Woman Telephone Operators in France - 1920

American Telephone Operators Near the French Front.

American Telephone Operators Near the French Front. Telephone Engineer, September 1918. GGA Image ID # 1981acb14e

The Army decided the use of female telephone operators in France for two reasons. The first of these was the unquestioned superiority of women as telephone switchboard operators. The second was the desire to release for service in the more dangerous telephone centrals at the front, the male operators on duty in the larger offices at Army headquarters, and the Services of Supply.

The first request for female telephone operators was received in the United States on 8 November 1917 and requested an organization's formation to be made up of trained telephone operators who spoke French and English.

To fill the request, the Army sought the Bell Telephone System's cooperation and the Independent Telephone System. These companies undertook to train girls in their various central offices in New York City, Chicago, Lancaster (Pa.), San Francisco, Jersey City (N. J.), Atlantic City (N. J.), and Philadelphia.

Due to the requirement that the girls should speak both French and English, it was found impossible to draw the required number from girls already trained. An intensive course of instruction was instituted to thoroughly familiarize untrained girls who had the necessary linguistic ability in both local and long-distance operating.

The training of these girls was begun in November 1917 and continued until the close of the war. More than 450 girls undertook the course, and the Signal Corps sent 223 of them abroad at various times.

The Army maintained the requirement that the operators should speak both French and English until 20 September 1918, when a cablegram was received requesting that all previous requests for female telephone operators be disregarded and that in the future, 25 long-distance operators and 20 French-speaking operators be ready for service in France by 15 November, the same number by 10 January 1919, and following that date 25 French-speaking operators and 15 long-distance operators be ready for service in France every six weeks, one experienced supervisor to be appointed for each detachment, and each detachment to be in charge of a commissioned officer until reported at destination in France.

The change in qualifications made was because, with the American Expeditionary Forces' growth, the more significant part of the telephone business came to be transacted between American offices.

The necessity that the operators should speak French, which had existed in the early days when much of the business was transacted between American and French centrals, had disappeared.

The first unit of 33 operators, in charge of chief operator Miss Grace Banker, embarked from New York on 6 March 1918. Twelve of these operators were assigned to the Paris office on March 25, 12 to the Chaumont office on March 28, and 9 to the Tours office on 27 March.

Five additional operating units were later sent to France and assigned to various Signal Corps offices. In all, 233 women came over from the States in the six operating units. They were primarily assigned to the large offices, which were toll centers and where the local traffic was heavy so that the Army could best utilize their skill and training received in the States.

Units served at First, Second, and Third Army headquarters. When the first unit reached Paris, they were given a three-day course of lectures. During this period, the girls were quartered at the Hotel Petrograd and had a taste of actual warfare, for, during this time, Paris was raided three nights in succession.

Col. Parker Hitt, chief signal officer, First Army, tells the story of the devotion to duty, under actual war conditions, by the women telephone operators in the following interesting narrative:

Since the early days of the American Expeditionary Forces, it had always been the contention of the chief signal officer, First Army, that an Army telephone central would have to have American women operators to be a success. Our experience in Paris with the untrained and undisciplined English-speaking French women operators and experience elsewhere with the willing but untrained men operators was almost disastrous.

The remarkable change in the character of the service at General Headquarters and other points when the American women operators took them over was one of the features of the Signal Corps work of the time. The personnel for the First Army staff were chosen late in July 1918. At that time, the chief signal officer of the First Army had in mind the question of American women telephone operators for his Army central.

The Army headquarters took station at La Forte sous Jouarre. A thoroughly modern telephone and telegraph plant was practically finished by the Signal Corps when the orders came on 6 August to move the headquarters to another point. This meant dismantling the newly organized plant and overturning the tentative plans for obtaining women operators to handle the service.

The next move of the Army headquarters was to Neufchateau, which was already provided with an American central with women operators. It was the understanding that the First Army would remain at Neuf Château but for a very short time, and this was the case since, by 26 August, all arrangements had been made to move to Ligny en Barrois, an advanced command post for the St. Mihiel operations.

On 18 August, the chief signal officer of the First Army wrote to the chief signal officer, American Expeditionary Forces, and stated: To obtain the maximum efficiency in the operation of the telephone central at advanced Army command post, I desire to use women operators, to be taken from those exceptionally qualified by their familiarity with front-line work and code-station work.

I will have the facilities for a small number of these operators at the proposed advanced command post, and no difficulty need be anticipated along this line.

Because the Army had to handle an immense amount of telephonic communication with the French armies on its right and left, with French corps in the Army, with the French group of armies, and finally with General Headquarters, it was apparent that an essential requirement for these Army operators was the ability to speak French as well as they spoke English.

Simultaneously, they needed to be excellent operators and in good physical condition to stand the strain of their work and the possible hardships of living in the Army area. Miss Julia Russel of the YWCA who had charge of the opera tors' hostess house at Chaumont, made the necessary arrangements for billets and a mess for six operators and herself in Ligny.

When those arrangements were complete on 25 August, the chief signal officer, American Expeditionary Forces, was notified; Chief Operator Grace D. Banker and Operators Ester V. Fresnel and Suzanne Prevot were sent by automobile from Chaumont to Neuf chateau. They were joined by Operators Helen E. Hill, Bertha M. Hunt, and Marie Lange, and the six proceeded to Ligny by automobile.

As the Army's advanced command post was at that time a secret, there was considerable interest, not only at Chaumont and Neuf Château but also among the group of six themselves, as to what would be their ultimate destination. The first night at Ligny was an initiation into the terrors of the front-line billet.

The previous tenants of the billets had left living reminders which made the night an exceedingly interesting, if sleepless, one. Stern sanitary measures the next day obliterated the unwelcome pests, and the billet became habitable. Shortly after these operators' arrival, the St. Mihiel offensive began, and they received their first experience during the offensive.

The results obtained were highly satisfactory, and the detachment was maintained at Army headquarters throughout the entire campaign. It was not until the armistice had been signed and the First Army headquarters removed to Bar-sur-Aube that they were relieved and sent back to various large offices on the Services of Supply.

Although the detachment with the First Army was the only detachment that saw service during active operations, operators worked with the Second Army at Toul and with the Third Army at Coblenz in January as a part of the Army of occupation.

The use of women operators throughout the entire war was decidedly a success; not only are they more skillful in the manipulation of a board than are the men, but there is also a psychological consideration. Officers were inclined to put up with irritating delays because women were on the board, and that feature alone has much to do with the smooth and efficient functioning of a telephone system.

"Chapter XXXIV: Woman Telephone Operators," in War Department Annual Reports - 1919, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Officer, Volume 1, Part 1, 1920, pp 1419-1421.

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