The “Hello Girls” of WW1

During the First World War, the US Army depended for most of its tactical communications upon a small group of female volunteers called “the Hello Girls”.

Grace Banker, Chief Operator for the Hello Girls                                          photo from Wikicommons

Between the American Civil War in 1860 and the First World War in 1914, the world’s militaries had changed significantly. At Gettysburg and Petersburg, division generals usually led from the front, and were able to examine the frontlines and see for themselves where their forces were and what situation they were in. Most tactical orders were hand-written on the spot and went by courier.

By 1914, however, armies had become so huge and so widely scattered that nobody at the front could see the bigger picture, and commanding generals were now ensconced at the rear, in a central headquarters where they had to piece together a picture of the battlefield from reports which they received from the frontline commanders, then issue their orders.

During the Civil War, some of these rear-area communications came and went by telegraph, but this was slow, vulnerable to enemy disruption, and required specially trained operators. By the First World War, a new invention had appeared—wireless radio. It promised to revolutionize military communications. But in 1914 radio was not yet suitable for use at the front: unless they were securely encrypted, radio signals could be easily intercepted by the enemy, and the process of encoding and decoding meant that radio was of limited usefulness for rapid battlefield communications.

Instead, the armies of the First World War turned to another new technology—the telephone. Unlike radio signals which could be easily intercepted, telephone signals traveled by wires which were inaccessible to enemy eavesdroppers and allowed secure communications. During the Great War, troops on all sides laid thousands of miles of telephone wires that radiated out from the rear headquarters to connect the generals with their units in the front lines. In both the Entente and the Central Powers armies, nearly every order to advance, retreat or hold ground was carried by a telephone line.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, General John “Black Jack” Pershing needed to set up a similar communications network. But in this area, as in so many others, the US Army found itself utterly unprepared for a major war: the US Signal Corps had fewer than 1600 men, and most of them were telegraph operators who had never been trained to run a telephone switchboard.

Pershing needed to expand this service, and he needed to do it immediately. In particular, he needed skilled telephone switchboard operators who could quickly route incoming and outgoing messages to their proper destinations. And since many of his communications went to French Army units with which he was coordinating operations, he needed telephone operators who were fluent in the French language.

Fortunately for Pershing, he had access to the largest telephone network in the world—in the United States. After Alexander Graham Bell’s invention in 1876, America, with its wide geographic expanses, embraced the telephone like no other nation, and by 1917 had the largest communications network in existence. Every city had its telephone exchanges, and long-distance calls had to go through a series of several different switchboards. This entire network depended upon the telephone operators who ran them. And nearly all of these telephone operators were female.

At this time, women were viewed mostly as delicate creatures who needed to be shielded from the harsh realities of the male world. Women could not vote and had few civil rights of any sort, and, although they could be employed as easily-exploited factory workers, they were viewed more or less as the property of their fathers or husbands, who usually controlled their lives (and their incomes). 

Although both the British and the French Armies were already using women as telephone operators (and the US Navy recruited female communications workers), American military regulations specified that no females could enter the Army except as hospital nurses. But blunt military necessity forced Pershing to make do with that was available—and it was the civilian telephone operators who were available. The Signal Corps issued a call for volunteers to go to France, and got over 7,000 applications. From this, an initial pool of 100 was selected and trained for wartime duty, reporting to what is now Fort Meade in Maryland. Most of these were already working as switchboard operators, but Bell Telephone also trained a number of inexperienced women who were fluent in French (most of whom were from New Orleans or Quebec). They all became known as the “Hello Girls”. Several hundred more were trained as the war continued, and a total of 223 women were sent overseas.

When the Hello Girls reached France in March 1918, they played a crucial role. Since the Army had no facilities for women, the YWCA was assigned the task of housing them, chaperoning them, and providing amenities. Some of the women served at HQs in Paris or London, but most were just behind the frontline trenches serving local commanders (where they were sometimes subjected to enemy air attacks or artillery bombardments, and several were wounded). Not only did they perform the vital task of connecting incoming and outgoing telephone calls, but they served as real-time translators between French and American officers so that orders could be understood. This was vital for tasks such as planning operations and coordinating infantry attacks or artillery barrages. It also made these women privy to the most secret of Entente war plans, and they were given high-level security clearances.

During the 1918 American offensive, the US Army newspaper Stars and Stripes did an article on the Hello Girls who were handling the communications, saying, “Six women operators of the Signal Corps—six American girls who jumped at the chance to be there—were in at the start of the St. Mihiel push of September 12, at the headquarters of the First American Army. During the six days that followed the 12th’s initial heave they kept on their jobs, handling an average of 40,000 words a day over the eight lines they operated, and working any hours that were asked of them, day or night. When they finally did move out of there, it was only to move with the First Army’s headquarters to another part of the line, where they arrived in time to do similar yeoman service when the September 26 drive opened on the front northwest of Verdun.”

Even after the Germans signed an Armistice in November 1918, the Hello Girls remained in Europe, helping to transfer and translate telephone communications between the French and Americans during the Versailles Treaty negotiations and the occupation of Germany. Most of the women did not return to the United States until 1919. Two of them didn’t return at all—they died during the Spanish Flu Pandemic. The head of the service, Chief Operator Grace Banker, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

During their service, the Hello Girls had been assigned to the US Army Signal Corps, had been in uniform and had been subject to military discipline and regulations—but they had never been officially inducted into the armed services. As civilian volunteers, they were therefore not eligible for any veterans benefits, and were denied even the right to march in Veterans Day parades.

At the end of the war, the women’s suffrage movement finally won the legal right for women to vote and run for office with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. President Woodrow Wilson, who had previously been opposed to voting rights for women, now reversed himself, saying, “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and rights? This war could not have been fought if it had not been for the services of the women, services rendered in every sphere wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.”

The Hello Girls, however, continued to be denied military benefits until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter signed a law retroactively recognizing their military service and granting them the status of “war veterans”. 

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