Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day Special Edition: French Angelenos in World War One

"War is the business of the French, and they do it very well."

                                                                               - Rudyard Kipling

World War One began in 1914.

The United States of America initially stayed out of the conflict, only entering the war in 1917.

Los Angeles' French community, however, rushed to the aid of their homeland.

The 1918 Los Angeles City Directory (i.e. phone book) lists a French Ambulance Service sharing space with the Alliance Francaise (the location is now Ace Hotel Los Angeles). Three blocks away, there was a French Society for the Relief of Wounded Soldiers. Since phone books are compiled in advance, the Ambulance Service and Society likely existed prior to 1918. (Note to self: check the 1915-1917 city directories the next time I'm deep in the bowels of Central Library. I can't believe I forgot to do that this time.)

Most notably, Georges Le Mesnager - 64 years old in 1914 - stepped away from all four of his jobs and his large family to go back to France and enlist in the French Army. He earned several medals for bravery, was wounded five times, and eventually acted as a special liaison to General Pershing. (Mesnager noted that his fellow French soldiers doubted the arriving American troops would be of much help. He assured them otherwise.) His last task before retiring to the Verdugo Hills was to establish a society for Los Angeles' French war veterans (presumably, there were enough French veterans of war in LA to merit founding such a society).

Dr. Kate Brousseau, a busy psychologist and professor, took a two-year sabbatical to put her French fluency and Ph.D to work in war-torn France. Dr. Brousseau, who was 55 when she left California, spent 1917 and 1918 examining French women called into war service and working with French soldiers in Lorraine, French-occupied Germany, and war-torn northern France. When the war ended, she helped to rehabilitate traumatized soldiers (today we'd call it treating PTSD).

And then there was Lucien Napoleon Brunswig.

Brunswig, a pharmacist by trade, was already active in immigrant support societies and social organizations when the war began. He soon became active in the American Committee for Devastated France and the Maisons-Claires (which supported French war orphans). In 1917 at the age of 63, Brunswig spent eight months in France, writing about his experiences. After the war, he vice-chaired the committee that placed the Doughboy statue in Pershing Square. (Brunswig, like Remi Nadeau, deserves his own biography. But give me time.)

Pershing Square is slated for a renovation. Happily, I have been informed that the Doughboy will remain in the park.

Take a moment to remember all the good people who have died in conflict. And take a moment to remember the French and French-speaking Angelenos who walked away from everything to do whatever they could.

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