Crossings and Connections: Canadian Operators with the AEF “Hello Girls” during the Great War

Published: 24 March 2024

By Jill Frahm
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

The First Unit of US Army Signal Corps Telephone Operators, known as the Hello Girls, 1918 in Paris

The First Unit of US Army Signal Corps Telephone Operators, known as the Hello Girls, 1918 in Paris. A substantial portion of this unit were of Canadian heritage.

In March 1918, Montreal resident Jean Cunningham and thirty-two other women boarded a ship in Hoboken, NJ, bound for France. Members of the American Expeditionary Force “Telephone Unit,” these women were the first contingent of women who would serve as operators on the U.S. Army telephone lines. Selected from thousands of applicants, these women were experienced telephone operators who spoke both French and English fluently. In France, they became a vital link between allied military units, not only connecting calls, but sometimes acting as interpreters during military telephone conversations.

“Capturing St. Mihiel Salient. American Telephone Girls, Members of the US. Signal Corps, Whose Efficiency Contributed to the Success of the American Troops in Capturing St. Mihiel. This Exchange Was within Range of German Shell Fire. The Gas Masks and Helmets Are Handy for Emergencies. Photograph by Signal Corps. Passed by AEF Censor, Oct. 5, 1918. National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-21981. NARA ID # 55203658.”

While historians have documented the success of the operators, the contributions made by Canadian operators in the A.E.F. have been overlooked.[1] However, personnel and other U.S. Army records reveal how significant they were. Without the participation of the Canadian women, both those hired in Canada and in the United States, the AEF plan to send professional operators to France would have been delayed for weeks, hindering communications along the American telephone lines in France during World War I. At the same time, the U.S. Army provided a new route to service for some Canadian women, who had previously been shut out of a direct way to contribute to the war effort.

When the U.S. Army’s telephone system was constructed in France in 1917, the U.S. Army planned to use American soldiers or local French women as operators. This plan, however, proved to be a dismal failure. It quickly became clear that bilingual American (female) telephone operators were necessary to meet the level of competency required. It was also clear that finding qualitied bilingual operators in the United States was going to be very difficult. As a result, the U.S. Army anticipated from the start that Canadian operators would be necessary. General Pershing’s official request for “women telephone operators speaking English and French equally well,” sent on November 8, 1917, suggested that qualified women might be found in Montreal.[2] Four days later, the Office of the Chief Signal Officer in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of War indicated that it was “Expected to be impossible to obtain these [operators] unless a number are obtained from the Eastern Canadian Provinces”[3] There was apparently little resistance to this idea in Washington because by December 1, the New Brunswick Telephone Company, Ltd., and probably other Canadian telephone exchanges, had been enlisted to locate operators.[4] Over the next month, advertisements for experienced operators appeared in several Canadian newspapers, including the Quebec Chronicle and the Montreal Herald.

Mary Caroline Story

Alice Raymond

The advertisements in Canada for bilingual telephone operators were well received and hundreds of women applied for the opportunity to go to France. After more than three years of war, Canadian women were eager to serve their country, even by this indirect route. Asked by the U.S. army why they wanted to serve, these women overwhelmingly claimed to have “patriotic reasons for entering service.”[5] Alice Raymond of Montreal claimed to be “eager to do something to help the great cause.”[6] Mary Caroline Story of Halifax, Nova Scotia wanted “to enter service in order to do something that is worth while…”[7] Such enthusiasm is not surprising because other opportunities for Canadian women to do meaningful war work in France were extremely limited. As historian Linda J. Quiney points out, only women who were qualified to serve as a military nurse were able to serve overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in an official capacity. Others who could afford to work without pay, might work as nurses’ aides as part of the Voluntary Aid Detachment connected to the St. John’s Ambulance Association. However, “[f]or the majority of Canadian women, active participation in the war was restricted to a supporting role on the home front in either non-traditional waged work or as unpaid volunteers in one of the numerous patriotic relief organizations.”[8]

Although women in Canada made significant contributions to the war effort on the home front, many longed to go to France and be directly involved in the action. Connecting calls for the U.S. Army opened up new possibilities for well-paid overseas service to a small number of Canadian telephone operators like Alice Raymond and Winifred Hardy.[9]  The first Canadian operator was hired on January 10, 1918, the same day as the first American.

Agnes Burke

Marjorie McKillop

The U.S. Army also tapped into the large population of Canadians or children of Canadians living in the United States. In the decades following the Civil War, many Canadians had come to the United States in search of jobs. While some traveled independently, others came as part of a family groups. Many future operators were part of this migration. Operator Rose Langelier of Lynn, Massachusetts, was, according to the 1910 U.S. census, born in “French Canada” and moved to the United States with her parents about 1902. In spite of the move, many of these women maintained close connections with Canada. Agnes Burke, for example, was living in Detroit, Michigan when she was hired, but her mother lived in Quebec.[10] Canadian-born Marjorie McKillop’s brother was serving with the Canadian military in France when she was hired. The enthusiasm to serve was widespread in Americans in 1917; it was amplified in the Canadian women with their strong ties to a country that had been fighting the war for almost three years.

Rose Langelier

Estella Caron

Both groups of Canadian telephone operators had unique skills that most American women did not have. Many of the Canadian women, even those living in the United States, spoke French at home. According to the U.S. census, some operators like Rose Langelier or Blanche Grand-Maitre lived in homes where at least one family member only spoke French.[11] Canadian-born Estella Caron spoke French from childhood.[12] Vermonter Sarah Fecteau claimed to have spoken French before she learned English.[13] However, by attending American schools, living in a bilingual Canadian province, or through some other method, these women also gained a fluency in English.

Beryl Broderick

Canadian operators had a significant impact on American communications in France. Canadians counted for at least 15 of the original 33 operators sent to France.[14] Without their participation, the first group of operators might have been delayed in the U.S. for several weeks, trying to come up to strength. Instead, the Canadian operators with the other members of first operator group went to France; there they improved telephone service at key offices in Tours, Chaumont, and Paris while other women gained competence at a switchboard back in the U.S.

Germaine Lamontagne

All subsequent operator groups sent to France, except the second, contained at least one Canadian woman, with at least thirty-five Canadian telephone operators serving in France before the war ended. Several Canadian women eventually held leadership roles at different telephone offices, rising to the rank of supervisor or chief operator before they returned to North America. One Canadian was a member of the small, select group of operators attached to the First Army. These women served in an official capacity closer to the front than almost any other American or Canadian women during the First World War.

Eugenie Couture

Although Canadian women made up a significant part of the first group, their numbers were far smaller proportions of the later groups. This was a result of a change in U.S. Army policy. As qualified bilingual operators, Canadian or American, remained difficult to find, the Army turned instead to intelligent bilingual women without telephone experience and put them through a rigorous operator training program. These women, R. F. Estabrook of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company explained, were a benefit to the Army because they were “persons of a higher type and better mentally equipped than we find in our average forces.”[15] This change in policy opened AEF telephone service to a far larger number of women in the United States. At the same time, a few of these French-speaking women without operator experience were Canadian, including Beryl Broderick, Germaine LaMontagne, and Eugenie Couture.

American telephone operators in France during World War I were an important part of the U.S. communications system. The Chief Signal Officer of the First Army, for example, credited them for the success of First Army communications. However, one cannot forget the contributions of the Canadian women. They provided a significant service to the U.S. Army, allowing it to quickly establish the operators in France while other women were trained to fill the job.

— Presented at the 2017 annual conference of the Organization of American Historians. 

Jill Frahm

Jill Frahm is the History Instructor in the General Education Department of Dakota County Technical College in Minnesota. She is also the Roraract co-adviser and Co-Chair of the General Education Department. Jill holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Minnesota, and an M.A. and B.A. in History from the University of Maryland. Before coming to DCTC, she was employed as both a public and academic historian for several organizations including the U.S. government.



[1] See for example Jill Frahm, “Advance to the ‘Fighting Lines’: The Changing Role of Women Telephone Operators in France During the First World War,” Federal History, 2016; Lettie Gavin, American Women in World War I: They Also Served. Niwot, CO: University of Colorado Press, 1997; Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider, Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I. New York: Viking, 1991; Susan Zeiger, In Uncle Sam’s Service: Women Workers with the American Expeditionary Force, 1917-1919. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.

[2] Cablegram entitled “Headquarters American Expeditionary Forces, Office of the Chief Signal Officer,” Study Made by War Plans and Training Division; 231.3 Telephone Operator (Overseas) Legislation and Status – 231.4 Draftsmen; Office of the Chief Signal Corps Correspondence, 1917-1940, Record Group 111, Box 400; National Archives Building, College Park, MD.

[3] Office of the Chief Signal Officer to The Secretary of War, November 12,1917, Office of the Chief Signal Officer correspondence 1917-1940; 231.3 Telephone Operators (Overseas), Record Group 111, Box 398; National Archives Building, College Park, MD.

[4] Office of the Chief Signal Officer to Editor, Associated Press, December 1, 1917, General Correspondence folder; 231.3 Telephone Operators (Overseas) Office of the Chief Signal Officer Correspondence, Record Group 111, Box 396; National Archives Building, College Park, MD.

[5] Miss Beatrice Pauline Bourneuf, Operator”; 231.3 Telephone Operators (Overseas) (4th Group); Record Group 111, Box 400; National Archives Building, College Park, MD.

[6] Personnel (201) Folder of Alice Raymond; National Archives Civilian Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, MO.

[7] “Miss Mary Caroline Story, Operator”; 231.3 Telephone Operators (Overseas) (6th Group); Record Group 111, Box 400; National Archives Building, College Park, MD

[8] Linda J, Quiney, “Gendering Patriotism: Canadian Volunteer Nurses as the Female ‘Soldiers’ of the Great War” in A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service, (Toronto, 2012), 103.

[9] H.E. Scott to M.E. French, Personnel (201) Folder of Jean Cunningham; National Archives Civilian Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, MO.

[10] Miss Agnes Burke, Operator,” 231.3 Telephone Operators (Overseas) (4th Group); Record Group 111, Box 400; National Archives Building, College Park, MD.

[11] 1900 and 1910 U.S. Census

[12] Personnel (201) Folder of Estella Caron; National Archives Civilian Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, MO.

[13] Personnel (201) Folder of Sarah Fecteau; National Archives Civilian Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, MO.

[14] According to information from U.S. Army records and the 1900 and 1910 U.S. censuses, 4 operators in the first group were hired in Montreal, 4 were Canadian-born but living in the U.S., and 7 were children of Canadian-born parents. There are two additional operators in the first group who might also be Canadian.

[15] R. F. Estabrook to W.S. Vivian, Captain, S.C., U.S.R., June 1918, “Study Made by War Plans and Training Division; 231.3 Telephone Operator (Overseas) Legislation and Status – 231.4 Draftsmen; Office of the Chief Signal Corps Correspondence, 1917-1940, Record Group 111, Box 400; National Archives Building, College Park, MD, 1331.

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