“The Hour is Critical” – Franco-Americans in the Great War

Our element, like all others, maybe even more than all others – bound by tradition and character – must get involved, and cooperate.

Such was the firm pronouncement of La Justice of Biddeford, Maine, on its front page for April 12, 1917, just a few days after the US Congress had declared war on Germany. The prominent column, entitled “TO YOUNG AMERICANS,” laid out the case to readers of the French-language weekly, for enlisting in the armed services and marching into the battlefields of Europe. Praising the United States as the “hearth of pacifism, respect for the rights of the weak and the oppressed, and a refuge for victims of tyranny and despotism,” the patriotic call-to-arms could have appeared in any newspaper across the country. But the piece, which carries the subtitle “[Young Americans] of French origin,” is tailored both to its audience and their place in the American landscape at the time. Readers are reminded that the United States is their “much beloved homeland,” and that they owe their “brothers in Canada and their cousins in France” their assistance, glossing over the brewing turmoil in Canada over the enlistment of French Canadians in the largely Anglophone army. Despite the stern warning that “every American capable of bearing arms owes his country a debt of blood,” the paper was confident that “Franco-Americans are too patriotic to refuse to pay it.”

A cartoon shows a survivor of the passenger ship “Lusitania” taking away the hyphenated identity of German-Americans. The Lusitania, a British passenger vessel, was sunk by a German submarine, with many American casualties in 1915. The incident hardened American public opinion against Germany.

Such confidence masked what must have been a sense of unease about the mood of the nation. Even before the entry of the US into the war, American politicians had been beating the drum of patriotism and denouncing disloyalty to the nation. The notion of “hyphenated Americans,” in particular, came in for a lot of criticism. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, a supporter of US intervention in the war, launched a full-throated attack on the concept in 1915. Being Teddy Roosevelt, he delivered this address in New York City (the epicenter of US immigration) to the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic organization) on Columbus Day, the Italian-American national holiday:





There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all… There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.

Clearly, this was at odds with a community that had, since at least the 1860s, referred to itself as “Franco-American.” Even President Woodrow Wilson would soon join this call, warning that “any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.” A hyphenated American was now an enemy, and tempers were running high. In the aftermath of the declaration of war, just in Maine, there would be a number of attacks on those perceived as insufficiently patriotic. The Universalist minister in Portland, Charles Joy, was drummed out of town for preaching a sermon on the value of pacifism. An unnamed man in Lewiston hurled insults at an infantryman guarding Lewiston’s city hall, who promptly punched him to the ground. The Lewiston Daily Sun showed no remorse for the incident. “No body new his name” it noted, “and perhaps nobody cared.”

The Stars and Stripes flies on the pages of “La Justice de Biddeford,” as Congress deliberated a declaration of war, April 5, 1917. Below are the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in French.

Perhaps this is why, when war seemed likely in late march of 1917, La Justice began printing a prominent Stars and Stripes in the upper left corner of its front page, just below the masthead. Underneath Old Glory were printed the words “Long live Our Flag,” accompanied by a patriotic quote, maxim, or other moral lesson. The ability of the editors to maintain their duel identities, however, is evident in the printing of April 5, which reprinted the words to the Star-Spangled Banner in French. Franco-Americans would prove their patriotism, but they could still do so in French.






Franco-Americans would not be impacted by the war in the same devastating way as other ethnic communities – especially German-Americans – but they would face many of the same prejudices as other immigrant groups. Newspapers like La Justice, and others across New England, would face a doubling of their workload when the Postal Service required that any materials sent in an “non-American” language had to be translated, lest they contain messages for the enemy. Like other foreign-born residents in Maine, Franco-Americans would be required to register with the state, a measure that was repeated in World War Two.

“Canadians! Come Immediately!” reads this recruitment poster placed in La Justice in 1918. Less an appeal to patriotism, the ad instead focuses on the legal obligation of French Canadians in the US to serve in the Canadian Army, and the ability of Canadian recruiters to draft them even in the US.

The Franco-American population at large found itself in an unusual position as the First World War raged in Europe. Their “Canadian brothers” had not embraced the notion of dying for the British Empire – as French Canadian nationalists like Henri Bourassa framed the conflict – and later in 1917, a crisis would erupt in the Dominion over the imposition of conscription on the population. Franco-Americans appear to have viewed the war with more sanguinity. The Conscription Crisis was not repeated in New England. Some Franco-Americans even enlisted in the Canadian Army in order to fight while the US remained neutral.  Others had found themselves embroiled in the conflict by accident.







Zépherin Lessard, in the uniform of the Canadian Army, c1917. Image: USM Franco-American Collection/Maine Memory Network

One such enlistee was Zépherin Lessard, a resident of Lewiston, but a Canadian by birth. During a visit to relatives in Canada, Lessard was stopped by officials looking for draft-dodgers. “They caught me without no papers on me” he later wrote to his family, but admitted “I didn’t care, because I would have had to join the Army later anyways.”

Much more enthusiastic were individuals like Adjutor Morin of Brunswick. In 1918, the Brunswick Record reported that Morin, at the age of 15, had enlisted in the Canadian infantry in 1916, having run away from home. His parents secured his discharge from the army (since the lad had lied about his age on enlistment), but not before Morin had been wounded in an air raid in London, and spent a brief period on the front lines in France. Undeterred, Morin told the Record that, come his 18th birthday, he was ready to re-enlist legally, in the American services.


Banner for Lewiston’s “Institut Jacques Cartier.” The mottoes read “Religion and Nationality” and “Loyal but French Canadians.” The latter is displayed below a French Tricoleur and the Stars and Stripes. Image: USM Franco-American Collection/Maine Memory Network

The First World War is an important turning point in the relationship between Franco-Americans and their country. While Francos had served in conflicts stretching back to the Revolutionary War, this was the first time large numbers had served overseas and under the American flag. That experience fostered sense of American identity among those who served, and legitimized their patriotism in their own eyes. Franco-American groups prided themselves on enlisting for service, buying war bonds, or supporting groups like the Red Cross. But this legitimacy also justified the Franco-American approach of adopting pieces of American identity while retaining Franco customs and traditions.  In many ways, the war helped prove their long-standing belief that one could be simultaneously “Loyal and French Canadian.”


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.