American Telephone Operators Aid Victory - 1918
Girls Write of How They Transmitted Orders Night and Day at Their Post Near the Front
Can you picture the pride and delight experienced by the small group of six telephone operators who had their dream realized when the Army sent them into the war zone to share in the stress and the glory of the St. Mihiel drive? That, they declare, is what they went over for, and for them to be required to spend 72 hours with a minor interruption at a stretch at the switchboard, putting through calls of vital importance to our operations at the Front, was indeed a joy of joys.
In their letters, we read of how keyed up they were while preparations were in progress. As we read, we can almost see them, sitting there swiftly and tensely, putting through their calls; we can feel the suspense, hear the strain in the voices, as connection after connection is made.
Finally, when every voice spelled relief, and the tension relaxed, when a cheerful voice came now and then over the wire, and someone even ventured a humorous remark, and Success was in the very air,—then, and not until then did these girls feel that their work was done for the time being. The welcome sight of the fruits of war that began to pour through the town—prisoners, repatriated people, and restored towns amply repaid the girls for any strain under which they might have labored.
But to get the real thrills that these operators must have felt, one must read their letters, written in the very shadow of war.
From Miss Ester Fresnel
France, near the Front Sunday Night, September 15, 1918. My Dearests :
There is so much to tell you that I simply don’t know where to start. But I must raconteur all about this last wonderful victory of ours, or I’ll choke.
I suppose by the time you get this letter, you will have heard all about it through the papers, but I want to let you know the part we imagine we played in it.
Before and after the Battle
In the first place, before and while this "stunt" of ours was pulled off, we were rushed to death; we worked day and night, six hours at a stretch, and then ran home to snatch a few hours' sleep then go back to work. The strain was pretty bad; officers were all on edge, and it was rather bard to keep our tempers at times because everything came at once, and dès fais the lines would go out of order, bombs or thunderstorms up a way.
Still, the communications had to go through; men would ask for places we had never heard of and wanted them immediately. Sometimes it would take us over an hour to complete a call.
Altogether we were all very excited and just strained to the utmost.
Then all at once, something seemed to come over everybody. Their voices were not so harsh—they almost said funny things to us over the lines. We would call for places in the most dulcet of tones, even though we were dead tired, and we knew even before we were told that the whole thing had been successful.
Prisoners began to pour in, officers and men and the people were hanging on the doorsteps, for it seems it was a festive day and holiday in France.
One Major—an older man, was waiting with his orderly to be taken; in fact, the majority don't seem to be unhappy. I went down today to the prison camp or "cage," as it is called, to see them. We are feeding them exceptionally well, and altogether I guess they know they are far better off now, for companies surrendered at once.
Rest after Seventy-Two Hours
Last night we went to bed instead of working, the first time in 72 hours. I tell you, even though my bed was hard (I have an old straw mattress) and I hadn't any pillow, I slept the whole night through and had a hard time getting up in the morning.
Just now, as I was writing, we heard the heavy tread of men and shouting, and we all rushed out just in time to see about three or four hundred German prisoners go by.
I'm sending you a clipping from the New York Herold (I suppose), telling a bit of what we telephone people have been doing. Not only that but we were given this afternoon a typewritten sheet signed by our Chief Signal Officer, containing words of commendation from our Commander in Chief of the Army and of our Signal Officer for the behavior of the Signal Corps people, including us six girls during this time. Now, what do you think about that?
We civilians will probably never experience the joy of wearing a service stripe. It is a thing to be proud of, the girls agree, and should be displayed on every occasion—especially when it is new!
II Service Stripes Showing
Thursday, September 19. Darling Mummy and Daddy Mine:
Yesterday and today, for the first time in a pretty long time, we've had a day off, and let me tell you, my own dearests, that we certainly appreciated it this time. You see, we're waiting to go to another place again, so we rest a little between times.
We've spent the greater part of the afternoon taking pictures, just as warlike as possible, with our gas masks in the case, and with our helmets, and especially our service stripes showing. We crept down a new alley so that we wouldn't be seen in this equipment in a perfectly safe and quiet town, to the courtyard of our office where there are many sandbags stacked up, and in addition to such befitting surroundings, we posed and posed, and posed.
I hope they'll turn out because they're hilarious, especially when you think we made up all the background.
Yesterday was the 18th, and six months since we landed in England, so we were able to sew our service stripes on— Suzanne, Miss B., and I. You have no idea how proud we three girls were at having that shining gold bar on our left arm. The only thing is that we've the habit of carrying out coats and such on our bras uncomfortable. Although I had vowed not to forget to leave that stripe in view, every once in a while, I'd look down only to find with great dismay that it was covered up quickly then before you could say "Jack Robinson!" I'd shift the coat to the other arm.
I suppose in time; it will get tarnished— the galon, I mean, but it stands out very well against the blue for the present.
A real soldier is always on the move, as our operators in France have discovered. Miss Fresnel and her companions are having a "checkered career," having at last obtained their objective, namely—regular barracks and regular "chow,"—and their happiness is complete.
However, war does not seem to change their nature or disposition, for, in the following letter, Miss Fresnel describes how they started out on an outing "with a box of candy in one tin helmet and a bunch of flowers in another. Just the same, they looked mighty nice on the table at lunch!" You see, you cannot make a leopard change his spots, and a girl is a girl the world over. That's not to her discredit, either!
III in Barracks
Saturday, September 21. My own dearest Dad and Mummy:
Well, we're someplace else now, and as in every stage in our career, it's quite different from the preceding station.
Our life here is exactly what we thought it would be when we first left the States, and we are absolutely tickled to death. We aren't billeted in the town as we were at our last stop, but in barracks partitioned off with what seems to be corrugated paper. Accordingly, when the girls in the room next to ours lean against the walls, all our various bottles on the shelf fall over. If it weren't for our "extensive" telephone experience, our nerves would undoubtedly be shattered at the terrifying sound of clinking glass. As it is, we rush to pick up a thousand pieces, but luckily bottles are now made of relatively thick glass, and we can put them back in their places whole.
Naturally, Sue and I have a room together and have fixed it up very nicely. We don't expect to stay here very long, and it's more like camping than anything else. Our little chambre à coucher reminds me more than anything else of a stateroom, but we're awfully "comfy," really.
In the "Grab Line"
We mess, not by ourselves this time, but with the Signal Corps Officers, and we have quite a time reaching for things across the table, which is made up of boards and is about six feet by twelve; can you imagine tiny me perched at one end on a long wooden bench? But I make out in the grab line more or less, as I always choose some long-armed person to sit next to if possible.
We had a perfectly thrilling ride over on the (I'll find out whether I can tell you first), and the Colonel thought it very funny and very woman-like to see us start out with a box of candy in one tin helmet and a bunch of flowers in another. Just the same, they looked mighty nice on the table at lunch.
The Old Problem
Up to the present, we've always had a woman cook who could prepare our meals on a regular stove. Still, now that we are absolutely part and parcel of the Army, our soldier cooks fix up the "chow" outside underneath a covering of some kind, next to one of our several abris. It is brought in state by two [African-Americans] who stand in the corner of the room and wait upon our every wish (with a bit of prompting, of course). I suppose by the time we have them well trained, we'll be moving on to some other place. C'cst la Guerre, but we women can never escape the servant problem, it seems.
You know we girls are going to be somewhat spoiled in a way when we get back. It's rather nice being only six girls in an encampment of this kind, and it will certainly feel funny to have a lot of other women around. We'll feel as though we ought to have the right of way, so all you "women folks" back home had better look out.
It's raining, and raining, and raining, and this place is just a sea of mud. Its being damp and chilly will make us work all the harder, though, won't it? For we'll have to "hustle" to keep warm, so you see, no matter how a thing looks at first, it's bound to be for some good, and it certainly must be an ill wind that blows nobody good n'est-ce pas?
"One thing we've heard to our hearts' content, and that is the rumbling of the big guns," writes Miss Fresnel in a still later letter, sent from another locality. "When they put on the big barrage on the push, the very ground under our feet trembled. We walked out to the top of the hill at 3 am and witnessed all the flashes and flares! Fritz certainly got his that time! No wonder the prisoners looked more dazed and stupid than usual."
And then she adds, with a charming little turn, "I'm enclosing an Austrian medal. I wouldn't handle it too much if I were you. It may not be very clean." She also says :
IV The Big Guns
Wednesday, October 2, 1918. My own dearest Mummy and Dad:
We’re six girls, five operators, and a chief operator (which last does not sit in at all except in emergency cases), and between the five, we work the whole twenty-four hours. Even if we don’t have any days off, we have quite a little time to ourselves—enough to see and hear quite some of the excitement that’s going on.
We’re as much at the Front as we’ll ever be and are happy to be able to be up here. We’ll be allowed to stay as long as we don’t get ill, but the minute anyone complains of any discomfort or ailment, back she goes and back she stays.
"Not Just Ornaments"
You see, the men do not want to be bothered by any girls up here, and quite a few honestly think that girls are a bother if not kept in what they believe to be their proper environment, where everything is convenient and at hand. So it’s up to us to prove to these people that we’re not just ornaments; that’s why I’ve tried to be out in the open as much as possible and haven’t written much to anyone.
A Use for Their “Tin Chapeaux”
The other day we saw a Boche aviator who was attempting to take pictures. It wasn’t long before one of ours overtook him, but our anti-aircraft guns were in action before that. Of course, all that goes up must come down, and the shrapnel descendant (I suppose that’s spelled wrong: my French has not improved much) at an uncomfortable closeness at one time. The girls were reprimanded for watching anything of that kind and not wearing their tin chapeaux, but so far, that’s the only instance of that kind in this immediate vicinity. We have deep, dark, and damp abris but have only visited them on excursion trips so far.
In St. Mihiel
Miss Suzanne Prevot, also one of the “six,” tells of her trip through No Man’s Land, and of the gaiety and joy in regained St. Mihiel.
Her letters follow:
Think of your grown-up daughter twenty years old yesterday! Being in the army, I had thought it would pass just like any other day, but quite to the contrary, for I had a birthday party, and all in all, we had a delightful time. I had only one wish—to have my dear mother with us.
Dear, the work is so interesting here— so different from H. Q. That was almost a perfect replica of an office in the States. Here we have very few positions, but that doesn’t mean we can not handle business. If you heard that board hum! That’s all it does from a. m. to p. m.,—not a spare minute. Half of the work is in French. One has to speak one hundred words a second to be able to get ahead of those Frenchmen.
We have found out that we don’t need an alarm clock,—reason: our maid comes to work about seven with a good-sized pair of sabots; also, her little son has a little pair, and what under the sun they do in the yard before going into the kitchen, I don’t know, but it certainly awakens us.
“What do the States think of the work our boys did?” inquires Miss Prevot. We can answer unanimously, saying that there was only one thing for us to think—that it was wonderful, but only what we expected of our forces.
I had the most delightful surprise yesterday—a belated birthday gift which was a motor trip to a town which had been occupied by Germans only twenty-six hours before. It certainly was exciting. We crossed what had been No Man’s Land. German and French trenches and partly ruined towns, but what made the most impression was the people. They had been under German domination for four years, getting no news except German, being able to go around only in certain parts of the town, and having to live in dugouts, most of the houses being in ruins.
When they saw Americans, they didn’t know who they were, but they soon found out. They all spoke to us and were so thankful we had come. Everyone, from the children to the grown-ups, had either flags or a bit of ribbon. Flags flung from the ruined houses. Where they had kept them while the Germans were there, I don’t know, but the flags came into view mighty quickly.
A Lovely Piece of Work
Isn’t the news fine? We are all so proud of our boys and commanding officers, for that certainly was a lovely piece of work they did. What do the States think of it?
On our way to the town, we passed quite a few of our boys. They certainly make themselves at home anywhere they go. Part of a division was in the town—had only been there a few hours—and was all settled. Some were shaving, others sitting in the middle of a field sewing buttons on their shirts, and best of all, one was on top of a mound of hay, typing away on a typewriter.
Miss Prevot, too, likes the barracks, declaring that "they are great." The six girls are in a barracks and are escorted by their former YMCA hostess—Miss Russell, of whom they are very fond. She also is delighted with her service stripe and says, "My! we are proud of them! They really look fine on our blue suits;—what vain things girls are!"
21 September 1918.
A. P. O. 774.
Dearest Mother :
No more dancing—for a while, at least Wq have moved again and are located in barracks. They are great. Our billets are at one end with the office—then there is a separation; on the other side is the mess hall, with the kitchen outside, then the Signal Officers. We mess with the officers—what a family of three or four Colonels, Captains, Lieutenants, and ourselves make! [African-American] waiters! I haven't quite got used to them. They remind me of the Hotel St. Charles, long, long ago.
Last night you should have seen us six, going outside to the pump, each with our pail of water—the most dampening thing, though, is to wash in it in the morning. We certainly will be some kind of soldiers when we get through, though I am sure we will not be so very much changed when we get back to our mothers.
Tootsie and I are writing on our suitcases—quite comfortable, I assure you, each at the end of her bed. We are learning to pack in a hurry. We can do so now, trunk and all, within an hour, and the way you would approve of, too. Though one would say we were camping, we have everything we need.
We arrived here about eleven o'clock on a "bus" and had lunch. Then some of the girls went to a town nearby in a motor; others went to an Aviation Camp near here, and I stayed home with Miss Russell to await the arrival of our beds and camp chairs, for that is all we possess up here. I went off for a little while to visit an evacuation hospital. The nurses were lovely. We couldn't do much visiting, as the boys were seriously wounded. We came back just in time to see the trucks rumble in, and by the time the girls came home for dinner, we had all the rooms fixed as best we could with our accommodations.
That they rejoice in being part of the Army and being called upon for extra service is plain from this excerpt from another letter written by Miss Prevot.
Army a Wonderful Thing
September 26, 1918.
A. P. O. 774 A. E. F.
We had another interesting time a little while ago, which kept us busy for a time; it was so very, very interesting. Think of moving into a new H. Q., getting all the wiring done and everyone settled in just a few days! The Army is certainly a wonderful thing to be part of—especially the T. S., for we certainly consider ourselves part of the Army and are proud of it. Where we are now, the girls are "on" all of the twenty-four hours—no men to come on at night as in our last places.
In times gone by, it was not an uncommon thing to wish for the wings of a bird so that one could fly. Miss Prevot, however, puts that desire into an up-to-date form. One day, when she was on an aviation field, she inquired for a friend and found that he was up on patrol and would be down in a few minutes. "The officer in charge of the squadron," she said, "took us all around and explained everything. It was perfectly fascinating. Suddenly, off in the distance, we saw six dots, and in a few minutes, they were down beside us." And she sighs: "My! I almost wish I were a boy so that I could fly!"
She, too, speaks of their barracks:
France, September 29, 1918. Dear Mother:
I am getting quite used to living in suitcases; I manage quite well. When I get back to the States, I won't know myself getting up at half-past five, going for a walk from six to half-past, breakfast, and ready for duty at seven. One must go to bed early, as there is nothing to do, and one has to go to bed to keep warm.
Miss Russel is trying to take my picture. Imagine an old barracks, with all sorts of posters of Liberty Loans on the wall, some kind of paper on the floor—tar, I think— two or three chairs in one corner, a table, and a fireless cooker—quite an ensemble."
An Old, Sweet Song
Artist Portrait of Miss Edmée LeRoux, AEF Signal Corps Telephone Operator in France. The Telephone Review, December 1918. GGA Image ID # 1925a09759
In the meantime, the girls back at G. H. Q., as they call it, and those located in other places, work and play with a will. At Tours, Miss Edmé LeRoux of _____ tells us she had no time for loneliness, as she had the pleasure of taking up once more the threads of broken relationships and of renewing her study of music. She also speaks of trips into the country and experiences in the performance of her work.
Midnight, September 3, 1918.
While I was in Tours, I spent wonderful days. The weather was delightful and warm, with hardly any rain to speak of.
As we were attending conferences, we had plenty of spare time, and I used to go out into the country on long trips and visit châteaux and old farms where real older people lived as their ancestors had a good hundred years ago.
One particular old farm that I visited will forever stay in my mind. It was quite a distance from Tours, and the trip there was particularly lovely for the reason that I passed many homes built right in huge rocks. At one of these places, the older people were very much interested in us, in our uniform, and especially in our boys. The old lady said that never an American regiment would pass by her door without her giving them some flowers from her garden.
They were from Alsace, and how they love their country!
I sang an old Alsatian song for them, and I accompanied myself on an old organ they had. That dear older man was listening so quietly with big tears in his eyes. It made him so happy to hear the song once more that he simply could not thank me enough.
While at Tours, one of the things which impressed me most was Sunday morning at church.
The old Cathedral is a wonderful piece of architecture and so very old that some people are afraid to attend services there, as they expect it to tumble down someday.
The first Sunday I was there, I assisted at the high mass, and when I saw so many wounded, some accompanied with their old mothers, with such a proud smile upon their faces, to tell you the truth, I cried the whole length of the mass.
If only you in America could really see it all, how great you would find this France. The sacrifices these poor women have made are beyond belief, and I believe only a French soul could really bear it all, as we Americans have never suffered to the same extent since history began for us.
The women here remind me of Constantinople, with their very deep mourning. They look like the Turkish women, all wrapped up in their Tcharchaf, for the French women hang long veils covering them from head to foot. One never knows whether the woman one passes is young or old, pretty or otherwise. They all look alike, silent passing forms, and that is all.
I don’t suppose you could guess what I am doing tonight? At the last moment, the night operator, “a man,” sent word that he was very ill and could not come on his night duty, so Miss Batta and I have volunteered to work all night, and here we are.
One and One-half Hours Later
Just as I was finishing my last sentence, our wire chief, who is wonderful to us all, brought us two some steaming hot coffee, ten toasts with a lot of butter on them, and some sliced tomatoes. Can you imagine a lovelier meal for two starved girls in the middle of the night? No, you can’t!
I have found all my dear old friends here in Paris, and my girlfriends, who have been studying music since before the war broke out, and I have renewed our friendship and musical entertainments among ourselves. I use all my spare time in continuing my lessons so that my life is well filled, with no time for loneliness. We also go to the opera quite often.
Based on "U.S. Telephone Operators Aid Victory: Girls Write of How They Transmitted Orders Night and Day at Their Post Near the Front," in The Telephone Review, Vol. 9, No. 12, December 1918, pp. 321-323