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...


Encounter at Creek’s Edge

“When I asked him [Grandpa Ben] if he killed anyone, this is what he told me: They had just been in action and his best friend had been killed that day and he was very upset. As he left the area he was walking through the woods and came up behind a German soldier eating his lunch as he was sitting on a rock next to a stream. Grandpa said he tried to turn to go in a different direction away from the soldier but stepped on a stick or leaves and made noise, which alerted the German to his presence. The German soldier reached for his rifle so Grandpa said he had no choice and shot the soldier. Then Grandpa said to me something I have never forgotten: ‘He fell forward into the creek and I never did see that boy again.’”—Bruce Potts

  


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

As the sky lightened from its darkest black, the shelling increased, and a wave of gray-clad soldiers broke from the wood, rushing down the hill.

Next date:

September 29—Charge to Exermont

September 29—Clyde Brake Boards the Leviathan

Choose your own path...


Montrebeau Wood

September 28, 1918, the sun rose, unseen. A cold, drizzling rain fell from a close sky. On the slopes of the hollow north of Baulny, men of the 137th and 139th regiments lay, soaking wet, chilled to the bone. Sleep was impossible with the cold, the damp, and the night’s steady shelling.

A hundred meters northwest of the hollow rose a gentle hill topped with trees, called Montrebeau (sounds like mantra-bow) Wood, which in French means “showing beauty.” As the sky lightened from its darkest black, the shelling increased, and a wave of gray-clad soldiers broke from the wood, rushing down the hill. The enemy skirmish line was repulsed with machine-gun and rifle fire. Thus began the 35th Infantry Division’s third day of battle.

The day’s orders were to advance through Montrebeau Wood. The attack would begin at 6:30 a.m. Today, the infantrymen would have support from their artillery, though it would never be as heavy as the first morning.

Map section September 28 showing 35th Division Grange le Comte Meuse-Argonne - American Battle Monuments Commision 1937Map section, September 28, 35th Division, Grange le Comte Sector, Meuse-Argonne, American Battle Monuments Commision 1937

“It was under the lowering sky of a cold, dark fall day. All the glory was gone out of the war, with the glitter and pageantry of the first day’s successes, but they went ahead. They were not the dashing lads who went over the top two days before, but they were veterans of battle, hardened soldiers who no longer had any delusions about a soldier’s life.” (Kenamore 178)

They advanced through strafing machine-gun fire from the woods ahead. Haterius quotes a French officer, who observed the action: “Those d— Americans have no sense; they know not when to stop; they go against machine-gun fire barehanded.” (146) By morning’s end, the intermingled 137th and 139th regiments gained 500 meters and dug in before Montrebeau Wood.

“Montrebeau Wood was a thick tangle of trees and underbrush about the size of a square kilometer [more than half a square mile]. It contains, I should say on a guess, 240 acres. There were many lines and systems of barbed wire entanglements thrown through it. The Americans had to cut paths through this wire. The Germans had trails already made, which they knew, but it was difficult and dangerous for our men to find them.” (Kenamore 179)

Through the woods and German machine-gun nests and sniper fire, the men fought in the afternoon. By dark, this ensemble, the remains of the 137th and 139th Regiments, held the line on the other side of Montrebeau Wood.

On the division’s right, the 140th lead the attack. Beginning an hour earlier than the left, the orders to the regimental commander were “to take his regiment forward with all speed to protect the flank of the troops on his left [the 137th and 139th].” (Kenamore 179). The regiment pushed through relentless artillery fire, being rather more exposed as they advanced over the northern, enemy-facing slopes.

At day’s end, they dug in just north of the “little hollow,” which had been occupied by their division comrades on the left the previous night. They did, however, manage to rejoin the line.

Tonight, the 35th Division defended a more or less cohesive front on the north edge of Montrebeau Wood, from its western slopes to 500 meters northwest of Sérieux Farm, where the 35th connected to the 91st Division on its right. Furthermore, on its left, the 28th Division made great advances in the day, taking Apremont, near the western division boundary. There was, however, a gap in the 35th’s sector between it and the 28th.

 

Encounter at Creek’s Edge

“When I asked him [Grandpa Ben] if he killed anyone, this is what he told me: They had just been in action and his best friend had been killed that day and he was very upset. As he left the area he was walking through the woods and came up behind a German soldier eating his lunch as he was sitting on a rock next to a stream. Grandpa said he tried to turn to go in a different direction away from the soldier but stepped on a stick or leaves and made noise, which alerted the German to his presence. The German soldier reached for his rifle so Grandpa said he had no choice and shot the soldier. Then Grandpa said to me something I have never forgotten: ‘He fell forward into the creek and I never did see that boy again.’”—Bruce Potts

  


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!”

Next date:

September 28—Encounter at Creek’s Edge

September 29—Charge to Exermont

Choose your own path...


Night Attack

The confusion that began in the fog the morning before, continued through the morning of September 27. Around 3:00 a.m., the 137th Regiment, now behind the 139th, received orders to support the 139th in its morning attack, which was to begin at 8:30 after a three-hour artillery barrage. The 137th received a new order some while later, giving 5:30 as the hour of attack, after only a five-minute barrage. Around 5 a.m., a third order put H-hour at 6:30; the barrage to last one-hour.

The following cry might have been heard, bounding in the darkness between the slopes on either side of Buanthe Creek:

“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!”

Units had got mixed in the fog the first morning, and continued shelling prevented any reorganization. So at this point, Private Potts, whether a runner or not, could have been anywhere in the division sector. There are reported cases where an individual, a detachment, or an entire battalion went beyond the front line shown on the map.

However, not having any anecdotes from Grandpa Ben saying he had been too far forward, we’ll assume he was behind the limit of advance. In any case, when a unit of any size has lost contact with its parent unit, it fights with whatever higher command it encounters.

At 5:30, the men of the 137th heard rifle shots and the distinct sound of American machine guns. The noise came from the front but to their right, where the 140th Regiment had not received the third order. More worrying to their ears was what they didn’t hear. While the German artillery kept up through the night and now increased in intensity, their own artillery, which was to prepare the terrain for the attack, was silent.

Still no barrage at 6:30, the 137th prepared to move forward behind the 139th. They waited. Seven o’clock… enemy artillery increased to their fore. Finally, lieutenants and sergeants passed an order down the line: “Prepare to advance!”

“We’re ready, sir. Let us at those damn guns!”

Still they waited. Rain clouds gathered overhead.

This confusion of orders, which is, in fact, a failure of communication, is a typical battlefield scenario. In the modern military, men and officers alike use a special term for it: “cluster” in its short form. Although it’s outside the scope of this narrative, Kenamore, in four pages, recounts the episode from the brigade and division commanders’ perspective (148-151). It’s edifying.

Unknown to the troops lying in wait, the 139th’s regimental commander had sent a message by runner to the brigade at 6:30, saying he was ready to attack as soon as he had artillery. With no reply and no artillery at 7:00, the commander advanced the regiment anyway.

“His formation caught the full fire of the enemy artillery and machine guns. Ristine [139th commander] was able to advance, but as he saw the swaths the opposing fire was making in his ranks, he decided the price was too heavy. He halted his regiment, ordered the men to dig in, and sent a message to brigade headquarters that he could not advance further without artillery support.” (Kenamore 151)

Behind the 139th, the men of the 137th Regiment, indeed, the entire 35th Division waited, throughout the day, under clouds that threatened rain and a shower of enemy shells that threatened an end to their suffering.

 

Kenamore cites a message to the 35th Division commander, General Traub, from General Pershing:

“He expects the 35th Division to move forward. He is not satisfied with the Division being stopped by machine gun nests here and there. He expects the Division to move forward now in accordance with orders.” (154)

We might imagine the impact of the curt message on the division general, not from his corps commander but from the next higher—the army commander himself. The message, received at 4:30 p.m., lit a fire that spread through the chain of command.

“At 5:30 [p.m.] the division stood upon its feet amidst its dead, and prepared to advance, to show whether it was as good a fighting outfit as it believed it was.

“…the 139th came out of its foxholes like war dogs off the leash. They took a singeing fire full in the face, charged over the machine guns and stamped them out like nests of rats and, with the assistance of other units [the 138th and the 137th], had taken both Charpentry and Baulny before stopping to count the cost. The line they could not breach in the morning was no weaker. It did not crumble. But it was as if our men had gathered strength while waiting through the day, and in the afternoon the Germans could not stop them.” (Kenamore 155-156)

On the right, the 140th, supported by the 138th, also advanced at 5:30 p.m. Their gains, however, were not as great.

Mixed elements of the 139th and the 137th, including our Third Battalion, dug in after midnight. The lead element lay “in a little hallow” north of Baulny. (Kenamore 158) With the lagging 28th Division, on their left, and the 140th two kilometers behind, on their right, the 137th and 139th found themselves defending a salient.

Map section September 27 35th Division Grange le Comte Meuse-Argonne - American Battle Monuments Commision 1937Map section, September 27, 35th Division, Grange le Comte Sector, Meuse-Argonne, American Battle Monuments Commision 1937

The “little hallow” north of Baulny is at the limit of advance on the division’s left, below the red text “Sept. 27”

  


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!”

 Next date:

September 28—Montrebeau Wood

Choose your own path...


The Fog of War

“Then [in war] there is a very great difficulty arising from the unreliability of all data. This means that all actions must necessarily be planned and carried out in a more or less uncertain light, which like a fog or moonshine, gives things a somewhat exaggerated and unnatural size and appearance.”—Clausewitz

Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, in his On War (published 1832, posthumously), used “fog or moonshine” as a metaphor to demonstrate uncertainty in armed conflict. Military leaders and thinkers since have applied the metaphor to the chaos of the battlefield in particular, using the expression “the fog of war.”

The morning of September 26, 1918, the fog in the Aire Valley was figurative as well as literal. According to Kenamore, “It was possible to see 40 yards at times, but beyond that the fog shut in like a wall. A squad of men would be observed marching ahead, but a moment later they would entirely disappear, and there would be nothing to see but the opaque gray bank of fog. It was impossible to tell friend from foe 25 yards away.” (94-95)

Approaching Varennes, three kilometers north of the departure line sometime around 8 a.m., Third Battalion, 137th Infantry Regiment, had by now outdistanced the artillery’s useful range. The division’s 60th Field Artillery Brigade was ordered forward.

However, portions of the 60th’s planned route, Route Nationale No. 46, had been destroyed by the retreating enemy. The guns had to be hauled through the mud of the now conquered No Man’s Land, some by double teams of horses (a team is six horses), some by platoons of men. Only one battery, which counts four guns, made itself heard that afternoon. The commanders didn’t know it yet, but the 35th Division would be virtually without artillery support well into the next day.

A battery of the 129th FA Regiment in Rossignol WoodsA battery of the 129th Field Artillery Regiment in Rossignol Wood, the afternoon, September 26, 1918 (Hoyt 75)

To make matters worse, across the division boundary on the 137th’s left, the 28th Division met stiff resistance in the Argonne Forest. Their advance was slow. What’s more, their own artillery, having departed later, was blocked in traffic on the Route Nationale. This left the 137th’s left flank open to counterattack by ground troops and artillery fire from the Argonne heights. With troops of the 28th out of range and no artillery to threaten them, enemy machine guns in the sector had nothing to do but fire on the 137th.

Map section - 35th Division Grange le Comte Meuse-Argonne - American Battle Monuments Commision 1937The German Maschinengewehr 08 fired 500 rounds a minute at an effective range of 2,000 meters. That’s two squares on the map. Also notice the contour lines showing higher elevations west of the Aire. From there, German 77mm guns fired down on the 137th.

“The leading battalion of [the] 137th Infantry had been checked by machine gun and flank artillery fire on the outskirts of the village [Varennes]. Every gray-walled little house, even to the gaunt remains of the town church, seemed to have within a machine gun.” (Hoyt 74)

Here, the regimental commander, Colonel Clad Hamilton, whose headquarters detachment traveled with the battalion, ordered the men to dig in to protect themselves from incoming fire. While waiting for his Second Battalion to come up, Hamilton tried to contact brigade headquarters to get artillery support. Everyone hoped the fog would clear.

Kenamore devotes a six-page chapter to battlefield communication, its devices, and its failure that day (135-140). Signal flags, flash lamps, and “heliographs” (a system using mirrors) were useless in the fog. Carrier pigeons were confused by the fog, smoke, and artillery fire. The telephone, depending on a wire connection, was impractical. A front line signal platoon had got working a wireless set in a shell hole. But because divisional headquarters failed to install their own set, they could only listen to the time from the Eiffel Tower.

Kenamore also mentions “T. P. S.,” which stands for “télégraphie par le sol.” The ground telegraph was invented in 1917 by Frenchman Paul Boucherot. “This is a system of telephoning without wires, using the ground as a conducting medium. It is most successful for distances up to a few miles.” (136-137) T. P. S. seems to have been also ineffective.

“Runners were the only means left, and they had almost no landmarks to guide them through the fog and smoke.” (137)

We have previously assumed that Private Potts was selected to be a runner. In the present situation, a commander, having exhausted other more immediate means of communication at his disposal, might resort to this means.

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!”

Off he goes. Message secured in a pocket, rifle in hand, chin strap fastened tight, Private Potts dodges machine-gun fire and artillery shells, as he moves down the slopes south of Varennes. Brigade Headquarters’ last known position, which it had occupied since five days before the battle, was at Mamelon Blanc, a hilltop five kilometers away on the other side of Vauquois Hill.

While the 137th was stalled before Varennes, the support regiment, the 139th, moved up around to the east to continue the advance. Farther to the right, the 138th took Cheppy around 9 a.m. Without artillery support, the 344th Tank Battalion, of the 1st Tank Brigade, came to their aid. The tank brigade commander came up on foot to see how the tanks were performing. Thirty-two year old Lieutenant Colonel George Patton was hit by a machine gunner’s bullet. He didn’t sit comfortably for some weeks thereafter.

Gasping for breath, Private Potts slows to a walk as he approaches a group of men and horses dragging a big gun through mud.

“Pull, pull, pull!” says one man at the front of a line of men on a rope. The gun’s wheels turn out of a depression, gaining several feet.

Potts calls out, “Hey, I’m looking for 69th Brigade Headquarters.”

The lead man steps forward, removing round spectacles to wipe sweat from his brow. His straight nose forms a perfect triangle. “There’s a road a mile that way,” he says throwing an arm in the gun’s direction. “They’ll be somewhere along there.”

“Thanks, and good luck!” says Potts, as he breaks into a trot through the mud.

Kenamore: “The failure of liaison and all mechanical means of communication cost the lives of many brave men in the front lines in the course of the battle… Runners would be dispatched. If they were not killed or wounded en route, they probably would find the agile brigade headquarters had moved from the shell hole in which it had last been seen, and there would be no one there to tell where it was gone. The search for the headquarters would continue while the battery or machine gun nest would continue to take its toll of American lives.” (137)

If the runner found headquarters and managed the return journey, the response he carried would have informed the regimental commander of the situation. In any case, by 10:30 a.m., the 137th’s Second Battalion came in line with our Third Battalion. As the fog cleared, flanking fire became more intense. If troops are taking fire, they may as well be taking ground, too. The assault on Varennes was accomplished without artillery support.

Haterius: “Beyond Varennes was situated what was known as the ‘Grotto,’ a wooded hill surmounted by an ancient chapel and shrine. Numerous machine-guns were pivoted here, and a battery of ‘seventy-sevens’ [German 77mm artillery guns] made it a ‘strong point’ of no mean calibre. The Grotto was taken by noon of the 26th by the Second and Third Battalions.” (146)

By 4:00 p.m., the 35th Division halted along a line five kilometers from the morning’s parallel of departure. Though, due to the confusion of the day, the units were well mixed, their general positions are recorded as follows: having passed ahead of the 137th, the 139th dug in on the line one kilometer south of Charpentry; east of Buanthe Creek, the 138th was one kilometer north of Véry; the 140th to its south; and the 137th north of Varennes.

As night falls on the Aire Valley, Private B. F. Potts is overwhelmed by a profound sense of fatigue. He hasn’t eaten since yesterday. Congestion on the roads and continued shelling prevent food from coming up so far. His canteen is empty. Retreating Germans are known to poison water points behind them. In the dark, he would like to lie down and sleep, despite falling artillery, but he is denied even that. Fog of war be damned, there is still work to do.

“The sleepless runners pounded away on the eternal task of trying to find in the darkness an unknown Colonel and deliver to him a message from a Brigadier General who would assuredly have moved before the runner returned.” (Kenamore 141)

  


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.

Next date:

September 27—Night Attack

On War by General Carl von Clausewitz, Miss A. M. E. Maguire, translator, London: William Clowes and Sons 1909, 13-14.

Choose your own path...


Taking Vauquois

For the French, it’s the Battle of Verdun. For the British, the Somme. For the Americans, the Meuse-Argonne is the superlative battle. The largest battle in US history: 1.2 million American soldiers participated. The longest battle: lasting 47 days. The deadliest: 26,277 Americans killed.

The battle ended with the war, November 11, 1918. It began September 26. For the 137th Infantry Regiment, it began at the “V of Vauquois.” Private Potts, with Company M, was in the lead battalion.

Our battlefield journalists, Clair Kenamore and Carl Haterius, were there:

Kenamore: “At 5:30 a.m. [GMT+1] the infantry went over all along the line. There was no breakfast and little ceremony about it. The lieutenant or sergeant who was leading the platoon, when his watch told him the zero hour was but a few minutes off, would give the order: ‘Prepare to advance.’

“The men would crawl out of their foxholes, pick up their raincoats, look to their rifles, and wait. At ‘H’ hour the platoon leader would say: ‘All right, let’s go,’ and leading the way, he would set his face to the north and move out, his men following.” (90)

Haterius: “At 5:30 a.m. the signal hour broke, and as the barrage lifted, the commands were given, and the masses of olive drab forms, with helmets adjusted, gas masks in position, and rifle in hand, rose and scampered up over the top and started for the German positions across the way.” (145)

One century later, to the minute, we can place Private Benjamin Franklin Potts, with reasonable confidence, in the line between “Route Nationale No. 46” (left) and hilltop “253” (mid-sector), “approximately 500 meters from the enemy’s front line trenches…” (Haterius 139).

35th Division Grange le Comte Meuse-Argonne - American Battle Monuments Commision 1937On this map, we can see where Private Potts would have been on any given day from September 26 through September 30, 1918.

The map, prepared by the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1937, shows the area through which the 35th Division advanced in the first days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The two red vertical lines mark the boundaries of the division sector, left and right. The ragged horizontal red lines show the front line at midnight on the date indicated.

From the battle plan, we know when the artillery’s rolling barrage began, as well as its rate of advance. We also know the infantry moved roughly 100 meters behind it. Therefore, up until 7:40 a.m. when the rolling barrage ceased, we can follow Private Potts’s movement across the battlefield.

At H-hour, the order is given: “Let’s go.” Private Potts crawls out of a shallow hole and heads into No Man’s Land. An exploding wall of dirt and debris, the artillery’s rolling barrage, precedes him. An orange flash, veiled by dense fog in the pre-dawn dark, reveals for an instant the man on his left and the man on his right and, to his front, grotesque forms in the disheveled land. The ground trembles. The blast pierces the ears. The soldier moves forward.

Haterius: “The effect of our six-hour barrage had been so thorough that the Boche front lines were pulverized beyond recognition. As the boys advanced, they found few if any Germans in the first line trenches; they had gone back into the second and reserve trenches. As the advance reached the second line trenches, the enemy commenced fire upon them, and soon a retaliatory fire of artillery, and machine-gun fire was in operation.” (145)

Private Potts’s first combat experience was here, west of Vauquois Hill, east of the town of Boureilles, at the “V of Vauquois.” Stretched across his path beyond the fog, four lines of trenches, named Balkans, Serpent, Constantinople, Enfer (pronounced on-fair).

Company M advances in staggered formation, never presenting a straight line shot of two men to the enemy trenches, with a few meters between each man, to minimize casualties from a single grenade or artillery blast. Ahead, in silhouette against the orange flashes, appears an earthen berm and mangled wire. Drawing no fire from the Balkans trench, the men pass cautiously.

Kenamore: “Once fairly in the field it became apparent that the going was to be very bad. The autumn frequently brings to that part of France a thick, clinging fog which only a bright sun or a strong wind can disperse. The heaviest fog of the season had descended on the valley of the Aire that morning. At first thought, it appeared that this might be of assistance to the Thirty-fifth, for it would conceal the advancing troops from the waiting machine gunners, but very soon it became apparent that the maintaining of liaison would be most difficult.

“Lieut. Bancon, flying over the sector, dropped a message at headquarters at 8:15 a.m., saying: “Impossible to find line. Our sector is a solid white snow-bank of clouds.” (91-92)

Any optimism rising in a soldier’s heart on passing the abandoned trench shatters in bursts of machine-gun fire from the next one. Platoon leaders shout orders, incoming artillery blasts the ground, dirt and mud rain down on the soldier, who moves forward in a crouch. Boom! A thrown grenade silences the machine gun. Rifles fire in the fog, Pop! Pop! Tat! Tat! Pop!

Serpent is littered with gray-clad bodies, still and bleeding. Through the trench the men must trudge. The stench of mud and blood and human waste assails the nose. Up the other side, the soldiers look to their left and right. Comrades in the fog, still thick, dull gray before dawn.

The blasts of the rolling barrage more distant, the order cuts through the mist, and Company M advances the line into the next burst of machine-gun fire. Adrenaline pumps in the veins. Legs move without thought. Tat! Tat! Pop! Boom!

Constantinople is cleared. Wounds are dressed. Prisoners escorted to the rear. The dead are marked with a rifle, fixed bayonet thrust in the ground; regimental band members bearing stretchers are to follow. Again the order, again the men advance.

By the time they cleared the last machine gun from their sector of Enfer (French for “Hell”), the boys of Company M were combat veterans, and the sun had not yet risen over the blanket of fog that covered the battlefield on that first of what would be five days of fighting.

Passing Enfer, Kenamore writes, “The leading battalion pressed forward, cleaned out the Aden strongpoint [“Ouvr. d’Aden” (illegible) on the map, south-east of Varennes in square 42], and in the hopeless fog, and with artillery fire which they had met from the first were stopped before the well constructed defenses of Varennes. Many machine guns opened, and there was no chance to look ahead into the gloom.” (127)

 

Meanwhile, on the right half of the division sector, the 138th Regiment, according to orders, avoided Vauquois Hill, moving around its east flank. This was done to prevent delay in the advancing line. The task of taking the fortified hill and Rossignol Wood behind it was assigned to a battalion of the support regiment.

As our Third Battalion, 137th Regiment, cleared the trenches of the “V of Vauquois,” the Second Battalion of the 139th Regiment, followed close behind. This battalion, once the leading elements had passed Vauquois Hill, veered to the right behind it to attack from the flank.

Kenamore: “Never before or afterward did the 35th find a place better defended than Vauquois. It was the result of four years intensive work by the Germans.” (94)

“A high French officer told me their losses there probably totaled 40,000. It was known to be thoroughly mined, to have excavations and tunnels of great length for quick communication and transferal of troops from one point to another.” (79)

Whether it was the lengthy bombardment prior to attack, the threat of being surrounded, the hill’s reduced strategic importance since the introduction of the airplane, or a combination thereof, when Second Battalion arrived, the Butte of Vauquois was scarcely defended.

Kenamore describes the action in a broad stroke: “…[Second Battalion] had methodically cleaned [the dugouts of Vauquois] of all enemy elements, killing or capturing all defenders.” 128

Hoyt gives more detail: “[Second Battalion] had found Vauqois (sic) Hill and Bois de Rossignol comparatively easy to handle. In some of the dugouts the moppers-up had found Germans, none of which had shown much fight. They had bombed and cleaned them out as they went along, endeavoring to overlook as few as possible in the fog of impenetrable thickness.” (74)

The 139th’s Second Battalion rejoined its regiment at 9:30 a.m. south of Verennes. The four-year Battle of Vauquois was over.

French monument to the combatants and the dead of VauquoisBattle of Vauquois, September 3, 1914 - September 26, 1918

Summit of the Butte of Vauquois, showing German trenches (foreground), mine craters (middleground), and the French monument to the combatants and the dead of Vauquois (background)

  


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.

Next date:

September 26—The Fog of War

Choose your own path...


Prelude to Battle

“Each infantryman carried his rifle, bayonet, steel helmet and gas mask. He had 250 rounds of rifle ammunition, carried in a belt, and two bandoliers, each one swung over one shoulder and under the other arm. On his back was his combat pack, in his pack carrier. This contained his raincoat, if he was not wearing it, his mess-kit and two days’ ‘iron ration,’ which usually was two cans of corned beef and six boxes of hard bread.” Kenamore 88

Gear issued and packed the afternoon before the battle, Private Potts had a “large hot meal” with his comrades of the 137th Infantry Regiment, crouched in the Hesse Forest.

“After dark, the infantry moved forward through the woods in approximately the formation they were to employ the following day. The men lay down among the big guns and tried to sleep. Each one, according to orders, first loaded and locked his rifle.” (88, emphasis mine)

The initial artillery fire began at 11:30 p.m. The guns were aimed east of the Meuse and west of the Argonne Forest, that is, either side of the next day’s objective. It was deceptive fire, intended to make the enemy believe the assault would target those points. Hopefully, he would shift his reserve forces there.

“At 2:30 a.m. [on the 26th] all the other artillery concentrated between the Meuse River and Argonne Forest went into action.

“All adjectives fail to give even a fair impression of the awful grandeur of such artillerying. No combination of words is effective. It seemed that for a while the lid of Hell had been pushed back a little space. The long line on either hand leaped into flame, the horizon was lit by the bursting shells, and from the trenches where the enemy had lain so long there rose the many colored rockets with which he appealed to his guns for succor. What each signal meant I do not know, but they plentifully told the tale of his distress.” (89)

A steel chamber holds a brass shell. Inside it, a pin ignites propellant. The confined explosion shoots a projectile and a gout of flame from the 75mm (3-inch) bore. The gun jumps, the earth shudders, a shock wave shatters the air and accompanies a roar that bursts between the ears. Spent, the brass shell slides to the ground with a hallow shing! Another round replaces it and, as soon, ignites. Powder fumes permeate the air. Explosions count seconds across unending darkness.

In this infernal night lies our young private, waiting, suspended in time, between sleep and prayer.

 


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.

Next date:

September 26—Battle of Vauquois

Choose your own path...


Planning the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Below, I’ll detail the battle plan where it concerns Private B. F. Potts of Company M, 137th Infantry Regiment. For the moment, I’ll rely on Kenamore, who ably describes the stakes in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which will begin in two days—a hundred years ago.

At the conference of allied leaders when the great general attack was planned, the French commander in chief asked:

“Where will the American army fight in this battle?”

“Wherever you wish it to fight,” Gen. Pershing replied.

Gen. Foch then indicated the line between the Meuse and the Argonne, and asked if they would take that part of the line. Gen. Pershing assented. It was the part of the line where the heaviest fighting undoubtedly would be if the battle plans worked out, and if the judgment of the military men proved true. Every officer present knew that. The allies were at a point in the operation where a continuation of their strokes would drive the enemy out of France, or he would suffer disaster, possibly annihilation of his armies in the field. To get his armies out, he must maintain his communications, the four-track railroad at Mezieres in front of us, and the business of the Americans was to threaten, and if possible to cut his communications.

It was a field where there was a certainty of the hardest fighting. It was probable that the Germans would bring their best battalions there to make the vital fight. As a consequence, there could be no spectacular gains on the American front. Every foot of ground would be contested bitterly, and those who advanced must pay the price. While on other fronts, large and glittering gains would be made in a day, it would be against a retreating foe, and he would be retreating all the more hurriedly because of the pressure the Americans were bringing on his vitals. The enemy could not retreat on our front. If he did, we would cut his railroads and the French and British to the west of us would capture his armies. It was with a full understanding of what was ahead that the American commander took this post of high honor, where hard blows were to be given and taken, and where there was little to gain.

From Vauquois Hill to Exermont 76-77

American and Allied Attacks on the Western Front September-November 1918French General Foch’s plan to push the German Army out of his country; the American First Army is in the south near Verdun

Between the rivers Aisne and Meuse, the I, III, and V Corps of the American First Army were positioned across a 20-mile front. Each corps had three divisions on the line. I Corps’ 77th, 28th, and 35th Divisions held the left, from the Aisne to the Butte of Vauquois. At the foot of the butte, also called Vauquois Hill, the 35th was arrayed for battle.

Plan of Attack  American First ArmyThe American Sector

Part of I Corps, the 35th Division is positioned east of the Argonne Forest

According to Pershing’s plan, the First Army’s nine in-line divisions were to advance at 5:30 a.m., following an artillery preparation. In industrial age battles, artillery fire is used to “prepare the terrain” prior to an infantry advance. Lasting from a few minutes to a few hours, an artillery barrage destroys fixed works and equipment, blows holes in barbed wire barriers, and disrupts enemy activity at intersections in his communication lines. Where it doesn’t injure or kill the enemy, it puts the fear of God into him.

At the time of attack, “H-hour”, the artillery shifts its fire to what’s called a “rolling barrage.” This is a line of devastation 100 meters (roughly 100 yards) in front of the advancing infantrymen, which, in this case, is supposed to move at 100 meters every four minutes. It’s rare that the artillery men can see the line. Therefore, the infantry is obliged to advance at the set pace. Too slow, and he loses the artillery’s shock advantage; too fast, and he becomes victim to it.

Having received the order from I Corps forty-eight hours prior, 35th Division Headquarters issued orders to regimental commanders in the afternoon of September 24, 1918. In his Reminiscences of the 137th U. S. Infantry, Carl E. Haterius reproduces the 35th Division’s “Secret Field Orders,” which detail the attack plan (127-144).

The 35th Division would attack in “column of brigades,” meaning each of its two brigades would span the division sector, one behind the other. The 69th Brigade would lead; the 70th would follow in support.

Within brigades, regiments were to advance “side by side, each with one battalion in the first line, one in support, and one in reserve.” (128) Therefore, the division sector was divided in two. The 69th’s 138th Regiment, on the right, would take Vauquois Hill. On the left, the 137th, headquartered at Buzemont, 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.

The 137th Regiment’s twelve companies were divided into three battalions. First Battalion, Companies A through D, was assigned to the brigade reserve. Second Battalion, Companies E through H, would support Third Battalion—Companies I through M, which would lead.

From the field orders: “Parallel of departure for leading battalions—a line approximately 500 meters from the enemy’s front line trenches…” (139)

In the sector, the stretch of wounded earth between opposing trenches, called “No Man’s Land,” was approximately 500 meters wide. Private B. F. Potts and his comrades of Company M were on its edge.

 


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.

 Next date:

September 25—Prelude to Battle


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

Choose your own path...


A Potts Family Day of Thanks

“One day they came upon a building during a rain storm, and the guys wanted to seek shelter there. The captain forbade them from entering, so they slept in the field that night about 100 yards away. In the middle of the night, the building was destroyed by an artillery shell, and Ben received a dent in his helmet from what he thought was a piece of wood.”—Bruce Potts

September 15, 1918, the 35th Infantry Division moved during the night, as all movement now must be kept secret from enemy surveillance, into the Charmentois area on “motorbuses.” Kenamore describes the vehicles as, “…those immense lumbering cars which were stripped from the streets of London and Paris at the beginning of the war, and which had rambled all over the North of France since, hauling soldiers to many threatened fields carrying wounded back and at times playing the part of trucks and taking supplies forward.” (72)

Maybe Benjamin Potts and his buddies made jokes and pretended to be tourists, tipping their helmets back, pointing out the windows, imagining a more lovely landscape beyond the darkness.

“My goodness, Henrietta, have you ever seen such beautiful scenery?” says one soldier.

Another replies in falsetto, “Never in my life, George. I’m so glad you convinced me to go on vacation in France!”

“Most folks prefer the south of France,” says another, “but I must say the north is more to my liking.”

And still another, “All this site-seeing makes a man thirsty—Garse-on, une beer, see-voo-play!

Maybe they all had a good laugh. Maybe they slept.

“At this stopping place [Charmentois], which was also out of doors, the air bombs became more frequent.” (Kenamore 72)

From Charmentois, “The Sixty-ninth Brigade [including Private Potts’s 137th Regiment] moved up near Auzeville [oh-zay-veel] on the night of Sept. 19-20, and the next night the remainder of the division went to the neighborhood of Grace-le-Comte (sic) Farm and into the woods east of Beauchamp, where the division relieved the Seventy-third French Division in charge of the sector.” (Kenamore 72)

This movement was on foot. On the front now, the 35th was in range of artillery fire, and enemy planes made nighttime bombing raids over the countryside. The night of September 19 may be the earliest occasion for an officer’s order, a soldier’s discipline, and Private Potts’s steel helmet to take the dent in place of his skull.

I wonder, if it had happened differently, in what body would my soul now inhabit?

 


Auzéville Grange-le-Comte Ferme BeauchampPortion of a map, la Carte de l’état major, circa 1850, showing the area around Auzéville, France, including Grange-le-Comte Farm (right) and Beauchamp (left)

In the following current satellite image, Auzéville, the farm, the woods, and Beauchamp appear unchanged; perhaps a destination for a future pilgrimage

Auzéville Grange-le-Comte Ferme Beauchamp Today


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. 

 Next date:

September 24—Planning the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Choose your own path...


Special Job for Private Potts

It’s difficult to imagine the Grandpa I knew as a young man, in the prime of his youth, in the uniform of a World War I infantryman. But there he is.

Private Potts’s medium frame fills the olive drab wool service tunic, with narrow, standing collar, five buttons up the front, and dressed over matching breeches. Russet colored leather leggings wrap the calf, topping hobnailed brogan boots, also russet leather. The private’s rank is shown by the lack of insignia on his sleeve.

Unseen, a pair of aluminum tags hang around his neck on a cord, tucked beneath the tunic. Each, the size of a half dollar, is stamped with the soldier’s name, rank, serial number, and unit. In the event of his death, one of these tags stays with the body, while the other is used to record the casualty. This grim necklace would eventually be removed for the last time by Ben Potts, civilian.

The wide brim of a shallow-crowned steel helmet, fastened with a leather chin strap, shields blue eyes from the sun or, more often, from rain. When the soldier finds occasion to grin, his ears perk up, raising the brim.

Like the WWII and Vietnam-era “steel pot” helmet with which we’re familiar from so many movies, the WWI helmet, with its characteristic wide brim, wasn’t intended to stop bullets. It would protect the head from flying debris, including shrapnel, sometimes. Not until the introduction of the Kevlar helmet in 1983 could a soldier hope his headgear might keep high-velocity lead outside the brain pan.

It’s in company formation where Private B. F. Potts stands out. In the ranks, every man looks identical: standing at attention, heels together, arms to the sides, fingers curled, chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in, eyes front. Inspecting the troops prior to battle, a captain peers down at the top of a helmet.

“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.

In the maneuver warfare that would push the opponent from the field and, thereby, win the war, soldiers often meet the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. The rifle, bayonet fixed, becomes a spear and a club. This is a contest between “the quick and the dead.” It is a contest won by larger men.

Hand-to-hand combat training at Camp GordonHand-to-hand combat training, Camp Gordon, c. 1917

Also in maneuver warfare, communication between commanders on the battlefield is key to victory. Orders are given and units move forward, engaging the enemy. As the battle develops, orders are changed; new orders must be given. Whereas wires link telephones in the trenches, no such luxury is afforded commanders of units on the move. These commanders write orders and messages on paper and rely on an agile—and often lucky—soldier to avoid artillery, bullets, and getting lost to deliver the missive.

The messenger was often called a “runner.” The soldier with a low profile makes a better runner.

“Fall out, Private Potts. I have a special job for you.”

 

The dialog above is fictional. In one of Grandpa’s oft-cited stories (which I’ll let my cousins Bruce and John tell in a future installment), the infantryman, wishing to visit his brother in a field hospital, gets permission from a certain artillery officer. In another story, the private is alone when he encounters an enemy soldier.

If we are to accept the man’s hundred-year-old stories as truth—and if we do not, we might as well have not set out on our present journey—then we may desire to render plausible the infantryman’s connection to the artillery officer, as well as the solo encounter with the enemy. I propose that Private Potts was selected to be a runner.

At my prompting, Bruce asked Uncle Jesse if Grandpa was a runner. The response was affirmative. Bruce writes, “…he was a messenger, traveling from camp to camp, often under fire when he was crawling through fields.”

Here, we are accepting the risk that, instead of prompting the recollection, we created a false memory with the question. So, that Private Potts was a runner is, as far as I’m aware, new information, albeit obtained second-hand and a hundred years after the fact. Skepticism on that point is justified. The anecdotes remain.

 


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.

 Next date:

September 19—A Potts Family Day of Thanks


Survey of U.S. Army Uniforms, Weapons and Accoutrements, David Cole

Choose your own path...