Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Unsung Women of World War One The Signal Corps Women

Oleda Christides was one of those women.

Many thanks to her daughter Michelle Christides for writing this information - which unfortunately had to be condensed because of space limitations. Here is an excerpt from Michelle's fascinating piece about her Mother - Oleda Christides.
"Twenty years after they were finally recognized by Congress as the veterans they had been for sixty years, the first women in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, - the only military women not nurses - to serve overseas during World War One, are still unheard of in the history books and on the world wide web.
Three hundred women were sworn into the U.S. Army as volunteers in response to General Pershing's emergency call for bilingual (French-English) long-distance operators to run the switchboards in the first effort in the history of warfare to connect the foot-soldiers in the trenches to their generals behind the lines.
These 300 women were selected for their fulfillment of the requirements, which included the minimum age of 25 -- they were to be given the equivalent to the men's rank of lieutenant, "same as Army Nurses," which gave them the 'privilege' of buying their own uniforms, unlike the enlisted men. They were addressed as "soldier," subject to Court-Martial and to all U.S. Army regulations plus ten more that preserved the virtue of women. They also received their mail in the same way as all soldiers and were hospitalized with them when ill. Several of them were under 25 -- these exceptions having been made because so few were fluent in French. My mother was, I believe the youngest as I recall from the roster, accepted when she volunteered because she was the only one who both spoke French and had had three years' Bell-Telephone experience for training long-distance operators. She has yet another unrecognized contribution that qualified her for the first one. She had been given the only supervisorial position open to women at that time, when she graduated from high school at sixteen.

Of the 300 selected and trained in New Jersey for "self-defense" in case their behind-the-lines position were over-run, five contingents totalling 223 women were dispatched to Chaumont, when the astonishing news of Victory arrived on November 11, 1918. Although these women were sworn into the Army (my mother twice, the first time beside her brother in Detroit) before leaving New Jersey to set sail in March and June 1918, and although ten of them actually received a commendation "In Grateful Recognition" from Congress, when they returned they were told they could NOT have been sworn into the Army because only men were allowed to be sworn in according to Army regulations.
When these women finally took a bill into Congress in 1930, they suffered from the worst of all timing -- the Federal Government (it is still kept a secret) was on the verge of bankruptcy. The stock-market bust and one-third unemployment had forced a show-down with the men veterans camped on the lawns before Congress asking only for a fifty-dollar bonus. For Congress, it was unthinkable to add 223 women who had served overseas to the men they had ordered to be brutally dispersed by mounted police with billy-clubs. Therefore these women had to be lying about their experience, as were the male officers who had sworn them in! Even the affidavits of all their commanding officers, including Pershing's emergency-call itself, were conveniently lost and they were told they had been "contract-employees" although the Army was never able to produce a single contract.
It took sixty years for these fighting women to be recognized as veterans, but it was not retroactive in the sense of their always having been veterans -- they only "became" veterans as a condecension in 1978. When one of the buildings, in which these ten women were installed, was set on-fire, GHQ ordered them to leave and the women refused because the calls were pouring in from the trenches and communications could not be interrupted for their personal safety at the height of the battle because of the order issued in consideration of their sex. The fire was put out, or they would have been the first women casualties in combat in the U.S. Army.
In 1978 Congress finally passed a bill to recognize the 223 women as veterans, albeit NOT retroactive. The story, consequently that made the papers across the country, was that this was a benevolent concession on the part of the Congress that had previously issued its certificate of gratitude to the ten women who had risked their lives in the combat-zone. Of course, that certificate was not mentioned in announcing passage of the recognition bill. Only 70 women were still alive. A general came to my parents' home in Michigan and gave my mother her discharge papers. She joked that she should sue for back-pay. No laughs from the general and his aides, who shifted uneasily and glanced at the local reporter in my parents' living-room.
Minerva published a short exerpt from my 100-page research and interviews of my mother, Oleda Christides, and of the leader of the fight-for-recognition, Merle Anderson, in 1984, six years after the news of the 223 women's recognition had received a one-day bonanza-coverage across the country.

Mother was buried with her military hat, the only part of her uniform she still had. I was told that Ms. Egan-Anderson had sent her uniform to the Smithsonian, so I'm surprised to hear that even after the one-day recognition, they never made it into the history books."

Scottish Womens Hospital Unit

On the outbreak of the First World War, Elsie Inglis, one of the founders of the Scottish Women's Suffrage Federation, suggested that women's medical units should be allowed to serve on the Western Front. With the financial support of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), Inglis formed the Scottish Women's Hospitals Committee. Soon satellite committees were formed in Glasgow, London and Liverpool. The American Red Cross also helped to fund the organisation.

Although the War Office representative in Scotland opposed the idea, Dr. Elsie Inglis and her Scottish Women's Hospitals Committee sent the first women's medical unit to France three months after the war started. By 1915 the Scottish Women's Hospital Unit had established an Auxiliary Hospital with 200 beds in the 13th century Royaumont Abbey. Inglis team included Evelina Haverfield, Ishobel Ross and Cicely Hamilton.

In April 1915 Elsie Inglis took a group of women to Serbia on the Balkan Front. Over the next few months they established field hospitals, dressing stations, fever hospitals and clinics. During an Austrian offensive in the summer of 1915, Inglis and some of her staff were captured but eventually, with the help of American diplomats, the British authorities were able to negotiate the release of the women.

During the First World War Inglis arranged fourteen medical units to serve in France, Serbia, Corsica, Salonika, Romania, Russia and Malta. This included doctors, nurses, cooks, ambulance-drivers, orderlies and relief-workers.

In August 1916, the London Suffrage Society financed Inglis and eighty women to support Serbian soldiers fighting in Russia. Evelina Haverfield, one of the leaders of the suffrage movement was recruited as head of transport. One government official who saw the doctors and nurses working in Russia remarked that: "No wonder England is a great country if the women are like that."

Cicely Hamilton (seated) working for the NUWSS
Scottish Women's Hospitals at Royaumont Abbey.
(1) Dr. I. Hutton described the state of the patients that the women nursed at the Royaumont Abbey Hospital.

It was bitterly cold. The patients who were not in a raging fever shivered and tried vainly to adjust their tattered uniforms to gain a little warmth. Their clothing crawled with maggots and bugs and their bodies with lice. Dying men lay huddled so closely together on the floor that they touched each other. Others sat up gasping and blue in the throes of pneumonia.

Blood and pus oozed from the wounds. A few of the patients feebly extended their hands but most of them were too ill to care what happened. Seventy-odd soldiers, in the last stages of dysentery lay crouched along the walls, emaciated, dying. They crawled outside from time to time. There were no sanitary arrangements and the grass plot was foul.
(2) Ishobel Ross, diary entry (19th September, 1916)

The wounded have been coming in all day, nearly all frightfully bad cases. We have our kitchen now, it is like an Indian bungalow all made of rushes. From the window we can see the ambulances arriving at the reception tent, and the poor men carried in. All the Serbs working in the camp are so pleased to have the hospital started at last, and indeed we are too. Poor Ethel is in the surgical ward and has had an awful day of it - three of the men, very badly wounded in the head, died tonight. We get the worse cases here and some of the wounded have been lying untended for two days.
(3) Mairie Chisholm was only twenty when she began working for the Women's Hospital Unit.

Taking wounded to hospital fifteen miles back at night was a real strain - no lights, shell-pocked pavie roads mud-covered, often under fire, men and guns coming up to relieve the trenches, total darkness, yells to mind one's self and get out of the way, meaning a sickening slide off the pavie into deep mud - screams from the stretchers behind one and thumps in the back through the canvas - then an appeal to passing soldiers to shoulder the ambulance back to the pavie. Two or three of these journeys by night and one's eyes were on stalks, bloodshot and strained.
(4) Government official commenting on the Women's Medical Unit working at Costanza (1917)

It is extraordinary how these women endure hardships; they refuse help and carry the wounded themselves. They work like navvies. No wonder England is a great country if the women are like that.

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