French Connection: Charles Hale's Newfound Family During World War I

In 1917, a bout with pneumonia changed the life of an Army private from Radnor.

U.S. soldiers at St. Nazaire, France, march to a transport headed for home in 1919.

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War brings people together—to kill each other, yes, but also for more benign ends. Strangers share foxholes and remain friends for the rest of their livaes. G.I. meets WAC on the floor of some USO dance hall, and suddenly war is romantic.

In 1917, a 19-year-old Army private from Radnor fell into the bosom of a local family while serving at St. Nazaire, France, with advance elements of the American Exped-itionary Force—and it may have saved his life. “I don’t know exactly what caused the bond of friendship to warm so quickly,” wrote Charles Walton Hale in This Was My War, Mother, a small book of remembrances published in 1957. “Perhaps it was because I’ve always loved children, obvious in my genuine affection for tiny Colette (the Benne family’s 5-year-old daughter); was a bit homesick; put on my best behavior. Or perhaps the Benne family saw in me a homely boy who sought only companionship among homely folk like those he left in America.”

Born in 1898, Hale was the son of George Hale, a harness maker whose shop stood on the south side of Lancaster Avenue, opposite Wayne Presbyterian Church. The family lived on Aberdeen Avenue near the railroad tracks.

According to Charles “Chick” Hale Jr., the family arrived in Radnor early in the Civil War. “I think they came from Virginia or Maryland,” said Hale, who described his ancestors as Unionists. “My guess is that George had been a successful man in the South, but up North developed his skill as a harness maker.”

When war was declared in 1917, young Hale was a senior at Radnor High School. He immediately dropped out and lied about his age to enlist. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, which, in World War I, was mainly about stringing wire and operating telephones. Such was his faith in the invincibility of America that he fully believed “our mere presence” would allow the Allies to win the war.

“I was ready for it!” wrote Hale. “I had followed with reverence the thinning columns of white-haired, blue-clad veterans of the Civil War every Memorial Day since I could remember. I had listened with rapture to patriotic oratory each Fourth of July in our hometown. When the brass band struck up a martial air on these occasions, I could never control the tingling in my blood or the rhythm that commanded my feet to march, my eyes glued to Old Glory rippling and waving at the head of the line.”

In World War I, St. Nazaire was an unloading port for Allied troops, particularly the U.S. Army. It was also the scene of a near-diplomatic incident between France and the Americans when the latter placed St. Nazaire’s legal brothels off-limits to U.S. troops. Brothel owners, backed by the mayor, protested the loss of business. When the dispute escalated, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau proposed to Gen. John Pershing that American medical authorities control designated brothels reserved solely for U.S. troops.

Pershing’s aide passed the idea up to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, who eventually approved. But, according to historian Fred D. Baldwin, Baker ordered the details kept from the famously prudish Woodrow Wilson. “For God’s sake, Raymond,” said Baker, “don’t show this to the president or he’ll stop the war.”

Hale’s booklet doesn’t mention the brothels, but he seems to have loved the area. “With August 1917 came good weather and off-duty hours in which to hike from camp into the city,” he recalled. “There were new people to see, souvenirs to send home, sights to wonder at, picturesque native costumes, wooden shoes and a new language to learn. All these things I hungrily crowded into my mental notebook, almost as though I were fearful that some sight or sound in this strange and wonderful land might escape me.”

U.S. troops were still relatively few. The first American units didn’t go into battle until October, not taking part in major offensives until 1918. So there was time for sightseeing. Pedal power allowed Hale to move about easily, and so he returned to Pere Benne’s bicycle shop again and again. “While our battalion was being equipped and outfitted for field duty, I was privileged to visit often with this kind and generous family,” he wrote, “to carry petite Colette about on my shoulder, sometimes rock her to sleep at night, to learn something of essential French from sisters Marcelle and Jean and brothers Rene and Edmond.”

The Bennes laughed at Hale’s inability to pronounce the French “r.” Hale, in turn, was amused by the Bennes’ inability to say his name, Charlie, which came out as “Shar-lee.”

Back in Wayne, Hale’s mother was thrilled to learn that her son had fallen into the nurturing hands of Pere Benne’s middle-aged daughter, Germaine. “I was young, living for today,” he wrote. “But for slender, erect, capable, gentle Germaine, who had adopted me as her ‘war son,’ those months ahead were ever a real concern. Many times since 1914, she had seen boys like me go out from their families and never return.”

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