In 1918, a Killeen woman wrote to the Temple Daily Telegram. Listing her name only as “Wantogo,” she asked how she could go to France to assist in soldiers serving during World War I.
The Temple Daily Telegram editor replied, “The only paths open to girls for actual war service are as telephone operator or nurse, and she must have special qualifications in either case. To become a telephone operator with the signal corps, she must be able to speak French fluently …”
Considered the first modern, high-tech war, “The Great War,” as it was called, introduced horrific instruments of death — from poisonous gasses to powerful bullet-lobbing contrivances. Telephones, invented in 1876, rapidly expanded communication between 1917 and 1918 and became essential in battle. Women switchboard operators — nicknamed “Hello Girls” — became essential to the war effort.
A century after Armistice, World War I continues — at least at local cinemas and on the New York stage.
Showing at 1 and 7 p.m. Monday in limited release at the Cinemark theaters in Temple and Harker Heights is an astonishing documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” taken from thousands of hours of interviews recorded in the 1960s, when the BBC interviewed around 250 veterans of the first World War, as they were still hale enough to speak of their experiences circa 1914-18 with clarity and authority.
The Imperial War Museum in London commissioned “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson to make the movie, with the proviso he abstain from using any new footage or archival material from other sources.
Jackson’s team digitally restored the footage, originally captured by hand-cranking camera operators who were sometimes under fire, and then converted a portion of it into color and 3D. The soldiers’ voices coupled with restored film create a riveting experience.
Jackson opted to emphasize the stories with their narrations, rather than a chronicle of each battle or maneuver. The result is an “Every Man’s view” of the war — the heroic, the terror, the anguish, the humorous. Some scenes are intense, especially for young audiences — the dead and injured are not sanitized, that’s not stage blood. That corpse is really somebody’s son or husband.
Although not intentional, “Every Woman’s role” during the war is minor, if mentioned at all.
Currently on New York’s off-Broadway is a new musical, “The Hello Girls,” depicting women who manned telephones on the French battlefields for the Allies.
During the Great War, more than 400 women connected to the U.S. Army Signal Corps who worked as switchboard operators at command outposts in Europe during the conflict.
Fighting in France, the Army was having trouble with the phones. With speed essential in the dispatch of information, calls weren’t getting through fast enough. Phone calls back then were patched from one operator to the next, so it was a problem when the soldiers at the switchboards couldn’t speak French and communicate with the local operators.
Worse, though, was the men’s clumsiness at a critical task that, in the civilian world, was largely women’s work.
Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing (1860-1948), the top U.S. commander, needed skilled operators who could travel with him and maintain contact with troops scattered over hundreds of miles.
“He rapidly discovered that these doughboys, as they were called, were not very quick,” said historian Elizabeth Cobbs, author of “The Hello Girls” (Harvard University Press, 2017). So, Pershing appealed for women — against objections from his own Army.
By late 1917, just as U.S. troops began arriving full force in Europe, telephone companies sent an urgent call to all newspapers for “Hello girls” to operate telephones along the front lines.
“Only those who can readily understand French spoken over the telephone are eligible. Pay for operators will be $60 a month; supervisors will earn $72 and chief operators will earn $125. Room and board included,” according to an announcement in the Temple Daily Telegram.
Requirements were strict: Applicants had to be fluent in conversational French, especially over a telephone; they had to have a “soft, cooing voice” that officers said would “put more spirit into a fighter than the gruff voice of a male operator.”
Other problems cropped up: Only single women taller than five feet were accepted. Shorter women could not read the top multiple jacks of the switchboards.
The YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) dispatched dozens of female fundraisers throughout the nation, including Bell County. Described as “a natural, brilliant speaker,” national field secretary Helen Barnes of New York made the rounds of local women’s and church groups. Bell County residents opened their hearts and purses to her, donating thousands to support women serving overseas.
A May 1917 issue of the Temple Daily Telegram was effusive in its praise of phone operators. “If Uncle Sam can fill his army with men as brave and as loyal to their country as the telephone girls are to their company – why, look out, Kaiser William! … For certainly there is no other class of employment that conduces so much to stories of bravery and heroism as does that of the telephone girl.”
By the end of World War I, U.S. women telephone operators had connected over 26 million calls. They served with distinction, wore Army uniforms, were subject to military law and swore oaths of allegiance. Several received military awards and decorations. They also served during the occupation of Germany and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
The last of the “Hello Girls” returned home in 1920. The Telegram ran a full page feature on their war service. However, the federal government told them that they were never soldiers eligible for any benefits.
Eventually, they fought the government for 60 years for recognition. In 1977, they won; unfortunately only 36 were still alive.