An online antique book auction brought to mind how Franco-American veterans served during World Wars I and II in France.

The auction offered a French language help pamphlet published for World War I American soldiers who were fighting in France.  Perhaps a similar version was supplied to World War II soldiers as well.

My surprisingly modest bid won the auction, and I promptly received “First Aid French for American Soldiers,” printed in 1917, with a copyright by Victor Talking Machine Co., of Camden NJ. It’s a brown, palm-sized bound pamphlet, packed with helpful phrases. Each French phrase is translated with phonetics to help make pronunciations easier.

It’s likely the booklet came with a phonograph recording, because instructions are provided about how to listen to the various pronunciations. An explanation of how to speak with a French accent states that, “Picking up the correct accent of any foreign language is like picking up a new tune in music.”

An introductory note explains how the American soldier in France “will be cared for by his own officers, his own commissariat, his own hospitals.” But, the note continues, “there will be many times when knowledge of French may be not only desirable but extremely necessary.” 

One can only imagine where this pamphlet has been since 1917. Obviously, it was created to help American soldiers who had no knowledge of French. 

Of course, Franco-American soldiers were among the many thousands of World War I and World War II Americans who fought to defend France. These French-speaking soldiers didn’t always need the help of a translation book. In fact, in 1917, the Franco-American soldiers were largely first-generation immigrants who already knew the native language of their French-Canadian relatives.  In York County alone, the Franco-American genealogical society lists over a thousand Franco-Americans who served in both world wars, and most of them came from French speaking families. 

In my husband’s family, my Franco-American father-in-law, William L’Heureux of Sanford, served with the 73rd Infantry during World War I, at Camp Devens, Mass.  His infantry unit was held back from deploying to France because of the massive influenza pandemic, which caused thousands of deaths. (An account of the Camp Devens incident is reported in the book “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” by John M. Barry).  

Tragically, my husband’s Franco-American uncle, Napoleon Morin, was 19 years old when he was among thousands of young American soldiers killed in France on August 8, 1918, during the Second Battle of the Marne. His mother, Emma Morin of Biddeford, received a typed death notice which we have preserved as a family treasure. It was written on Sept. 21, 1918 and signed by Lieutenant Chaplain Lewis W. Dockery.  He wrote three short sentences from “Somewhere in France.”

“I am writing you relative to the death of your son,” the letter says.

My husband’s grandmother was a French-Canadian immigrant who was awarded an honorary American citizenship because her son was killed fighting in France.

Like other Franco-American families, my husband’s family members have served in both World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam and the first Iraq War.

In our family, we make a habit of counting the number of flags planted at the headstones of Franco-American veterans in Maine’s cemeteries.  Often, they are too many to count.

A scanned copy of the First Aid French pamphlet is available on line at http://tinyurl.com/23dcjhv