Coined as the Hello Girls as early as the late 19th century, female telephone switchboard operators were widely known as having gentle and polite voices regardless of demanding and impatient callers. During World War I, French-speaking Hello Girls were enlisted to improve wartime communication, transmitting crucial information over a battlefield phone system to troops on the front lines.
The Hello Girls not only proved to be an integral part in telecommunications at home but also played a vital role in military operations. At the time of World War I, the telephone was cutting-edge technology and no one knew for sure the part it would play in battlefield strategy.
Initially, the operators handled routine duties, such as calls for supply orders and transportation information. But soon they were working on the “firing lines” that connected the fighting units in the field with their commanders. Hello Girls relayed messages about troop movements and supplies— frequently in military code—and acted as interpreters between American and French units.
Hello Girls had an immediate impact on the war effort. Not only did they connect the command post to trenches and dugouts, but they also interpreted for American and French commanders in a distinct, clear, and cheerful tone of voice.
Since the women were stationed much closer to the enemy, they received some weapons training and were issued helmets and gas masks. Frantically working switchboards with nimble fingers under dangerous battlefield conditions, often sleep-deprived Hello Girls struggled to stay calm as calls poured in, at times interrupted by deafening, earthshaking, nearby bombings.
Though sworn in as U.S. Signal Corps, which required them to don Army-issued uniforms and insignia as well as adhere to military rules and regulations, the Hello Girls were considered only civilian contract employees (even though they had not signed contracts). Sadly, they were not entitled to any insurance benefits even though they worked long hours and were subject to all of the same dangers that followed the linemen, engineers, and other types of Signal Corps workers.
For the first time in any war, the telephone became the essential form of communication, requiring skilled workers to nimbly manipulate “jacks, sockets, ringers, and buzzers on the boards of busy switching stations.” In the U.S., this job fell to women who, author Elizabeth Cobbs (Hello Girls; America’s First Women Soldiers) claimed: “may possess advantages over males in multitasking.” (See advertisements printed in national newspapers.)
Examples of the Hello Girls’ valor are legion. During the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Hello Girls were within German artillery range, working the phones at Souilly, seven miles from the front. At Chateau-Thierry, a Hello Girl cobbled together a primitive conference call, translating an interchange between American machine-gunners and French gun crews. A group of operators working near the front during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive initially refused to leave their positions at the switchboard after their barracks caught fire, and returned to work soon after the flames were extinguished.
Others made a difference offering one-on-one support to troops. “When I was off duty I sometimes spent the whole night talking on the phone with the boys at the Front,” Esther Fresnel Goodall, a Hello Girl said. “I kept thinking it might be their last night.”
When the Armistice with Germany was signed on November 11, 1918, ending most of the fighting in the devastating Great War, some of the Hello Girls’ tour of duty came to a close and they returned home while others stayed on to assist in post-war efforts. Only a small number received official recognition for their service and none qualified for veteran status. Chief operator of the unit Grace Banker was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her service at the Battles of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.
For more links to articles on the Hello Girls, visit our Topics in Chronicling America page and read about Women and the War Effort in the pages of the Stars and Stripes: The American Soldiers’ Newspaper of World War I, 1918 to 1919.
World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.