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.

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 Leviathan Hoboken Sept 29 1918

 


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...


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...