Tribute to American Telephone Operators in France - 1919

Photo of Signal Corps Telephone Girls in France.

Photo of Signal Corps Telephone Girls in France. The Photo Shows Two Young Women of the Signal Corps Telephone Operators in Their Room at Neufchatel. Photograph © Underwood & Underwood, New York. Southern Telephone News, May 1919. GGA Image ID # 19842a5b31

What it meant to have our American girls over in France, operating an American telephone system, built by Americans, for the use of pur American troops may be inferred from the following incident:

A very busy officer lifted his receiver to place a call and when he heard, “Number, please?” in the old familiar way, he shouted, “Thank God!” so loudly and devoutly that everybody laughed, including the operator at the other end of the line.

In token of their appreciation of the work and services of these operators, letters of commendation were written by officers of high rank in all branches of the service, including the commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces.

As Christmas approached, these letters were collected and copies made by the officers and soldiers at the headquarters of the chief signal officer, A. E. F., for presentation to each operator, believing that they would desire to preserve them permanently as a memento. They formed a booklet of thirty-six letters in full and extracts from twenty-two others.

In addition, the booklets contain a complete list of all the operators, with their home addresses and unit numbers, photographs of General Pershing, Major General Harbord, and Brigadier General E. Russel, and pictures of the central offices at Tours and Toul.

There are letters from the commander-in-chief, General Pershing, and officers in all branches of the service under him throughout the war area, including generals, colonels, majors, captains, chiefs of air service, engineers, officers of the tank corps, the medical service and the Marines, as well as letters from the commander of the naval forces in France and the American consul.

These booklets were presented at a special Christmas dinner which was given to the operators at each A. E. F. exchange where they worked. The dinner referred to was made possible by the contribution through the YWCA of $464.49 from employees of the Bell system in this country.

Cover Design of the Book of Complimentary Letters.

Cover Design of the Book of Complimentary Letters. Momento of the Telephone Operating Unit of the Signal Corps Christmas 1918 in France. Southern Telephone News, May 1919. GGA Image ID # 19847fa24f

The first letter in the volume is a “Foreword” by Lieutenant Roy H. Coles, executive officer of the Signal Corps of the A. E. F. It extends Christmas greetings to the operators on behalf of the officers of the Signal Corps and expresses the pride which they felt' in being associated with the operators, and the pleasure they took in doing everything in that holiday season to make the occasion more pleasant for them.

Referring to the booklet, the letter says:

“It is presented to you with the thought that it will prove to be a valued and lasting memento of a period of efficient, honorable service, which it is hoped has been as agreeable and pleasant for you as it has been for those with whom you have been working.

“We rejoice with and congratulate you on the sentiments expressed in the various letters of commendation contained herein, and can only add that they echo ours but feebly.”

General Pershing's Praise.

Following this is an extract from the report made to the Secretary of War by General Pershing, in which he says, under the heading of commendation :

“The officers and men and young women of the Signal Corps have performed their duties with a large conception of the problem and with a devoted and patriotic spirit to which the perfection of our communications daily testifies.”

Major General J G. Harbord, in command of the S O. S., in his remarks of appreciation of the service rendered by the telephone operators, spoke of their efficiency which “made the telephone service of the U. S. Signal Corps a model of speed and accuracy known throughout the entire allied army.” He said, “They have filled a most important need in the A. E. F., in a very creditable way, which makes us all very proud.”

The words of Brigadier General E. Russel, chief signal officer, A. E. F., are also of significance. He wrote to the operators on November 12, the day after the armistice was signed:

“The bringing of women telephone operators to France for service with the American Expeditionary Forces had no precedent and for this reason the experiment was watched with unusual interest. It pleases me a great deal to say that by your ability, efficiency, devotion to duty and the irreproachable and business-like conduct of your affairs, personal and official, you have not only justified the action taken in assembling you, but have set a standard of excellence which could hardly be improved upon and which has been responsible, in no small measure, for the success of our system of local and long distance telephone communication.”

What seemed to strike many of the officers abroad especially was the cheerfulness of the operators in the face of heavy work and strenuous times, when the demands on them were such as to tax endurance and patience to the utmost.

As it was the operators who provided the connecting links between all the various departments and branches of the American Expeditionary Forces, it is not surprising that every branch and department in turn put itself on record in the little Christmas booklet as expressing gratification and praise to the switchboard soldiers.

Letter after letter told of the same high courage, patriotic motives, and always of their excellent work. If anyone were to doubt the accomplishments of the telephone operators in France, let him refer to the operators' Christmas booklet, every page of which adds another link to the long chain of evidence.

Their work was wide in its scope, and contributed to the efficiency and speed and, what is more, to the good nature of the individuals in every department of the government working in France.

That is the reason the operators were presented with the Christmas greetings from the American Expeditionary Forces in France with the heartiest good wishes from all.

In the words of Major General Mason M. Patrick, chief of the air service, Paris, “Quick service and intelligence shown in its performance have characterized our telephone system since you came. Our thanks to you and to each one of you a merry Christmas.”

"Tribute to American Operators in France," Atlanta: Southern Group of Bell Telephone Companies, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 1919, pp. 25, 27.

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