“Hello-Girls” Are Going “Over There” To Help Link Up the Army’s Nerve-Fibers - 1918
Front Cover Image Showing a Telephone Operator of the First Unit on a Transport Ship Headed for France. The Telephone Review, May 1918. GGA Image ID # 19866966ad
Personal Glimpses: “Hello-Girls” Are Going “Over There” To Help Link Up the Army’s Nerve-Fibers
A little group of young women have responded to the call of General Pershing, and are going “over there” to become a real part of the Expeditionary Force in France.
There are one hundred and fifty of these volunteers who are known as the Switchboard Soldiers, and they are not only expert in the telephone business, but each one of them sneaks, reads, and writes both English and French.
The New York Evening Telegram says of these young women who will compose the unit and occupy posts of danger, many of them Just behind the firing-line:
These experts have been selected from all parts of the country, even from far-away California, and include women from all walks of life. There are French-born girls who have learned English while in employment here as maids; teachers who have studied in France, and gentlewomen, many born in France, who have laid aside their home duties and mastered the routine of the switchboard, for the purpose of filling in at posts on the war-front where they can be of more service than men.
Not that the men who have been doing this work have lacked either courage or skill, but because, under the excitement of battle, they have at times failed to stick to the strict business conversation necessary and have given vent to their feelings in language more picturesque than diplomatic.
Experiments proved that while women have more “nerves” than men, they stick closer to business in a pinch. This was demonstrated in Belgian and French cities where the girls stayed at their switchboards while the aircraft of the enemy overhead was hurling down bombs.
Says the writer in The Telegram:
Some time ago a request was received from General Pershing for a number of young women willing to become a genuine part of the Expeditionary Force in France, and do their bit to win the war by giving necessary support to the boys in khaki who were training to “go over the top.” Uncle Sam at once sent out a call for the requested assistance through the Signal Corps, and the drive for competent “switchboard soldiers” was on.
Of course the first young women selected were those already familiar with an operator’s duties who spoke both English and French, but there were comparatively few of these.
Then the work of picking from the volunteers was begun, and only the best were selected from the thousands who answered the call and said they were willing to go.
These were placed in the hands of expert operators and taught the mysteries of the switchboard and made acquainted with certain other important duties, for their services on the other side once they begin their work will include talking with both American and French military officers and French officials.
Additional units are to be formed to follow the first, so any young women who believes that she is qualified for the tasks demanded may apply at the nearest telephone company headquarters.
Every member of this telephone organization will be required, at all times, to wear a standard uniform approved by the War College. The different ranks are distinguished by different insignia on the white brassard worn on the left arm, operators wearing a black transmitter, supervisors a gilt laurel wreath beneath the transmitter, and chief operators the two symbols mentioned surmounted by the gilt lightning-belts used as insignia by the Signal Corps.
The pay is $60 a month for operators. $72 for supervisors, and $125 for chief operators, in addition to which allowances will be made for rations and quarters when these things are not provided by the Army.
It was empress upon all of the young women selected before they actually were sworn into the service that the force was not destined for either a pleasure trip or a “joy ride.” and that social opportunities were not to be included in the program.
It was to be a war-task of a nature and size which would appeal only to the brave and patriotic, the Signal Corps wanting only level-headed women who were resourceful, able to exercise good judgment in emergencies, and even endure hardship if necessary.
The details of the work the young women will be called upon to perform once they reach the war-zone have not yet been made public, but this description of the British field-telephone stations, where orders to the various battalion officers are received and dispatched, will give some idea of the hazardous duties of the Switchboard Soldier:
The switchboard is carried on a wagon and can be operated without being unloaded. The cable is unwound as a wire section goes forward, and behind the cable drum is a mounted soldier carrying a lance-like pole, with a hook at the end. who deftly catches the cable as it is unreeled and thrusts it out of the way of following traffic.
If the system is to be more or less permanent the engineering section which follows stretches the wires on light poles. When the section is moving rapidly in dangerous country it lays out a heavily insulated ground cable and hides it beside the road—in a ditch, for example.
Even in the early days of the war the British military telephone-service system was so comprehensive that it enabled Sir John French to direct the field-operations of the British Army in Flanders by telephone for three days front his home at Hyde Park. London.
The French system of telephone communication has been successfully used by the French generals, particularly General J offre, to regulate all troop movements over a 200-mile battle-front At headquarters wax-headed pins on a huge map indicate the location of troops, ammunition automobiles, etc.
This map shows the physical geography of the country and ail avenues of transportation. The Chief of Staff keeps the map up to the minute by changing the pins according to information received by telephone.
Then, if he is advised that a certain division is being attacked by the Germans in superior numbers, he knows by referring to the map the positions of disengaged troops, telephones an order, and in a few minutes troops are moving forward to reinforce their comrades under fire.
It is in telephone operations of this character that the young women of this country will be called upon to help and possibly to assist in receiving and transmitting information which will direct gun-fire.
"[Exhibit O]: Affidavit of Gertrude Hoppock, “Hello-Girls” Are Going “Over There” To Help Link Up the Army’s Nerve-Fibers, Literary Digest. April 6. 1918," in Hearing before the Committee on Venteran's Affairs, United States Senate, Ninety-Fifth Congress, First Session on S. 247, S. 1414, S. 129, and Related Bills, Washington DC: US Government Print Office, 25 May 1977, pp. 370-