In 1917 America entered World War I, "The War to End All Wars," under the leadership of General John Pershing. The general found that he was unable to communicate efficiently with troops in the field, and thus launched a campaign to recruit French-speaking American women switchboard operators to join the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France:
"Uncle Sam wants his telephone system in France operated by the most efficient operators in the world and that means by American young women.... No evening dresses need be taken...."
Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini tells the story of these forgotten soldiers who risked and sometimes lost their lives in order to provide their lightening fast and diplomatic switchboard expertise, that was so vital to the war effort.
Switchboard Soldiers primarily centers on three operators whose lives intersect as they serve the Allied Forces in France. Valerie is a Belgian mathematics major living in Los Angeles, who has to quit her studies at USC to take a job at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph after her father dies. Marie is a French graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, but while her anticipated career as a soprano is stalling, she goes to work as a telephone operator at Cincinnati Telephone and Telegraph. Grace is a 24-year old History and French graduate of Barnard College who works as an AT&T switchboard instructor in New York. All three women have passionate reasons for wanting to “do their bit” to help win the war.
After they complete their extensive trainings and testings in New York, the operators travel to France, encountering German U-boats at sea, mustard gas, fires, heavy artillery and the Kaiser’s bombs near the front, freezing cold and primitive barracks, and the deadly influenza pandemic.
“One September morning, in her first five minutes at the switchboard, Grace fielded a call from a Signal Corps office requesting counter fire to draw off heaving shelling, another from a French operator warning her American counterparts of approaching German aircraft, and a third from a commander of an artillery division requesting the precise time down to the second in order to calibrate their shots with another unit.”
Though they don’t always receive the respect and admiration they deserve, the Switchboard Soldiers are intrepid in their service.
I enjoyed Switchboard Soldiers by Jennifer Chiaverini, learning so much about WWI I hadn’t understood, while feeling thoroughly engrossed in these engaging characters’ stories. Thanks to Harper Collins, Goodreads and William Morrow Books for providing me with a book proof in exchange for an honest review. Out today at your local bookseller, or click below to order.
Hardcover, 464 pages, Audiobook, 14 hours 44 minutes.
I also enjoyed by this author, The Women's March: A Novel of the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, an historical novel that recounts the campaigns of three important suffragists - Maud Malone, Ida B Wells, and Alice Paul, in the months leading up to the Women's March of 1913. The March helped to gain support and momentum for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, but couldn't quite convince the racist, misogynist incoming president Woodrow Wilson to support the measure. This novel heavily based on fact, highlighted the tensions between black and white women within the movement, the movement's shifting priorities and hierarchies, the strength and resolve of these heroic women, and the attitudes of the antagonistic men and the "antis" -- those women who lamentably fought against women's suffrage.
Paperback, 368 pages.