Six American Telephone Operators Near the Front - 1918
Phone Girls on Duty at Chief Signal Corps Office Headquarters at Souilly, Meuse, France, 15 November 1918. Left to Right: Ester V. Fresnel, Yonkers, NY; Leonie C. Peyron, Los Angeles, CA; Marie Flood, Chicago, IL; Marie D. Belanger, Rochester, NY; Grace D. Banker, Passic, NJ; Jennie R. Young, Seattle, WA; Suzanne Prevot, NYC; Marie Lange, San Francisco, CA; Louise Beraud, Houston, TX; B. Hunt, San Francisco, CA; and Bertha Arlaud, Brooklyn, NY. Photograph by Pvt. T. R. Shaw, Signal Corps. Passed by AEF Censor, Date Not Given. National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-33116. NARA ID # 55225379. GGA Image ID # 199d53318c
Six Hello Girls Help First Army
Average of 40,000 Words a Day in St. Mihiel Fight Alone
Six women operators of the Signal Corps—six American girls who jumped at the chance to lie there were in at the start of the St. Mihiel push of September 12 at the headquarters of the First American Army.
During the six days, Hint followed the 12th's initial heave they kept on their jobs, handling an average of 40,000 words a day over the eight lines they operated and working any hours asked of them, day or night.
When they finally did move out of there, it was only to move with the First Army's headquarters to another part of the line, where they arrived in time to do similar yeoman service when the September 26 drive opened on the from northwest of Verdun.
To Give Everyone Chance
The Signal Corps chose the lucky half-dozen —Chief Operator Grace D. Banker and Operators Esther V. Fresnel, Helen E. Hill, Bertha M. Hunt, Marie Lange, and Suzanne Prevot--out of a total of 225 girl operators, all Just dying for the chance to go up forward. (All six of the chosen ones can be found in the top image of this page.)
It was a hard job to pick out who was to go, so anxious was the whole force to get a crack at the big show at close range.
In fact, the only way that Grace Banker could keep peace in the Signal Corps family was to promise the girls who weren't picked for the headquarters Job on the two big shows that the up-front work would be rotated as often as possible so that everyone might know what it was like to be handling the calls on which the success or failure of the operation might depend.
The six American girls, while upfront, rough it with the best of the Army, billeted, to be sure, but subject to all the discomforts and dangers that come with being billeted in the forward area over which the Boche aviators fly when they can.
According to their superior officers, both in the Signal Corps and on the General Staff, they have shown remarkable spirit and utter absence of nerves.
And they have filled every one of the 500-odd male soldier operators in the A.E F., toiling away further down the line and answering the calls of the Telephone Sextette, with a green and rankling envy.
In the Zone of Advance Six American Telephone Operators Near the Front
The most thrilling news contained in recent correspondence from American girls who have gone to France to operate the telephone system for General Pershing, is that six of them have been sent forward into the “zone of advance,” and have been supplied with steel helmets and gas masks, and their office is sand-bagged ! “But the funniest thing,” writes Miss Esther Fresnel, of New York (one of the six), "is that the boys can’t believe we are American girls .
You see, an American girl is the last thing they expect to see up here, and consequently it doesn’t come to their mind that we are ‘sisters in arms.' ” At the war switchboards, through which the business of the A. E. F. is conducted, there are now two hundred and twenty-three of our American girls—and they are there to stay until they are no longer needed.
“For the duration of the war” they have promised to serve as telephone operators for Uncle Sam abroad, and there is not one of them who is not upholding the tradition of “service” that is the motto of the telephone operator in our own country. Six units have gone over already, and the seventh will follow shortly.
Miss Fresnel was a member of the first unit, and we have frequently quoted from her charmingly descriptive letters to her parents. Another one of the six “farthest front” is Miss Helen E. Hill, of Seattle, Wash., who was a member of the Fourth Unit, and extracts from letters written by her, together with extracts from several more letters from Miss Fresnel, some written from General Headquarters and others from nearer the Front, making interesting reading.
Letters from Miss Fresnel
A Heavenly Supper
France, July 29, 1918.
. . . Yesterday being my day off, I stopped writing suddenly and went off for a ride on my wheel. You see, the rest of the time I always have to do something when I’m told to do it, whether I like it or not, so, on my day off, I’m always very careful to follow my every impulse. It’s quite a change, and a restful one at that. So I went for a long “bike" ride with one of the boys and we had an early supper at a little farmhouse. It tasted absolutely like “Nectar,” even though it consisted only of eggs, ham, fried potatoes, pancakes, salad, and coffee.
We got home at about 7:30, just in time for me to go for a little walk with Suzanne. We always try to go out a little by ourselves in the evening when the sun goes down, and talk things over, and always before the evening is over, We find ourselves mixed up in something or other. Sometimes it's rescuing children from some dreadful fate, or else it's capturing escaped German prisoners. Last night we were chasing goats.
You know, here the people take out their animals to pasture, and seeing half a dozen cows and calves and horses and goats, driven along by some little girl or boy with a great big stick, is an everyday occurrence. Well, Sue and I were walking along last night, when suddenly three goats rushed by us, almost upsetting us.
Of course, immediately we knew something was up, because no one ever hurries in France. Turning around, We perceived the owner of the goats, who was rather stout and couldn’t run very fast. We knew she never would be able to gather up her herd, so Sue and I offered our services.
The Snapshot of Miss Esther V. Fresnel Referred to in Her Letter. The Telephone Review, November 1918. GGA Image ID # 19260398d8
Having never had anything to do with goats before, we didn't know what we were in for. We certainly “rushed in where Angels fear to tread."
Getting Their "Goats”
After all it's not surprising that we were ignorant of the peculiarities of goats, because all I've ever seen of them is pictures where they browse contentedly or stand quietly and with dignity looking things over from some rocky peak or other.
Anyhow, Sue and I were certainly led a merry chase, over rocks and dump heaps, tin cans, fields of all sorts that we shouldn't have been in, and especially nettles. Those goats certainly had a penchant for orties. They ate them with relish that was stupendous. Seeing what nettles do to one exteriorly I have some forebodings as to the condition of that goat’s insides, and woe to the one that patronized that cheure for milk and cheese.
We pursued the recalcitrant animals for a half hour or so, and decided that the owner, knowing the habits of her charges better than we did, would have more success.
So, wigwagging to her from an elevated point to come along and undertake the job herself, we sat down to watch and learn, incidentally, how to corral goats. It seems that flourishing a stick is every essential ; anyhow, from what I could see, goat- herding is entirely beyong my ken.
One thing I did learn, though, is to let “well enough alone,“ so when about fifteen minutes later we came upon a huge pig who refused to go home, but was running wildly around grunting and chortling with his ears flapping the way pig’s ears do, Suzanne and I continued on our way, just walking a little faster.
I am sending you a little picture of myself. I must explain that I had no idea it was being taken at the time and so was caught au naturel with my mouth wide open. You can see I’ve still the same old uniform with which I left the States, but I hope to be able to get a new one when on my leave.
Letter II: Miss Esther V. Fresnel
August 18, 1918.
. . . Everyone coming over here imagines he or she will be in the-front line trenches in no time. Seeing that it takes about five men in back to support one man in front, more than one person is doomed to disappointment, at first, anyhow.
Yesterday a captain came to see one of the girls on his way back from the front where he had been for almost two months, and had lunch writh us. He was very, very interesting and told us a lot of things that opened our eyes and gave us a new outlook in certain ways. The boys that come back are very, very much worth while.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. They have found the true value of things, both by themselves and in relation to others, and it seems to have given them a sense of strength that one can feel as soon as one sees them. There are lots of interesting incidents they tell you that I would like to let you know, but I guess I had better wait until I see you.
Wasps for Breakfast
Just at present I wish Sue and I could be infused with a feeling of strength and security against wasps. Every morning at breakfast, on account of the jam, I fancy, we go through horrible scenes. Screams! Convulsions almost, rapid exits from the table and room are common and everyday occurrences on account of those awful beasts who come right on your plate. Just now, I've been cavorting all around the room trying to flee the pursuit of a persistent wasp. I can feel him somewhere in back of me, and I’m simply trembling all over for fear he’ll land on some part of my anatomy while I'm not looking.
Probably I’ll be writing from Lagny next, —at home in the garden or in the little study.
Letter III: Miss Esther V. Fresnel
August 20, 1918.
Mes chers, chers Parents:
... All the things of interest one would like to share with others we may not tell about, for fear information may be gleaned therefrom. Usually it is possible to fall back on description of people and country, —but after one has been almost six months in the same spot where nothing changes much,—pretty nearly all topics are exhausted. . . Don't gather that I’m not satisfied and want to go back. I’d do the same thing over a hundred times, and stick it out to the finish. . . . Compared to what the boys are doing, we are living “the life o’ Riley” as they say.
finish it up!
The spirit of our boys is absolutely wonderful. Even the most stolid looking fellow is fired with a patriotism and devotion that is almost unheard of. I saw a few of the boys at the base hospital here and all of them are fretting and chaffing to get well so as to go back into the mix-up,—and yet they don't like it a bit. One can see and understand how little they like it, but they feel that it’s the only place for them and they all want to finish up the whole thing as quickly as possible.
Letter IV: Miss Esther V. Fresnel
France, August 28, 1918.
So many things have happened since I wrote you last that I know not where to begin.
In the first place, I am no longer at General Headquarters. Sue and I had the great fortune to be attached to the Headquarters of the First Army, for the time being at any rate.
It was the greatest thing—the hurry, the flurry, and the mystery of it all,—for we were notified to pack and be ready to leave at a minute’s notice only a few hours before we went. And then our baggage, my wheel included, was piled in a truck, and we in an automobile, and off we started,— where, we did not know. You have no idea what a peculiar sensation it is to go off somewhere,—just somewhere.
Anyhow, we are tremendously happy, because this is more like what we expected to do when we started out than our six months’ stay at General Headquarters was. The nature of the work, the hours, the surroundings, the whole atmosphere is different. We are billeted out here, and have had the most exciting time battling with the usual inhabitants in a place of this sort.
It is quite a change from our previous residence. There we had electric lights, all conveniences, hot and cold running water, et cetera. Here we have candles at night and we fetch the water from a pump in the rear in breau-bro (I don't know how to spell the word, but it’s pronounced the way I’ve spelt it.)
We are so awfully happy, though, that we are simply walking on clouds. We’ll come down to earth sometime, I expect. But even so, we six girls are such a jolly and congenial bunch that whether we work or play, we feel that we are all together and pulling the same way. That is the one advantage over being as many as we were at Headquarters.
It was getting to be very citified there; twenty- one girls working in a very busy office, dances every week, engagements in the evening, white gloves, fairy handkerchiefs, —not at all warlike, I assure you. Here we have a toile cirée instead of table cloth and in the evening we go to bed and share the punaises. . . .
This town is very quaint and, like all old villes in France, is walled in. As usual there are historical corners, remnants of Old towers, crumbling walls, et cetera, besides a wonderful park with allée after allée of giant trees forming arches. It has that same peacefulness and quiet that a church has,—probably those archways affect me that way;—anyway, I always get that restful and secure feeling in those woods where the boughs of two rows of trees meet.
Unlike the place I was in last, this town is in a hollow, and to get anywhere one goes up instead of down. But the canal is still with us. Whether or not it is the same I do not know, but the water is just as calm and clear (sometimes), and the banks just as cool and inviting.
Yesterday Sue and I went for a walk and we climbed a steep, steep hill, clearing barbed wire fences fully six feet high in a way not usually befitting well-behaved young ladies.
But then, when we got to the tippy, tippy top and saw the whole town before us, with its church steeple standing out in the middle, the sun glinting on the red roofs, the patchwork gardens, and the hills stretching away and away, just like wave after wave, no amount of panting was too much. No matter where you go in this wonderful country, you just must stand still and hold your breath for the beauty of it all.
Letter V: Miss Esther V. Fresnel
France, September 2, 1918.
Here it is a week already that we are in our new place.
This town is down in a valley and quite near the one that is so noted for the madeleines, and very near the one that is noted for the confitures.
Unlike G. HQ.. it is down in a valley and surrounded by hills. On account of its location it is very mouvementée, truck train after truck train, every kind of train, all day and all night long.
Soldiers too, coming from this place and going to that place ; but the funniest thing is that the boys can’t believe we are American girls.
Even when we say a few words in English, they seem to think that we picked up a smattering of la langue Anglaise and are French. . . . You see, an American girl is the last thing they expect to see up here, and consequently it doesn’t come to their mind that we are “sisters in arms.”
Letter VI: Miss Esther V. Fresnel
France, September 5, 1918.
The night before last we all walked out to a French observation post and saw the Boche signals—such as sky rockets and flares and a few cannon flashes.
Just imagine being able to be up here where I can see these things. It’s perfectly bully.
I have started a diary again because, being the only telephone girls in the zone of advance—at present, anyhow, our experiences will be unique for girls. You know it seems silly to keep notes on ordinary everyday happenings, and up to now our life has been almost normal.
No more days off. though, nor dances, nor dinner parties. We're in it maintenant, and it's work, hard work, all day and every day. and perhaps when emergencies arise, during the night.
We’re prepared for all of that, and are perfectly delighted to be able to share a little of this all-engrossing work. Besides, there isn't anything else to do out here. There is no place to go; at night it is pitch dark, and one can't go wandering around this place without bumping into something that's going somewhere,—and then we have a great time extricating ourselves.
I brought my wheel up here, but it is more of a nuisance than anything else, and I would like to get rid of it. One can't circulate very freely here,—I mean, go long distances, as at GHQ. One hasn’t the time, in the first place, and in the second place, I understand it isn’t allowed to go out of a certain area. Besides, the rainy season is setting in.
The other day one of the girls and I went out for a ride, and it rained and it rained and it rained. To make matters worse, we got caught between two trains, an American machine gun and ammunition train going north and a French truck train going south. The French autos were driven by Chinese, and they simply leered at us.
Our own boys thought we were French girls. Between the two, we were almost driven to distraction and the first chance we had we left the main road. The only way for us to go was up a narrow foot path to the canal, and we had to walk with our bicycles, but we didn’t care if we had to walk a rope.
Letter VII: Miss Esther V. Fresnel
France, September 10, 1918.
We have a new addition to our wardrobes since we’ve been in this town, and that is a steel helmet and a gas mask. If for no other reason than to lend a military appearance to our bedroom, we are glad to get them.
THE boys are fond of saying that it a is bad for them to stay too long in one place. That is why, as soon as they get settled in one place, they are ordered to go somewhere else.
Miss Helen E. Hill
Miss Helen E. Hill, of Seattle, Wash., suddenly receives her “marching orders,' which she hails with great joy:
Somewhere in France.
My own dear Mother:
I wish you were here so that I could tell you all I have been doing these past two weeks,—my experiences have been so intensely interesting. . . .
On Saturday I was operating the local board at Neuf Château when a French Central call came in. I answered as usual "J'econte” which means, “I am listening,”' or “Number, please ?” A masculine voice said, “Is this Neufchateau?“
I replied in the affirmative and he said he would like to speak to Miss Hill. Imagine my surprise! I said that I was that lady, and he proceeded to tell me that he was speaking for who was coming down to see me the next day. I was delighted, of course, and said I should be right on deck to welcome him.
Sunday was my day off, fortunately and I could spend several hours with him. There was considerable excitement in the air because three of us had been told that we were to leave in a day or so for a point much nearer the front. In fact, I thought we would probably leave on Sunday, so I was up bright and early, did a big washing, and some ironing, then dressed for dinner.
________ arrived at noon with two other Lieutenants, and took another operator and myself to the hotel for dinner. They had come down from the Front in a nice fast Fiat truck on an errand which they had not yet finished, so we were invited to go up to the place with them.
America in France
The road led through some beautiful country, past some very quaint French villages with their red-tiled roofs and single church spire, and past many American encampments. Really, one sees far more Americans than French. France is a little America now, and sometimes I think the people resent our taking such complete possession of their little country, and one cannot blame them when one thinks how it would be to have our own country over-run with French or Italians. They welcome us, certainly, but there is a little feeling sometimes.
An Aviation Camp
Well, at any rate, we enjoyed thoroughly the ride to this place, and upon arriving were piloted by ________ to an aviation field where we saw some beautiful aeroplanes. He knows all about them, as he is in the observer and machine gunner end of the air service, so he explained all the workings, incidentally giving us a few tales of his own experiences.
I had seen many planes fly overhead, but had never closely investigated one of the animals, and was consequently much interested. The whole camp was very interesting,—all camouflaged, as it was quite near the front lines.
On the return trip we were bowling along at 35 miles an hour when bang! we had a blowout. It was quickly repaired, however, and we sped on toward home, arriving just at dinner time.
The boys had to leave immediately because they had a long ride ahead of them (five or six hours), so we said farewell, and waved goodbye as they went down the street.
Monday morning we were told that we would probably leave after dinner at night, but were not told where we were going. It was only by fishing around in different quarters that Adele and I figured out enough information to give us a good idea as to where we were going. Everyone is crazy to get nearer the Front.
I went back to work after lunch and forgot about leaving, I was so busy,—passing French Long Distance Calls. Then all of a sudden, I was told to plug up my board and run home for my baggage.
It was then about 4 p. m. I dashed up the street, grabbed my remaining possessions, stuffed them into my handbag, and dashed madly back to the machine which was waiting to take us away.
In no time we had left our No. 731 behind in the dust and were speeding up north toward our new place. We were fascinated with the beautiful views and with the thought that every kilometer was taking us nearer the Front.
It was nearly dinner time when we sighted the town, and our post signal officer greeted us with an invitation to dinner at his mess. It surely tasted good, cooked as it was by American boys, served nicely to the six girls and three officers.
In the War Zone
After dinner we came back to our quarters and went to bed. I was all alone in a lovely big room in a big canopied bed (I felt like Louis XIV himself). We were very fortunate to have found a nice house with three big bedrooms, a small dining room and kitchen and bath room and a wash room besides. The rooms are all opening on a little courtyard with steps going up to the second floor.
As yet we have no permanent cook, but there is a very nice woman who cleans for us and cooks until we get another. We girls get our own coffee in the morning,— which is no hardship at all.
The office is small, but what care we? It is sandbagged! That makes up for anything we could possibly miss. I am perfectly happy here. The town is clean and very pretty ; the surrounding hills are beautiful. The Meuse flows along gracefully, and there is a lovely canal on one side of the town. We girls are the object of considerable interest as we are the first American girls to appear in this town.
But, tell me, did you ever see anyone move around as I do? First at Tours, then at General Pershing’s Headquarters, then nearer the Front, now way up, much, much nearer. Oh, I am delighted, because I feel it is a great honor to be here.
But Miss Hill was to experience more than the novelty of the idea of being near the Front, for in a letter, dated a day later, she says:
An Exciting Night
I must not miss a choice bit which I added to my long list of experiences during the night. From a perfectly calm sleep I was awakened by excited talk and much noisy movement. My two room-mates were dashing around the room with towels in their hands, “swatting” the walls beside their bed. I was so sleepy I could scarcely see the clock, but I made out that it was 1:30 a. m., and I soon found out what they were doing. In polite French, it was punaises they were chasing.
I wish I could picture the scene,—these two, wildly excited figures all but shrieking, darkness outside, candle-light, and, to cap the climax, a lone cat outside in the courtyard howling its head off. The bedlam quieted down in a few minutes and they went back to bed.
What about me? I was on the opposite side of the room, my bed, fortunately, out away from the wall, and apparently “nothing doing” inside it. So I laughed and laughed at the whole performance.
It was not long before I heard them again, and again they quieted down. Then a third time they jumped out of bed, this time in desperation. They were bitten up and mad as hops.
There was an extra room which the two girls had vacated yesterday on the ground floor, so they left in haste, found some clean sheets, and I heard nothing from them.
I went off to sleep trusting to Providence that the wee beasties would leave me unmolested. They did. But to-day we vacate the offending room, a peintre is coming to scrape the walls and whitewash them ; then we trust we will be permitted to fight only the Germans, not their allies.
Well, my dear family, you will see that I am really in the war zone and finding life interesting and amusing, and decidedly different from anything I have ever before met with.
I must run back to the office now, as my lunch hour is finished. Farewell for this time. I am very well and so happy,—much happier than I was at the last place even. A year from Christmas I shall be at home to hang up my stocking with Frank.
Animated Teddy Bears
Miss Louise Barbour, District Chief Operator, District of Paris, Women's Telephone Unit, Signal Corps. Paris, Seine, France. Photograph by Sgt. Brooks, Signal Corps, 10 January 1919. National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-48539. NARA ID # 86703187. GGA Image ID # 198e5c0762
Miss Louise Barbour, of New York City, in describing her trip across the Atlantic, says:
Band concerts or dancing on the deck usually filled in the afternoons. The dancing was really most amusing as the deck was often at a dangerous angle, and both men and girls were obliged to wear huge life-preservers, so that they looked like animated teddy bears.
Many little comments throw light on the daily life of the girls, which seems to be crammed full of work and pleasure. Miss Bertha Yerkler, of Chicago, says:
In every place we were treated with the kindest consideration, but it felt mighty fine to get to our final post and really unpack our trunks and stay awhile.
We are living in an old-fashioned French mansion, I should say 250 years old, and attached to it is the most wonderful old garden! Here in the garden we spend most of our evenings. We are kept very busy all day long,—eight hour days, and we work every, other Sunday. The life agrees with the girls and all are looking rosier than when they first arrived.
Col. Carty Gives Them a Talk
Miss Barbour and I are here together for a time to do some instruction work. Isn’t it wonderful that we can work together even a little while longer? I have seen so many of our girls,—Mrs. Crittenden, in Paris (by the way, she comes here to take charge very soon), Miss Snow, who is here now, Miss Marsh, who is here now, Raymonde Le Breton, and Miss Van Brunt. Elizabeth Macauley has been the fun of the crowd all the way over.
Colonel Carty gave us a talk yesterday. It surely seemed wonderful to see him here. The last time I saw him was in an elevator in our own building in New York.
Everyone is wonderfully cordial and kind to us all. Captain Stannard (a New England telephone man), is in charge of the telephone unit over here.
"Six Hello Girls Help First Army," in The Stars and Strpes, Friday, 4 October 1918, p. 6.
"In the Zone of Advance Six American Telephone Operators Near the Front —Letters from Some of Them— Visited by Colonel J. J. Carty," in The Telephone Review, Vol. 9, No. 11, November 1918, pp. 296-298.