The Doughboy Site, Hello Girls Commemorative Many thanks to webmaster Michael E. Hanlon.
The City of Chaumont, France, Commemorates the 85th Anniversary of the Armistice with a Tribute to the U.S. Signal Corps Women Soldiers Grands remerciements au webmaitre Lionel Dupontreue.
Home, Michelle Christides, Jungian Mentor & Globalization business consultant
copyright 1976, 2004, by Michelle Christides
Any descendants of the seven units of Signal Corps women (I have a complete list), please contact me below. I would like to include any stories, letters, photos of your ancestresses in my definitive history of their role in the unexpected, rapid conclusion of WWI.
This is a painting by Michelle Christides of Oleda Christides, nee Joure, in front of Caserne Damremont, General Pershing's HQ for 2,000,000 American men of the First Army. It was from here that about thirty of the 223 SC women who served in France, connected the front lines to the general command. WWI was the first war in history for which technology allowed this to happen.
The Hello Girls were called "combatants" in WWI -- the first Army women to be so-called because they served in France in response to General Pershing's emergency appeal for bilingual women telephone switchboard operators. They were enlisted and sworn in, but when they returned to the US after the war and asked for their Victory medals, they learned they could not have been. Army regulations stated only "males" were sworn into the Army although most of these women had been sworn in twice. This is my mother's story:
They called us "the Lost Generation" and I thought that meant the slaughter of the Great War until I realized in the decades to follow the extent of injury to those of us who had survived. I was called a "combatant" by Ernest J. Wessen, who, in his capacity as civilian personnel recruiter at the War Department, organized the telephone units upon receipt of a requisition telegram from General Russell, adjutant to Pershing. He states in his affidavit that he took it upon himself to interpret General Pershing's order as " . . . at last, women were to be allowed to serve overseas in and as a part of the Army . . . quite aside from the nurse corps. . . . New in Washington, I asked no questions, proceeded to organize and train the units in the best manner I knew how . . . through the A.T. & T. company.
"You were actually combatants with no military standing, and under International Law I hate to think of what would have happened to you had you been captured," he wrote. " . . . the big thing is . . . you folks were actual combatants, and so recognized by Pershing when he decorated one of your number for bravery under fire."
I have in my possession a booklet of statements issued by all our commanding officers in the AEF, for Christmas 1918, commending our service as indispensable to the victory a month earlier. When I was sworn in and sent "over there" aboard a troop ship, the war, it was rumored, would last ten years, and I, like my brother, took an oath that I was in "for the duration."
Major Roy J. Coles, Signal Corps, wrote on May 17, 1921 to several State veterans' bonus boards: "[I was] . . . during the final few weeks as Chief Signal Officer on General Pershing's staff . . . I am in the very best position to know of the sacrifices and devotion to duty shown by these heroic young ladies, who gave up everything, placed themselves subject to the strictest kind of military discipline, braved the perils of the submarine infested seas and shared the hardships and privations which come to an army in a theatre of operation shoulder to shoulder with officers, enlisted men and nurses without murmur and without complaint. . . . Their orders with which they had no option but to comply, sent them in their soldiers' uniforms to all parts of the theatre of operations of our Army, and the hardships, privations and dangers which they were called upon to endure were of as common occurrence as those in the case of the average officer and soldier, and I bespeak for these three hundred and fifty young ladies and for each of them, every consideration which individuals, bodies, states or the nation may see fit to give to any part of our armed forces during the recent war.
"General Pershing and Brigadier-General Russell, the Chief Signal Officer of the American E. F., during all the period of the war, have already lavishly praised the loyalty, devotion to duty and spirit of self sacrifice with which . . . the female Telephone Operating Units were imbued, and I am certain that they would feel as keenly as do I any intimation that these ladies were other than a part of the American Expeditionary Forces in the fullest sense of the words and of the phrase. Yours very truly, Roy H. Coles, Major Signal Corps."
Congress issued a citation to Grace Banker, Chief Operator, for leading eight Operators to the front in the final drive of the war to reduce the St. Mihiel salient. Their barracks caught fire from the bombardment, and they had to be threatened from Chaumont HQ, via the telephone lines they were connecting to the front, with court-martial for disobeying orders to leave their switchboards immediately. They left, but came back an hour later to woman the remaining one-third of the switchboards. All our operators had volunteered to go to the front. We thought they were lucky to serve there.
I saw sights of the wounded I shall never forget -- the looks of black despair on their faces. I saw the terrible toll of war. And now, after all these years, and all that's happened, it does seem as though our idealism was na´ve. "Saving the world for democracy," has a hollow sound. And yet, as Erich Maria Remarque wrote in All Quiet On the Western Front, we don't fight for ideas, we fight for the people we love. We learn, strangely, we learn to love everybody when under the extremity of murder and maiming. I saw the young German soldiers, polite, well-behaved, some of them only teenagers, others you knew were fathers, and when I read Remarque's book over a decade later, it gave me the words for what I had seen had given me new ideas -- ideas that I haven't his gift of writing to convey, and which few can hear or are willing to.
And even if these scenes of youth were given back to us we would hardly know what to do. . . . We might be amongst them and move in them . . . But it would be like gazing at the photograph of a dead comrade . . . the man himself it is not . . . the communion, the feeling of comradeship with the things and events of our existence, which cut us off and made the world of our parents a thing incomprehensible to us-- for then we surrendered ourselves to events and were lost in them, and the least little thing was enough to carry us down the stream of eternity. . . .
Today we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled-- we are indifferent. We might exist there; but should we really live there?
We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial-- I believe we are lost.
I read Remarque's words with a shudder of recognition. I saw this happen to my older brother. But I saw it in so many men of my generation; I saw it in France, where I lived nearly a decade after the Second World War. Perhaps, only because I am a woman, I escaped to love.
Sixty years later, in 1977, thanks to our fighting spirit, fifty of us were still alive when Merle Egan Anderson of Seattle, who had led our fight all this time, was offered help by a young attorney, Mark Hough. He took our case once again to Congress. In 1972, a men's unit of Railway Engineers, who had served in Russia, had won a lawsuit against the government for the same reasons. Nobody had told them either that their Army uniforms and oaths were not real. Mark Hough pointed out their case had been decided by the Courts. Congress capitulated to what they had said about us once-- that they had been "grateful."
Brigadier-General Arthur Wolfe came to my home and gave me my honorable discharge in 1978. My husband, Chris, who had helped me fight for so long, said: "We live for moments like this." Thank you, Mark, I fought for you in the same spirit as you fought for us sixty years later. And as Ernest Wessen said, "I want to see or hear grandchildren say . . . 'My grandmother was a member of the first women's combatant unit in the United States Army,' and be able to back up their claims by reference to the laws of this country."
Oleda Christides, nee Joure, died August 8, 1984, six months after her beloved husband, former U.S. Treasury Representative to France and the INTERPOL.
This web page and the two pages linked to above were prepared by their daughter, Michelle Christides, who speaks publicly on the first women combat veterans and their role in WWI. She is a former Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies in Western Civilization at California State University--Sonoma and Golden Gate University, and continues to teach at the Pierian Spring Academy in Sarasota, as well as at other graduate and professional institutions.
"The Great War Society would provide a letter of support to you. . . . This is an essential story, you are the leading documentarian on the subject in the world and ATT will only receive positive publicity from your efforts. I think you've got a winner. Best wishes, Mike" [Hanlon], web master of the Doughboy site of the Great War Society.
The full story, based on my collection of documents from many of the Signal Corps women and on my interviews of three before they died, exists in an unpublished book that has also been adapted to a film script for a history documentary with the hope that someday it will be published or broadcast. AT&T has rejected the proposal to sponsor a TV documentary on the history of the Hello Girls. All images and text are copyright Michelle Christides, 1976, 2004. If you can help to get the definitive history of the WWI Signal Corps women published, or if you are descendant from them and want to add your documents to this history before it is published, please contact me, below.
Teachers, please explain to your students that the point of your assignment to do research is to teach them how to find material and discern its accuracy and especially its meaning to the people who made history -- why they sacrificed and what they learned from reality. Please explain that this material has been prepared with a great deal of work by an author so that it may be used by them in their research, but research does not mean to interview an author because the work is published (the short form on the web is adequate for high school assignments) in order to help the many, many young people who want to know about women's history. No author has enough time to help everybody, which is the point of publishing.
It is especially important for teachers to be aware that some histories are being written for children's books or magazines by writers who seem to be unaware that WWI was conducted with weapons that killed or maimed an entire generation of young men -- even the generals realized the technology had outstripped their old ideas of victory. I have received material from writers requesting help, photos, or endorsements of accuracy to prepare their material for children's accounts. Editors of publications are responsible for review of writer's credentials for accuracy in research. Some have mentioned inaccurately the Congresspeople who helped sponsor the bill for which the attorney gave supporting evidence or have used views of the war with which my mother (for one) would have vigorously disagreed, such as glorifying their intention to save the world for democracy without mentioning these women saw while "Over There" that the war became a slaughter and they were revulsed by the tragedy. Some contemporary writers have imagined views that were never true: e.g., "even worse, the French did not speak good English . . ." I can hear her voice saying: "Why should they? Most Americans did not speak any French and they were fighting for our interests in their country!"
Writers, I appreciate your interest and especially appreciate your contacting me for permission to use my work. There are established rules for the accuracy of factual accounts and appropriate citation and the few history books that have published chapters on the Signal Corps WWI Women have used them in citing what I have published. I have a great deal of material which is included in the still unpublished history, but I cannot make it available for the very reason that we all want to publish our work.
As for fictionalizing the history, there are clear rules for that -- especially regarding the use of names of actual persons or any other of their identifiable stories or characteristics. I hope that all our work will help get this definitive history published as soon as possible. I will post notice here.
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