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.

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.

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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.”

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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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The order came abruptly. One day, Hale found himself on a train bound for “somewhere in France,” which turned out to be Chaumont. During World War I, the region around Chaumont in eastern France was the scene of some of its bloodiest battles. Chaumont was also the site of Pershing’s AEF headquarters. Artillery was audible on Hale’s first night in the city.

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Soon, though, Hale was detailed back to St. Nazaire for supplies. Once, he and a small group of comrades were assigned to receive and assemble Ford ambulances and drive them back. Another time, the job was to unload, assemble and return with a shipment of motorcycles.

Each time, Hale dropped in on the Bennes. Each time, he left with a box of goodies. “I knew not then, but I think I know now what self-denial the giving of the chocolate and other rations wrapped in that box must have meant,” Hale wrote.

In September, a rainy and chilly month, Hale was again back in St. Nazaire, where conditions required that he sleep on the damp, cold ground. After two nights, he woke with double-pneumonia and was carried unconscious to a military hospital. Pneumonia and influenza ravaged the armies of World War I; 20-40 percent of U.S. Army and Navy personnel were sickened at the height of the American involvement September-November 1918. More died of disease than in battle.

“My awakening two days later was not sudden,” he recalled. “First thing I saw, to remember, was a medical officer with a stethoscope to my chest. He had lifted my eyelids and was peering intently into them. I remember how grotesque, huge and luminous his own eyes appeared to my half-conscious self. His head, I thought, was out of all proportion to anything human I had ever seen.”

Recovering slowly, Hale found himself miffed that the Army “had gone right ahead with the whole war as though I had never existed,” and a bit depressed to be among so many strangers. The other men in his unit had returned to camp. His response: “I asked the nurse to send word to the one person nearer than 3,000 miles who I was sure had more regard for me than the army.”

Germaine Benne knew no English, but she brought smiles and cookies. She brought soft-boiled eggs. One day, she brought a heavy brick—heated in her home oven—lifted his blanket and tucked it under his feet. When he could get out of bed, there were dinners with the Bennes and evenings by their fireside. “In Mother Benne’s gracious presence, I was never without awareness of the maternal concern that makes a man resolve to live and, if necessary, die deserving of it,” recalled Hale.

When orders came for Hale to return to his unit, Germaine Benne and her daughters walked with him to the harbor, kissed him on the cheek and said, “Au revoir, Shar-lee.”

Returning to Wayne in 1919, Charles Hale became a construction contractor. He built some of the houses surrounding Wayne’s old Louella Mansion, as well as apartments on West Wayne Avenue. But construction collapsed during the Depression, and the Hales had to move into an apartment in one of the buildings he’d built. “I remember him remarking that he’d lost every cent he had,” said Chick Hale. “We ate a lot of canned peas and boiled potatoes.”

Hale later worked for an insurance agency and for Main Line Federal bank. Because of his construction background, the bank tapped him to supervise construction of its new facility (now occupied by Sovereign Bank) next to the Anthony Wayne movie theater. Afterward, he was made branch manager. Hale was active in the American Legion, served on Radnor’s Board of Education, played piano at Wayne Baptist Church and, of course, could speak (though not write) French.

In 1957, Hale returned to France with 600 other veterans to tour World War I battlefields. He rode a bus, looked at monuments and reminisced. But he had one side trip that the other vets did not.

At the Benne house, Hale dispensed miniature U.S. flags, American candy and souvenirs of Lafayette from Valley Forge. The Bennes gave him an Emile Bernard painting (less valuable then than today), which now hangs on his son’s wall. Pere was dead. Petite Colette was a grandmother. Germaine was elderly. But there were still 14 at dinner.

“Germaine walked with me to the waiting taxi,” wrote Hale. “All the things I wanted to say to her, and all that she might have wanted to say to me, left us both mute.”

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