Cole Porter and Cannon Fire – A Brunswick Franco-American in WW1

Albert Le Tarte, who left Brunswick the first of July to sail for France July 7th, has arrived and is in service at the front.  He agreed to write the editor of the Record for the benefit of his many friends here and the first letter was received Tuesday.  After a few lines of personal interest concerning golf, he gives the following interesting account of his trip and experiences in France

This note, which appeared in the Brunswick Record in August 1917, was the start of a fascinating series of letters which appear in that newspaper throughout the course of the US involvement in the First World War, relating the experiences of local servicemen from basic training in Georgia to the trenches of Flanders.  Albert LeTarte, who appears to have been a personal friend of Record editor Robert Tobey, was the first to begin correspondence with the newspaperman, but he was later followed by dozens of local men serving in the armed forces.  Their letters reveal a lot about life in Brunswick in the 1910s, the experience of going to war, and the unique perspective of the town’s Franco-Americans.

Albert LeTarte, c1920. Image: Pejepscot Historical Society/Maine Memory Network

Albert LeTarte was just shy of 28 years old when he sailed for France in the summer of 1917.  His parents, Pierre and Zoë, would see two of their other sons serve before the war was out, but Albert, one of the couple’s eight surviving children, was the first to enlist.  When he left Brunswick on July 1st, the United States had only been at war with Germany for a little over a month, and the country was only beginning to mobilize for war.   Rather than enlisting in the U.S. army or waiting to be drafted, LeTarte signed up for the American Ambulance Service, an informal, auxiliary unit staffed by Americans who assisted the allied armies by driving ambulances and performing other medical duties.

LeTarte would have been something of an outsider in this group.  Most of the Ambulance Service enlistees were students at prestigious colleges; Albert was not only older, but from a lower-middle class family.  His father was a foreman in the Cabot Mill (a “boss slasher” as recorded in the 1910 census), while Albert himself worked as a clerk at a shoe store.  His brothers also worked in the mill.  Having not formally enlisted in the Army, Albert was responsible for paying his own way to France.  Thus, he left New York on a packet steamer, the Espagne, bound for Bordeaux.  The boat was so full (557 passengers) that the second-class cabins weren’t large enough for the four people assigned to share them:

Imagine a room as large only as a good size dry goods box with three steamer trunks, five duffle bags and five large hand bags in it, making the place of course as sleeping quarters, out of the question.  So we had to “sleep” on deck every night with practically no sleep at all.  People would talk until 12:30; sometimes it was 1:30 in the morning before the noise-makers would retire to their cabins.  These people were mostly those who had fine state-rooms and could stay in bed until 12 o’clock the next day.  We poor devils had about two hours to sleep every night, for at 3:30 in the morning the sailors would begin to wash decks; therefore we had to get up.

Despite the discomfort (the weather was alternately “very hot” and rainy), and bouts of sea-sickness, LeTarte both made friends and kept busy through his knowledge of French.  Initially, he reported, “I was alone in my own party, for I did not know a soul on board, but acquaintances soon develop into friendship. The first man I spoke to was a Belgian from New Orleans.”  At night, a group of the men would gather on deck to sing and play music.  Some had brought guitars and mandolins with them.

On one particularly gloomy day, when it rained non-stop, LeTarte and some other musically-inclined passengers gave a concert in the first-class saloon.  The bilingual Mainer “had about 25 songs” him, and he was accompanied by both an professional pianist and “a composer with us also, by the name of Cole Porter, who rendered several of his own compositions.”  The man who was soon to become one of America’s best-known musicians was, at that time, beginning his career in New York. Like LeTarte, he was aboard the Espagne on his way to the war.  Porter would work for a relief organization in Paris, reportedly serve with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, and meet his future wife overseas. But for that week in mid-July on the Atlantic Ocean, he accompanied a young Franco-American from Brunswick on the piano.

LeTarte’s musical and linguistic skills continued to serve him well in France, from the moment he stepped onto the dock in Bordeaux, where he led the passengers in a rendition of the Marseillaise, to the delight of watching French civilians.  As a munitions driver with the French Army (all draft-eligible Americans were transferred from the Ambulance Service to the Ordinance Corps), he had the opportunity to interact with local French people in the villages and towns near the front lines.  In these conversations, the young American got a real sense for the horror of the war, which had been raging for three years in France – which he relayed to his friends and family back home.  On learning that his younger brother Alfred had enlisted in the US Army, he wrote to his mother:

I often converse with fathers of French combatants; they have lost one, two, even three sons at war and are ready to give every link of their family chain for their poor exhausted France.  How I would like to be a father to say as much!  While conversing with a father of two sons gone to war, he, with tears in his eyes said: “The younger of my sons had been shot at the beginning of war; after hearing this, my elder son started, saying: “Father, I shall revenge my brother.  Never shall I cease fighting until I attain my aim!”

On the same farm I met a poor woman whose husband and a son 25 years old were killed and her younger son had his leg cut off by [a] shell.

Both of these people are really grieved; but they understand that the Boches must be expelled from their invaded country.

If other sons are asked of you, give them generously.  Justice shall one day be rendered.

The villages and even the very soil of France had, by this time, been pummelled by the war.  Visiting land recently taken from the Germans, Albert reported seeing “magnificent temples and edifices destroyed.  Last night I visited manufactures, houses, bridges, etc., along the Aisne.  Of these, today, only dust remains.  In small villages, not even stones are to be seen for we have taken them all to build a road.  Indeed, these things are incredible till we are witnesses of such as these.”  Nonetheless, the American found beauty among the ruins.  “During the little spare time I have at camp or on the road I make water color paintings of ruined houses and the wonderful sunsets we have here.” he wrote, in one letter.  “[I] Have been out a few times with a French artist who has been of great help to me in this work.  We have interesting subjects to work with.  Also take many photographs.”  Upon his return from France, LeTarte would put these skills to use, becoming a professional photographer with his own studio for some 20 years.  Even after retirement, he acted as the official photographer for Bath Iron Works.

Albert LeTarte’s personal letters offer us an insight of the experience of a young man in rural Maine transplanted to wartime France.  But they also give us a valuable sense of what it meant to be Franco-American in the theater of the First World War.  A French-speaker who sang well, thanks to his membership of the St John’s parish choir, LeTarte could straddle two worlds – at once French-Canadian and American.  But, like most of his fellow Franco-Americans, LeTarte was in no doubt about his ultimate allegiance.  In early October, officers in the American Expeditionary Force sought out Americans serving with the French Army to enroll them in the regular US forces.  LeTarte was “glad” to be able to transfer, and be “under the good old Red, White and Blue once again.”

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.