Joseph C. Francois

I recently discovered another blood relative fought for the United States in the Great War! His story is quite remarkable and I was thrilled to discover it. He spent almost the entire duration of the American participation in the war in France and by the side of the man himself, General John. J. Pershing. We are lucky to have found a great deal of information on his service: a newspaper article and his Gold Star Roll Record that included a photo and letters to his mother from two individuals that served with him. I am eager to share his story.

Joseph Christian Francois was born in 1897 in Saint Paul, Minnesota to Joseph Michael and Catherine Francois. He was my great-grandmother’s first cousin. Educated up to 8th grade at St. Agnes, he went on to become an apprentice at West Publishing on the Linotype. (West Publishing was the main publishing house in the country for legal materials and a major employer in St. Paul at the time. It is now a part of Thompson Reuters.) When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, 19-year-old Joseph enlisted almost immediately in the Marines (on April 9).

A few months later, in June, he was sailing across the ocean with his comrades in the Fifth Marines aboard the U.S.S. Henderson. They disembarked at Saint-Nazaire, a French port town that would see many more Americans marching through in the months to come. The Fifth would go on to fight in Belleau Wood (which would earn the Marine Corps their nickname “Devil Dogs”) as well as at Chateau-Theirry and Saint-Mihiel. Today they are one of the most highly decorated regiments in the Marine Corps.

The Fifth Marines headed off to cantonment after their arrival in France, June 1917

The gates of American Field Headquarters, Chaumont, France

For the time being, Joseph was lucky. Instead of going off to the front, he was chosen as a personal bodyguard to General Pershing at his headquarters in Chaumont, France. His commanding officer, Captain Edward Burwell, described how he came to know Joe like a brother and said “he was always willing and faithful in the performance of his duties, and his good habits and character… were a source of inspiration to many.”

When the last decisive battle of the war in their sector, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, was upon the American Expeditionary Force, Joe was happy to hear that he would be relieved by General Pershing of his duties at General Headquarters. The 7th Company would head to the front. They departed Chaumont on October 18, 1918, to the tunes of the 6th Field Artillery Band, General Pershing’s Own Band.

Joe was assigned to the 6th Machine Gun Battalion and initially went to the Champagne sector. Shortly thereafter they would join the First Army in the Argonne Forest. Joe was detailed as a stretcher bearer with the 23rd Company. Of this duty, Sergeant Sol Segel wrote to Joe’s mother that it was “a station that held more danger, that required more courage than any other.” It was in carrying out his duty as a stretcher-bearer that Joe would sadly meet his fate on November 5, 1918.

An account by Sgt. Segel describes the scene that occurred in the Ardennes that resulted in Joe’s death. The Germans were shelling heavily and one of Joe’s comrades was wounded. As he was carrying him to aid, he set down the stretcher for a brief rest and another shell exploded a few feet away. Shrapnel struck Joe and killed him instantly. Sgt. Segel goes on to describe in great detail the location of Joe’s grave:

“The grave lies between the villages of Belval and Beaumont in the Ardennes, France, hard by the Meuse River, whose waters were so reddened with young, pure American blood. There lies a little red brick farm about midway between the two villages, which while whole we used as a first aid station. It lies on the northern edge of the woods, two hundred yards south on the road and fifty yards to the east into the brush lies the grave and beside it his comrades who fell.”

The graves would be moved to Sedan American Cemetery in Letanne in March of 1919. In the summer of 1921, Joe traveled home, from the Ardennes to St. Paul by way of Calais, France and Hoboken, New Jersey. He was one of over 30,000 American dead repatriated following the war. His father, Joseph Michael, would die later the same year. Joseph Michael had immigrated from Bitburg, Germany to the United States in 1873, and like a great number of German immigrants in the United States at the time, lost his son in combat against his home country.

Joe’s mother Catherine suffered much tragedy in her life. She had already lost four of her children at young ages, including one in a tragic streetcar accident. Capt. Burwell attempted to console her on the loss of Joe in his letter:

“In your sorrow which I share, can you not see the glory of it all? Can you not see the triumph of righteousness personified in your immortal loved one? He died that the world might live, that the world might secure the blessings of liberty, both now and forever more. For this noble purpose you have given him.”

We will remember him.

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