.

Grandpa Albert Jack Potts moved his family there in 1901 from Slayden, Tennessee.

Grandpa was a teamster. He 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.

In a few short years the timber was cut and the town slowly fell apart, much like the lumber towns of upper Michigan. He stayed in Houston County and bought a farm. He lived there until his death at 64, in 1929. Albert and Lou Ellen are buried in the McDonald Cemetery along with four of their children.

Pa would marvel at the way they lumber today.

John Wesley PottsJohn Wesley Potts, 1927-2015

 


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.

Next date:

September 7—Rendezvous with the 35th Infantry Division


Rackham’s Zelkova

They were colleagues, associates, students—friends of a man. They met at the top of the world, where the mountain peaks meet, where the air is pure and sparse. Then they climbed yet higher. Evening light stretched long across a lower plain, threw darkness to the depths of a narrow gorge, and set the sky aglow.

Led by a priest, who held his robe by the hem as he went, the pilgrims walked in single file. They traced a path the man had often walked—there above, where the spirit soars and, so, refills. They stepped up stones carved by ages. They tread on earth gathered by last years’ rain. They rounded an ancient well, its domed ceiling fallen. Its stones now hid beyond reflections on dark water.

At length, they came to a rare forest. Tangled roots joined to knotted trunks. Trunks spread to arching boughs, clothed in crenelated leaves. The priest halted beneath the largest tree. The breathless pilgrims congregated round its wide trunk, sheathed in weathered bark. The tree’s branches embraced them. Its roots, like seats, invited them to rest a while, to refill the spirit.

The pilgrims stood in dappled light. Some spoke of the tree and of the man: of the tree’s age, its qualities, its meaning to the man; of the man’s wisdom, his knowledge, his generosity, and his passion for trees.

The priest lit incense in a censer and began to chant. A cool breeze blew, rustling leaves and grasses, mixing a forest perfume of incense, faint asphodel, and dry-dirt dust. The congregation swayed to the rhythmic chant. Goat bells jangled out of sight. The sound, like water tumbling down a mountain stream, joined the chanting as a choir.

The priest concluded the ceremony, lifting the cloth from a plaque: a dedication of the tree to the memory of the man.

Spirits refilled, the congregation dispersed. Descending in groups of twos and threes, they left the tree, now, by their investment, made unique among all the trees of the rare forest.

 

At the top of the world, where the mountain peaks meet, where the air is pure and sparse, you may find a path that climbs yet higher. When evening light stretches long across the lower plain, throwing darkness to the gorge, you may follow the path, where the man once walked—the man who taught us about trees and forests.

At path’s end, you might rest a while in the tree’s embrace. In dappled sunlight, feel the cool breeze, smell the asphodel, hear the goat bells like a tumbling stream. And there above, a filled spirit lingers. 

Oliver RackhamOliver Rackham, 1939-2015

Zelkova abeliceaZelkova abelicea, circa 1300-

Dedicated August 6, 2018, Xyloskalo, Omalos, Crete
Photographs courtesy of Jennifer Moody