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.

Choose your own path...


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.

Choose your own path...


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

Choose your own path...


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

Choose your own path...


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.

Choose your own path...


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

Choose your own path...


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.

The troops of the 1st Infantry Division, in country since June, 1917, were veterans of the Battles of Cantigny, Soissons, and Saint-Mihiel. When they pressed the attack four days later, they fought for eight days to reach the other side of Fléville, two kilometers northwest of Exermont.

Meanwhile, the battle-weary 35th filed back to Cheppy. From there, they marched south then east, to Vavincourt, where they rested from October 6 to 11.

Marching southPhotograph from Hoyt 117

“The days [at Vavincourt] were not without their drills, their policing, and all that is a part of the camp routine. The soldier had heard much of the rest camps, where men wined and dined after they had suffered heavy fighting.

“The rest camp, it was found, was another army chimera. Reveille, retreat, drill, and a repetition of all those things they had done over and over again for nearly a year and a half, was what greeted them daily. Vin rouge and bad beer they had, if that would be called wining; bully-beef and beans they had, if that could be called dining. The rest camp made the soldier long for the battle.” (Hoyt 123)

Rested and reequipped, the 35th marched again east to take over the Sommedieue sector, a quiet stretch of front south of Verdun. There, it relieved a French division in the trenches October 14. The division’s next move would be November 1.

“In the Sommedieue sector, there was little doing, although it was, generally speaking, much livelier than the old days in the Vosges. All four regiments were in the line, each having two battalions in the line and one in support.” (Kenamore 246)

“It was while on this sector the first seven-days furloughs were granted to the men. Grenoble, yet uninvaded by Americans, was the first furlough area thrown open to the Thirty-fifth or other organizations of the A. E. F. The French met the train at the depot with flags, bands and cheers. Pretty girls blew kisses from their finger tips and old women waved and wiped away the tears. There were twelve hundred men of the division who tasted again of the sweetmeats of civilization. They were given good rooms in good hotels, good meals at the best eating houses, and with no cost to themselves. They answered to no call except their own whims, went where they pleased in the city, and were treated as guests.” (Hoyt 127)

These “seven-days furloughs” are important for Grandpa’s two final war stories, coming up in October. If the men are getting leave to go to a city 550 km (340 mi.) distant, the officers are as well. When a commanding officer is off-duty, remaining officers rotate through the position of “duty officer” to handle day-to-day responsibilities.

 


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.

Next date:

October 7—Roy Albert Buried Alive!

Choose your own path...


The Engineers’ Line

September 30, 1918, what was left of the 35th Division lay in defensive positions built by the 110th Engineers the previous day. These were a long series of short, shallow trenches, not man-height but deeper than a foxhole, from which the troops might repulse a counterattack. The division would lay here throughout the day, under continuing shell fire.

During the first three days of the advance, the 110th Engineer Regiment’s job was to build and repair roads for horse-drawn vehicles, which brought ammunition, rations, and equipment from the rear. Behind the front lines, the engineers filled a noncombatant role.

At 10:00 p.m. September 28, by order of General Traub, the 110th Engineers were made division reserve, therefore, combatants, and equipped with rifles, ammunition, and grenades.

The next day, under constant artillery fire, the engineers dug three kilometers (almost two miles) of trenches from Baulny to Sérieux Farm. When the digging was done, they dropped into the trenches, exchanged shovels for rifles, and pointed them north. Throughout the afternoon and evening of the 29th, as the exhausted infantrymen arrived from Exermont and Montrebeau Wood, the engineer officers placed them in the line. 

September 29 - 35th Division Grange le Comte Meuse-Argonne - American Battle Monuments Commision 1937Map section, September 30, 35th Division, Grange le Comte Sector, Meuse-Argonne, American Battle Monuments Commision 1937

Kenamore calls September 30 “a desperate day.” The few remaining officers tried to organize the line for defense, but in some parts of the trenches, the troops were too bunched up; one artillery shell could take out several men. In other parts, they were too thin; machine gunners held sections without riflemen in support. Fatigued, hungry, thirsty, sleep-deprived, many suffering from dysentery, the men had reached the physical limit of functioning.

“Despite all the men could do to fulfill the dictates of duty, the supreme weariness of the last four days of fighting, now entering on the fifth, was not to be easily triumphed over. What they did was by sheer will, for bodies were numb and reacted slowly to thoughts that would drive them.” (Hoyt 119)

That day, three counterattacks were launched on the trenches by a determined enemy. Three counterattacks were repulsed. With the strength of will left in them, the men of the 35th held the Engineers’ line.

 


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.

Next date:

October 1—Relieved

Choose your own path...


Clyde Brake Boards the Leviathan

In 1913, the German-owned Hamburg America Line launched a series of three steamships, each one larger than its predecessor. The first, the Imperator, was larger than the Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic the year before. The Vaterland (“Fatherland” in German) was the second. It measured 290 meters (950 feet) in length and carried 54,282 tons of cargo. Third in the series, the Bismarck carried 300 tons more and was 2 meters (6 feet) longer.

The VaterlandImage from Trans-Atlantic Passenger Ships Past and Present by Eugene W. Smith, Boston: George H. Dean Company, 1947, page 315

At the outbreak of war, the Imperator and the Bismarck were at port in Hamburg. The Vaterland was moored at Hoboken, New Jersey.

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. Within weeks, the ship was pressed into service as a troop transport, renamed the Leviathan.

Clyde Brake Leviathan Hoboken Sept 29 1918Clyde Brake Potts, the Leviathan, Hoboken, September 29, 1918
Where his brothers listed their father’s name as next of kin, the youngest boy gave Mrs. Ellen Potts, mother.

September 29, 1918, while his brothers Roy Albert and Benjamin Franklin fought in the Somme and the Meuse, Clyde Brake Potts, Company G, 57th Pioneer Infantry, boarded the Leviathan at Hoboken, New Jersey, bound for the war in Europe.

Clyde Brake in uniformClyde Brake Potts in uniform with campaign hat, 1918

In regulation use from as early as the 1870s, the campaign hat was standard issue to US Army soldiers throughout the Great War. However, its stiff, broad brim and four-cornered “Montana peak” made the felt headgear difficult to store when not needed. Upon entry into the war, the US Army adopted the narrow, creased cap from the French. The bonnet de police, made of soft cloth, could be folded over a belt.

In 1917 and early 1918, the cap was issued in France and, so, came to be known as the overseas cap. By mid-1918, the men exchanged their campaign hats for overseas caps at the Stateside port of embarkation. Therefore, in the photo, Uncle Clyde, who was drafted in late 1918, must be in the US, either, at Camp Wadsworth or at Camp Merritt.

At first the troops disdained the new and less aesthetic head cover. Though, as it was issued only to soldiers serving in Europe, the overseas cap, worn cocked to one side, became a symbol in which returning troops took pride.


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.

Next date:

September 30—The Engineers’ Line

Choose your own path...


Charge to Exermont

In war, a “casualty” is a soldier who suffers any condition that puts him or her out of action, which includes being killed as well as wounded, whether in battle or by accident. During the four days in which the 35th Division advanced the line, it suffered 8,023 casualties. September 29, 1918, the fourth day of fighting, would be the 35th’s bloodiest day.

So many casualties would reduce a full-strength division by one quarter. However, according to Kenamore, most of the 35th’s casualties came from front-line troops. Since the division began the battle undermanned, its four infantry regiments were reduced to half strength. (241)

The division also went into the battle with half the quota of officers for the troop count. So, the high casualty rate put a particular strain on the leadership. Even with staff officers, rounded up and sent forward, by the previous day some battalions were commanded by lieutenants.

A thinning olive drab line held back the enemy the morning of the 29th. A heavy rain fell on Montrebeau Wood. Beneath the dense canopy, darkness pervaded, lit up by occasional enemy artillery fire. The day’s orders were to attack at 5:30 a.m. The objective: Exermont.

The village of Exermont lay in a ravine running east-west across the division sector. Of the town, Kenamore writes, “Tolerably well placed for defense…, it was ringed three-quarters of the way round with cannon and machine guns.” (205)

What’s more, from Hill 240 behind the town (“Côte 240” on the map) came much of the artillery fire that had so devastated the ranks in previous days. Today, the troops would be in range of machine-gun fire from those heights as well.

September 29 - 35th Division Grange le Comte Meuse-Argonne - American Battle Monuments Commision 1937Map section, September 29, 35th Division, Grange le Comte Sector, Meuse-Argonne, American Battle Monuments Commision 1937

The plan for the 137th was to attack in two waves. Major Kalloch, who had been the division intelligence officer the evening before, would lead the first wave. The units were so mixed on the division sector’s left half we can no longer speak of battalions. The officers just rounded up what men they could find to carry out the mission.

Major Kalloch put 125 men “mostly of the 137th regiment” (Kenamore 205) into an attack formation. At 5:30 a.m., he waited for the artillery barrage promised by the division orders. Four minutes later, the major led the men from the concealment of Montrebeau Wood without the friendly artillery barrage.

Kalloch advanced through heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. As the men would destroy one machine-gun nest, other enemy gun crews were setting up on both sides of their skirmish line. Taking out these nests one after another, Kalloch and his men reached the ravine west of Exermont, loses mounting. The major ordered the men to dig in.

“There was no sign anywhere of the supporting wave Col. Hamilton [commander 137th Regiment] was to bring out, so Kalloch sent two runners, one a few minutes behind the other, to say that he could go no farther without support.” (Kenamore 206)

When the second wave, led by Major O’Connor under Colonel Hamilton’s orders, emerged from Montrebeau Wood, it was full daylight. O’Connor’s troops took artillery and machine-gun fire from three sides. “The men were willing and brave, but much disorganized, largely, I suspect, through their great physical weariness. The officers were unable to maneuver them. When they reached the top of the rise and got the full force of the fire, they seemed just to fade back into the woods.” (Kenamore 207)

At 8 o’clock, with more enemy machine guns filtering down the slope before his line and without reinforcements of his own, Major Kalloch was forced to retire with his troops from Exermont.

Later in the morning, larger elements of the 139th, on the division left, and the 140th, on the right, were successful in an assault on Exermont. Kenamore describes the charge in the face of enemy fire:

“In the stunning, dumbing gust of war the men sensed with their bodies rather than their minds, that death was pouring past them in a flood. As if they were walking forward through a driving hailstorm they turned their faces to leeward and, leaning forward against the blast, pushed ahead with the point of shoulder offered to the gale.” (209)

They took the village and held a line on the southern slope of Hill 240. However, reinforcements were not forthcoming, and communication was difficult with commanders to the rear. The 140th regimental commander wasn’t even aware that part of his regiment had made it so far forward.

When General Traub, division commander, came up around 11 o’clock to assess the situation, he found the division strength much depleted, its units disorganized. In a message to Corps Headquarters, the general wrote: “Regret to report that this Division cannot advance beyond crest south of Exermont. It is thoroughly disorganized through loss of officers and many casualties, for which cannot give estimate, owing to intermingling of units. Recommend that it be withdrawn for reorganization and be replaced promptly by other troops in order that the advance may be continued.” (Quoted in Kenamore 217)

Soon after, the division’s 110th Engineer Regiment received orders to construct a defensive line below the ridge running northeast from Baulny. Forward units were then ordered to withdraw to that line. The order to withdraw was delivered by runner.

 

“Where’s Private Potts?”

“Here, sir!”

“This message is for Colonel Hamilton, 137th, in Montrebeau Wood. We’re pulling all forward units back to the Engineers’ line. The 137th is to cover the withdraw of troops from Exermont before pulling back. If the colonel doesn’t get the word A.S.A.P., the troops from Exermont will be sitting ducks. Do you understand?”

Potts, who leapt from the shell hole at “A.S.A.P,” shouts, “Understood, sir!” over a shoulder.

Where any-sized formation of men must spread itself out to advance through enemy fire, as well as arrive in force at the attack point, a lone man may choose a narrow path and not necessarily the most direct route to the destination. He negotiates the terrain, dodging enemy fire, exposing himself as little as possible, and taking advantage of battlefield distractions.

Message delivered, the messenger may have withdrawn with the troops. A “withdraw” is a tactical movement where one-half a unit—say, a six-man squad—fires toward the enemy’s position to keep their heads down (this is called “suppressive fire”), while another squad moves back a few meters. Then, this second squad lays down suppressive fire, while the first squad moves back. By this leap-frog action, the unit may cede ground without over-exposing itself to enemy fire.

 

Far enough removed from the German line, Private Potts and the rag-tag platoon he accompanies hasten south. A hill rises to one side. Below its crest, a man crouches at the edge of a shell hole, looking through field glasses to the north, steel helmet cocked back. Another soldier adjusts dials on a field telephone, while a third approaches from the south and hops into the hole with a spool, wire trailing behind.

Potts calls out, “Hey, fellows!”

The crouching man lowers the field glasses, revealing a triangle nose and round-rim spectacles.

“We’re falling back to Chaudron Farm. The Germans’ll be here any minute.”

The hole’s occupants jump into activity, gathering equipment. The man snaps orders while stowing the field glasses in a pack. Potts hurries on.

 

That night, the remains of four infantry regiments and one engineer regiment defended the prepared line against counterattack. The officers and men didn’t know it yet, but the 35th Infantry Division had made its last advance of the Great War.

 


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…”

 Next date:

September 29—Clive Brake Boards the Leviathan

September 30—The Engineers’ Line

Choose your own path...