A bit of "back story"

World War 1 started in Europe in 1914.
That is 100 years ago this year. 

The United States entered WWI in 1917. Only 3 years until we also have the 100th year anniversary.

I decided last year that I wanted to tell a WWl story for the Fringe this summer.

My my great uncle, Walter Cobb,  is buried at the San Mihiel American Cemetery in France. He died in France of the Spanish Flu 6 days before the Armistice.  In 1930 his mother, Mary Louise Cobb, went to France as a Gold Star Mother to visit Walter's grave. She was on one of the government sponsored pilgrimages for wives and mothers to American cemeteries in France. For years I have thought I would tell their story - before its forgotten.

But, when I found the story of the Hello Girls  - well - it was a "siren's song"  - -

The Hello Girls - A Tale of  WWI
   picture taken in France, 1918.
(Courtesy of the Women's Military Memorial)

Storyteller Geraldine Buckley has said 
"It IS a cracklingly good story ".
She is right and I was enchanted by it when I first read it. knew I wanted to tell it.

I loved their story - and I was challenged by the idea of telling a story that was not a personal story. This is new story territory for me.

Their story is almost completely unknown which attracted me right away. Anyone who knows me and my history as a feminist activist for the Equal Rights Amendment will understand that a chance to "give them their due" was enticing to me.

When General John Pershing, the Commander of the American Expedionary Forces,  reached France in 1917 to bring the "Yanks" to the battlefield he was shocked to discover that France did not have the same top notch telephone system of the day that he was accustomed to in the US.  Also an acute problem was that the French operators spoke no English and the Doughboys spoke practically no French. He sent a message to the War Department. "Send over 100 women telephone operators as fast as you can recruit them."

Pershing knew that the war would be won by more than guns - they needed excellent communications with the battlefields and all the camps.

It was a tricky search. Women dominated the role of telephone operators so there were many to pull from on that score. But finding French speakers made the task more difficult. They were recruited into the Signal Corps. These women, 19-35 years old came from across the United States and some from Canada.

They were sent to France on troop ships carrying men headed to the battlefield. They carried out their jobs at stations across France - some were close enough to the battlefields to feel the earth move when the heavy guns were fired.

At the end of the war General Pershing called them "switchboard soldiers.

I hope you will want to hear their story and meet these plucky women! 


Carolyn Stearns said...

I can't wait to hear this story!

Kate Campbell Stevenson said...

Absolutely fascinating story--- Can't wait to hear your new performance piece about the Hello Girls. It's of great importance to educate contemporary audiences-- to keep these adventuresome women patriots stories alive. Their contributions were vital to the success of the Allies victory in WWI !

Anonymous said...

This is outstanding! I remember some mention of telephone lines in Maisie Dobbs books . . . such a leap forward in communication!
BTW, I'm heeding your advice to write down a bit of activism history from the 70s . . . F for feminism, V for Vietnam, etc. Thanks for the encouragement to do so. <3