This article is about only one chapter in the lives of my great-grandparents, Joseph “Dode” Bolton (1853-1920) and his wife, Margaret Claxton (Clarkson) Bolton (1851-1920.) That chapter is the life, and death, of their son, Samuel Estwell H. Bolton (1894-1918). Samuel gave his life for his country in World War I.
This week, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of that war, not something one would celebrate, but something to give us pause to reflect upon those who died for the cause of freedom.
In London this week, the Tower of London is decorated with hundreds of thousands of poppies, 888,246, to be exact, to remember, and honor each British soldier who perished. The red “Remembrance Poppy” has been used since 1920 to commemorate those killed in war. Poppies bloomed across the battlefields in France after the horrific battles of WWI, symbolizing the bloodshed there.
Additionally, 116,516 Americans died in WWI, among them, Samuel Bolton from Hancock County, Tennessee, my grandmother’s younger brother.
Joseph Bolton and Margaret Clarkson (Claxton) Bolton had 10 or 11 children, but only one died in the service of their country, and that one was Samuel. A second son served in WWII, after their deaths.
Joseph and Margaret has been married more than 20 years when Samuel arrived on June 12, 1894. He had a younger sibling as well, although the 1910 census shows Sammie as the youngest at that time. He wasn’t in 1900, as the 8th Civil District, Hancock Co., TN, shows.
The 1900 census shows Sammie, listed as Estwell, his middle name, age 5, with younger brother Henry. Samuel’s middle initial, H., probably stood for Henry as well. I wonder if his parents changed his middle name from Estwell to Henry after Henry died.
The 1910 census shows Sammie as the youngest child at home. It looks like Henry has died, and the daughter, Cerenia that family oral history shows as the youngest child, was never shown on a census. Regardless, it looks like Sammie is their youngest child in 1910, the baby of the family.
The 1910 census also shows us that they lived on Back Valley Road, very near the intersection with the main Mulberry Road in Hancock County, Tennessee not terribly far from the Claiborne County border.
When Sammie enlisted in the service in September of 1917, two days after his father’s 64th birthday, it’s difficult to surmise how his parents felt.
I’m sure that while they were swelled with pride, they were also more than a little apprehensive. In addition, they were older people and losing help on the farm meant more work for them that they might not have been physically able to do. Margaret, I’m sure, cried as she saw her baby leave, on his way to defend his country. Having lost her youngest child or children already, did she know that he would never come home? Was she worried? Did she have a mother’s second sense?
Samuel’s military record is so cold and lifeless. Just the facts.
Bolton, Samuel H.;
Service: Over Seas
Residence: Sneedville, Tennessee
Inducted: Sneedville, Tennessee on 9/20/1917
Born: Tazewell, Tennessee
Age: 23 years, 4 months
Organization: Hq Company 328th Infantry, 9/21/1917-10/14/1917; Company A 117th Infantry to 10/18/1918.
Grade: Private 9/20/1917; Private 1st Class Mch. January 1918.
Overseas service: 5/11/1918-10/8/1918
Killed in Action 10/8/1918.
Person notified of death: Joseph B. Bolton, Father, RFD #1, Hoop, Tennessee
Person notified of death – Joseph B. Bolton, Father – what a terrible visit to receive.
It was in Europe, in France, the furthest, I’m sure, that any Bolton had ever been from home, that Samuel would perish.
Cousin Dillis found a wonderful summary of Samuel’s unit written by Billie McNamara. It tells us what Samuel was doing, and when. I wonder if his parents ever had this level of information, or if they simply knew that he died. They both died just 16 months after Samuel’s death, and only 16 days apart.
Samuel served in the 117th Infantry, known at the Third Tennessee Infantry, headquartered out of Knoxville. Called into service, they recruited heavily and left with the new recruits for Camp Sevier, SC in September of 1917.
The first part of the work at Camp Sevier was clearing a camp from a pine forest. All military drill was impossible until the large pine trees and undergrowth had been removed and the holes leveled. This hard physical work proved excellent for the men, as they hardened into fine condition and most of them gained in weight. After fair grounds had been prepared, a strenuous daily schedule of infantry drill was carried out, discipline stiffened, and during the winter and spring of 1918, instruction was given by English officers and noncommissioned officers in trench warfare. During the winter, which was a very severe one, one officer and twenty-nine enlisted men died from disease, principally pneumonia.
Orders were received May 2, 1918, to entrain for duty overseas, and on the night of May 10, 1918, the regiment went on board transports at New York.
I expect that Sammie, like many of the men, wrote a letter home to his parents during this time between receiving orders and shipping out. He probably also sent a picture of himself proudly wearing his uniform. Most servicemen did. I would love to know what he was thinking. Was he welcoming the adventure for which he had been training, or did he dread and fear the possible conflict that was waiting? Was he confident, like so many, that we would “kick their butts?” Did he put on a brave face for his parents, or perhaps try to persuade them that they didn’t need to worry about him and he would see them soon.
Some ten days later, after an attack by submarines off the Irish Coast, in which the convoy escaped without loss, landing was made at Liverpool, England, where special trains carried the regiment straight through London to Folkestone. Transports ferried it across the English Channel by night to Calais, France. American equipment was turned in there and British was issued in its stead. The Thirtieth Division was one of seven American divisions which were concentrated in the British area for training and for use in case the Germans made their threatened drive for the Channel ports. The enemy was said to have 20 divisions at this time just back of Ypres, ready to make this attack, but their withdrawal was made necessary later by the allied resistance on other parts of the front.
This is the sight that would have greeted Samuel in Ypres. This is all that remained of Ypres, the cathedral in the center of the picture, and below, after Germans had shelled it for four years. He had probably never seen the devastation of war. Now, he was seeing it first hand. It looked like the apocalypse. If the reality of the situation hadn’t set in before, it surely did now. I would suspect it was a very somber, quiet unit that surveyed this scene spread before them.
The 117th proceeded from Calais to Norbecourt, where, under British officers and non-commissioned officers, the officers and men of the regiment were trained strenuously for five weeks. Detachments went up from time to time to the Canal Sector, between Ypres and Mont Kemmel, for front line work. This was most important, for it gave the regiment some experience in actual warfare before it was ordered later to take over a part of the line.
About July 1, 1918, the Thirtieth Division was ordered to move into Belgium. The 59th Brigade, which crossed the border on July 4, was the first unit of American forces to enter the war-torn little country, which bore the first assault of the German attack in the world war.
The 117th was assigned to Tunneling Camp, where it was given its final training in trench warfare and in attacking strong points. After a few days of this work, the regiment was ordered into the battle line. One battalion held the front line trenches, another was kept in support, while the third was held in reserve on the East Popperinghe Line. The battalions alternated in these positions for twenty-four days, each receiving the same amount of real front line work. On August 17, when it became evident that the Americans were fully able to handle the situation, the sector was turned over to the Thirtieth Division by the Thirty-third British Division, which had been stationed in the line there. The extent of the sector was from the southern outskirts of Ypres to Voormezeele and was known as the Canal Sector.
With the exception of a limited offensive, conducted in cooperation with the British, in which Mont Kemmel was outflanked, Voormezeele captured, and an advance of about 1500 yards made, the Thirtieth Division was purely on the defensive in all the fighting in Belgium. Yet this type of warfare was, perhaps, the most harassing through which it went during the whole war. The Germans knew the location of every trench, and their artillery played upon them day and night. Night bombers also made this a very uncomfortable sector, for they dropped tons of explosives both upon the front and at the rear. There was little concealment on either side, because this part of Belgium was very flat. Artificial camouflage provided what little deception was practiced upon the enemy.
The casualties of the 117th in the two months in which it was stationed in the Canal Sector were not heavy. Only a few men were killed, and the number of wounded was less than 100. King George of England and Field Marshal Haig, commander of the English armies, honored the regiment with a visit and made an inspection of its companies, shown below.
So, it would appear that Samuel met, or at least saw, King George.
On the night of September 4, the 117th, together with the other units of the division, was withdrawn from the English Second Army and placed in British G. H. Q. reserve. The next two weeks were given to intensive training with tanks, with a view to coming offensive operations with them.
September 1st, trucks and busses were provided and the regiment moved through Albert, Bray, and Peronne to near Tincourt, just back of the celebrated Hindenburg Line. The Thirtieth and Twenty-seventh Divisions, which were the only American division left with the British, were assigned now to the British Fourth Army, General Rawlinson commanding, for the great attack which was soon to be launched at this most vital and highly fortified part of the whole line. They were fresh, they had shown their mettle in the defensive operations in Belgium, and so they were chosen for the spearhead of the attack.
They had earned the honor.
The 59th Brigade went into the line first, relieving the Australians on the night of September 26. The 118th Infantry took over the front line, with the 117th Infantry in close support. The casualties of the latter were rather heavy from gas shells in making the relief, one company losing 62 men to the hospital.
The celebrated Hindenburg Line, which the German commander-in-chief, General von Hindenburg, built as a great defensive system to hold against capture of France and Belgium east of it, extended from the English Channel to the Swiss border. It was not a local defensive system at all. Yet at various parts of the line there were key positions, dominating a large area, the fortifications of which had been made much stronger. The area between St. Quentin and Cambrai held the key to the German defenses on the northern end of the line. It was fortified accordingly with all the ingenuity and deviltry of the Hun mind.
View of Bellicourt, above: In lower left hand corner is entrance to the formidable Hindenburg Tunnel.
Soldiers on the road beside the Hindenburg Tunnel, protected by barbed wire, on October 4, 1918.
In front of Bellicourt, near the center of the American sector of attack, the Hindenburg Line, which curved west of the St. Quentin Canal, consisted of three main trench systems, each protected by row after row of barbed wire entanglements. These trench systems were on high ground and gave the Germans the advantage of being able to sweep the whole area in front of them with machine guns. Along the canal were concrete machine gun emplacements. Back of this formidable system of defenses was the canal tunnel, built by Napoleon in 1802-10 and running underground for a distance of three miles. From this tunnel there were thirty-eight exits, each carefully camouflaged.
The tunnel was lighted by electricity, a narrow gauge railroad brought in supplies from the outside, while canal boats provided quarters for a large number of men. Thus there was complete shelter for a large garrison of the enemy against heavy shelling, and in case of a real attack, an almost impregnable defense.
The attack upon this part of the line was set for the morning of September 29, 1918. The 27th American Division was on the left, the 46th British on the right of the 30th American Division. The American sector passed across the tunnel, but the British on the right and left were prepared to swim the canal in case no bridges were found to afford them passage. The assault of the infantry upon these fortifications was to be preceded by a bombardment of 72 hours — with gas shells for 24 hours and with shell and shrapnel from light and heavy artillery for 48 hours.
In the Thirtieth Division sector, the 119th and 120th Infantry were assigned to make the opening attack, with the 117th Infantry following in close support, and prepared to exploit their advance after the canal had been crossed. The 118th Infantry was held in reserve. The 119th Infantry had the left half of the sector, while the 120th, strengthened by Company H, of the 117th, covered the right half. In addition to his regimental strength, Colonel Spence, of the 117th, had under his command for the attack 92 guns of Australian artillery, 24 British tanks, and two extra machine gun companies. The plan of battle was that the regiment, following the 120th, should cross the canal between Bellicourt on the left and the entrance to the canal on the right, then turn at right angles, and proceed southeasterly down the main Hindenburg Line trench, mopping up this territory of the enemy for about a mile. Connection was to be made with the British on the right, if they succeeded in crossing the canal.
The facts of the case are that this paper plan of battle worked out somewhat differently under battle conditions. Most of the assaulting companies became badly confused in the deep fog and smoke, strayed off somewhat from their objectives, and their attack swung to the left of the sector. The 117th, which followed, went off in the opposite direction fortunately and cleaned out a territory which otherwise would have been left undisturbed. While it caused endless confusion and the temporary intermingling of platoons, companies, and even regiments, this pall of mist and smoke on the morning of the attack undoubtedly contributed to the success of the battle. The Germans did not know how to shoot accurately, for no targets were visible. During the morning hours it was impossible for a man to see his hand more than a few inches in front of him. Men in the combat groups joined hands to avoid being lost from each other. Officers were compelled, in orienting their maps, to lay them on the ground, as it was impossible to read them while standing in the dense cloud of smoke and mist. The atmosphere did not clear up completely until after the canal had been crossed.
The barrage for the attack went down at 5:50 a.m. The First Battalion, under Major Dyer, jumped off promptly on time, with C and D Companies in the line, A and B Companies in support. The Second Battalion followed at about 500 yards, while the Third Battalion, with a company of engineers, was held in reserve on the crest of a hill. The tanks, for the most part, became separated from the infantry, but their work was invaluable in plowing through the barbed wire, which had been cut up very little by the barrage. Like nearly everyone else, the tanks lost sense of direction in the smoke and fog cloud, while the majority of them were disabled before noon of the 29th.
Past the Hindenburg Line, members of Co.”K,” 117th Infantry, digging themselves in for the night after an advance which started in the morning at Molain, France.
The taking of the Hindenburg Tunnel was a turning point in the war. The Australians who had units present as well document the events, with maps, here. Fallen American soldiers on the 29th, shown below. I wonder if placing crosses on the bodies was a symbolic tradition or was simply a signal that “this one needs to be buried.”
Most of the morning was consumed by the 117th in clearing out the area south and west of the tunnel entrance. Some units, mistaking one of the trench systems for the canal, turned southward before actually reaching the genuine canal. They cleaned out thoroughly the Germans, who were in this pocket, but toward 10 o’clock turned northward and began to pass over the tunnel, the left flank skimming Bellicourt and the right crossing near the tunnel entrance.
The casualties of the 117th on September 29 were 26 officers and 366 men. Seven field pieces, 99 machine guns, 7 anti-tank rifles, many small arms and 592 German prisoners were the trophies of the day. Though the casualties were rather heavy, in view of the machine gun and artillery resistance which the Germans offered from powerfully held positions, they should be regarded as rather light. With a clear day, without fog or smoke, they would have been double or treble this number.
American and Australian soldiers at the entrance to the breached Hindenburg Tunnel, October 4, 1918.
The 117th was relieved from the line about noon of October 1, and before night the regiment was on its way back to the Herbicourt area on the Somme River for rest and reorganization. This period, however, was very brief, for on October 5 orders were issued to relieve an Australian brigade.
The offensive of the division, with the 59th Brigade making the attack, was scheduled for the morning of October 8.
This is the day Samuel Bolton would die.
The 59th Brigade offensive was launched the morning of October 8, the 117th on the left, the 118th on the right. The British were on the flanks. The jumping off line was northeast of Wiancourt, while the objective was slightly beyond Premont. The First Battalion of the 117th launched the attack for the regiment, the Second Battalion was in close support, while the Third Battalion, which had been cut up badly the day before, was in reserve. The attack got off on time in spite of the difficulties that were encountered the previous night in getting into position under fire and in the dark.
The attack started before six o’clock in the morning, after a heavy barrage had been laid down by the accompanying artillery. In spite of heavy shelling by German machine guns and artillery on both flanks, especially from the towns of Ponchaux and Geneve, the companies made fairly good gains during the day, fighting almost every foot of the way.
In the face of furious German resistance with all kinds of machine gun nests and an abundance of light artillery, the battalions advanced very rapidly, skillfully knocking out machine guns and maneuvering to the best advantage over the broken ground. The Second Battalion suffered heavy losses during the morning and two companies of the brigade reserve were ordered to its support. Before noon Major Hathaway, who commanded it, announced the capture of Premont and his arrival at the prescribed objective. Positions were consolidated during the afternoon and preparations made for a possible counter-attack.
Today, the scene n the road between Wiancourt and Premont, near Ponchaux, looks idyllic, but on October 8th, 1914, it was pure and utter hell.
This operation was a very costly one, perhaps the most bloody of the whole division in proportion to the number of men engaged, for out of the battalion, 12 officers and about 400 men were either killed or wounded. The casualties of the 117th on October 8 were the heaviest of any day of fighting in which it was engaged on the front.
For Samuel Bolton, the war ended on October 8th, but for the rest of the 117th, it continued the next day beginning at daybreak.
During these three days of fighting, October 7, 8, and 9, the regiment lost 34 officers and 1051 men as casualties. A count of the spoils taken included 113 machine guns, 28 field pieces, 907 small arms and about 800 prisoners. The great majority of the latter, 703, were captured on October 8, showing that on the final day the men, enraged by the losses of their comrades the day previous, killed most of the Germans they took. This became not an uncommon practice in the latter days of fighting, especially against the German machine gunners, who would kill or wound from their place of concealment a half platoon or more of men before their gun was located and put out of action. This custom of taking no prisoners was confined to no single regiment, but became common practice throughout the division.
Samuel’s trip home began on October 8th. I don’t know how long it took in those days to notify family of a death, but it certainly wasn’t by telephone.
Cousin Dillis indicated that at that time, officers would have visited the family to deliver the news in person. This regiment was out of Knoxville, so the men who would have made that sad trip would have had to have gotten as far as Springdale in Claiborne County, where Little Sycamore Road turns to the east to enter the labyrinth of backroads into the mountains.
They probably had to stop at the store or the gas station at Springdale and ask directions. That means, of course, that everyone at the store knew where they were going, and could easily surmise why, if the men didn’t tell them outright. Many of the Bolton cousins lived down Little Sycamore, on the side roads, up the mountains and in the valleys, between Springdale and Hoop Creek where Joseph and Margaret lived, assuming they had moved from Back Valley Road since the 1910 census. In fact, the men would pass by the Plank Cemetery, on Little Sycamore Road, where Samuel’s remains would rest, under these trees, and just a few months later, those of his parents as well. Samuel’s grandfather, Joseph Bolton, Sr., who died in 1887 was already waiting there.
As they neared the intersection of Back Valley Road and Mulberry Gap Road, they would have had to ask again, at least once – as houses didn’t have numbers at that time and these men weren’t familiar with local roads that were often more like 2 tracks..
If Joseph and Margaret had moved to Hoop Creek between the 1910 census and 1918, then they would have had to ask directions at Hoop Creek Road. Back Valley, Hoop Creek and Rebel Holler roads all interconnect is a mountaintop and mountainside interwoven maze that is impossible for anyone but locals to navigate, even today.
When the car pulled up in front of the house, if Joseph and Margaret were home, they would have likely known immediately that someone had arrived. The chickens in the yard scattered and the dogs began to bark. They would have looked outside to see who, in a car, had arrived, and when they saw the uniforms, they would have known. Margaret would have begun to cry. Their son Estel, age 30, a machinist, lived at home in the 1920 census, so he likely lived at home in 1918 as well. Perhaps he was in the barn that day, and came to the house when he saw the car as well. The neighbors, of course, already knew because they had given directions to the gentlemen in uniform to find Joseph Bolton’s house. They were already preparing to come to the house to comfort the family as soon as the car left. The grapevine already had the news.
Sometime later, Samuel’s body would have arrived home, in a coffin, with a flag draped over it. The brothers and sisters who lived distant, like my grandmother who was living in Chicago by then, would have been summoned home, and the Bolton family would have gathered to say their goodbyes in the Plank Cemetery. My father, William Sterling Estes and his brother, Joseph “Dode” Estes were also serving in the war, so it’s unlikely that either of them were able to attend Samuel’s funeral. Ironically, Ollie Bolton Estes, my grandmother, had named one of her children Samuel, and that Samuel had died as well.
Just one month and 3 days after Samuel’s death, the armistice was signed, signaling the end of WWI. Was that bittersweet for his parents? While Samuel Bolton didn’t survive to return home, the heavy fighting and breach and taking of the Hindenburg Tunnel were certainly part and parcel in turning the tide of the war, defeating Germany, so his death was certainly not in vain. If anything, Joseph and Margaret Bolton could take pride that their son had played a critical role in changing the world, and the tide of world affairs, for the better. But that’s awfully hard to convey to grieving parents.
Samuel’s unit spent the winter in Europe, just in case they were needed, returning home to celebrate their return with parades in Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga and throughout Eastern Tennessee in April of 1919. Sadly, Samuel wasn’t among them. I wonder if Joseph and Margaret attended any of the celebratory events or if it was just too painful for them.
The 177th lost a total of 2184 officers and men in September and October of 1918. The regiment’s total advance into hostile territory was 11-2/3 miles and the towns captured by it were Premont, Busigny and Molaine.
In a sense, Joseph and Margaret were one of the lucky ones – their son’s body was returned, or I presume that it was because he does have a grave marker. I guess one should never assume. If a local newspaper could be found, articles would likely answer that question. A surprising number of dead were never sent home – many were simply buried where they fell or nearby. The number of WWI dead was unprecedented, especially in what came to be known as the “100 Days Offensive” that preceded the end of the war. Remains continue to be found today.
This page discusses the WWI war dead, battlefields and burials.
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, yes, that’s her real name, is a professional genealogist who specialized in repatriating remains of soldiers. She is probably best known for finding the Irish roots of Barack Obama, but her love and calling into this profession was through using DNA to identify the families of soldiers’ remains from the various wars, so that the bodies of the soldiers can be returned to their families and given a burial at home.
I asked Megan if she works on many WWI cases. After all, it has been 96 years since that war, the “War to End All Wars,” ended.
Megan said, “Most of my cases (over 1,000) have been WWII & Korean War. In the early days, I had a fair number of Southeast Asia ones, and very rarely, I’ve had WWI cases. I’ve been to one funeral for a WWI case – a fellow originally from Ireland. So it happens, but not terribly often.”
As the child of an Army family, it’s somehow fitting that repatriation was her calling into genetic genealogy.
“It was the Army’s repatriation efforts that first got me into DNA – 15 years ago now! I knew I wanted to write “Trace Your Roots with DNA” in 2001, but disciplined myself to wait because I knew folks weren’t ready for it yet. Spent 2 years getting articles and talks on DNA rejected even though I was already established. Ah, memories! But as an Army brat myself, I’ve always loved the application that first drew me to DNA. Still love it when any of my fellows get identified after all these years.”
I find it fitting though, that the DNA of the families, of the mothers, or the sisters, in particular is used to identify and return these soldiers. There is never much question about maternal parentage, so the mother’s mitochondrial DNA is utilized. Furthermore, mitochondrial DNA is much more easily extracted from decomposed remains – and the most likely DNA to survive intact. So, fittingly, it’s the mother who ultimately brings her son home.
Rest in peace Samuel, and thank you.
Acknowledgements to Pam Bolton for providing the Descendants of Henry Bolton Facebook page and Dillis Bolton for information provided in this article.