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As the US prepared to join France and England in World War I, recruitment songs like “Over There” called out to young men: “Make your Daddy glad/To have had such a lad/Tell your sweetheart not to pine/To be proud her boy’s in line.”
But what about American women who wanted a piece of the action?
The US military forbade women from fighting — hell, that battle is still being fought, 100 years later — so the best a woman could hope for was to sign on with one of several relief agencies active in Europe.
Even that wasn’t easy. American women who wished to help the war effort overseas were strictly unpaid volunteers. They were required to be between the ages for 26 and 35, and to speak at least some French or Italian. And the State Department would not approve women who had a close male relative serving in the armed forces.
Considering those criteria, it’s astonishing that as many as 20,000 American women volunteered in Europe during the Great War.
One such woman was a lumber heiress from Minnesota named Alice O’Brien, who spent the better part of 1918 in the French war zone. If subsequent generations of well-heeled Americans would “rough it” across Europe on backpacking tours and semesters abroad, Alice’s experience on the continent was decidedly rougher. Her adventures, as told in letters to her family, are collected in “Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O’Brien,” a lively new book edited by O’Brien’s grand-niece, historian Nancy O’Brien Wagner.
“This is a story that people don’t know about,” O’Brien Wagner says. “When we hear about World War I and women, often we hear about the homefront and wrapping bandages, the domestic story.”
Not Alice. Before she signed on at 26 years old, she was something of a road warrior, so she applied to the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW) to work as a driver and mechanic. In early spring of 1918, she left the comfort and safety of her midwestern home for the largest war the world had ever seen.
It was a grand adventure, to be sure, but also a perilous one. Transatlantic routes were threatened by lurking German U-boats, who had declared open season on all shipping traffic. Alice’s ship, the SS Rochambeau, traveled as part of a protective convoy, shielded by a ring of military anti-sub vessels
Things didn’t get any safer when she landed. The German army’s Spring Offensive, a massive campaign to push through French lines and capture Paris, had just begun. As part of the offensive, the City of Light was lit up by air raids and bombs courtesy of the Paris Gun, a German armament so powerful it could launch shells over 80 miles. No one knew where its bombs might fall. It was meant to terrorize the Parisian population, but Alice shrugged off the threat in a letter home, claiming, “No one pays attention to their silly old cannon.”
Alice spent the first several weeks assembling and driving Fords for the AFFW. But the pace of the work was slow and she grew restless for new challenges. She signed on to the Red Cross, which ran a large network of hospitals and canteens in the war zone.
‘When you’re reading the letters, she just comes across as this regular person. I don’t think she realized how extraordinary she was.’
Initially Alice was pressed into service as a de facto floor nurse, tending to 15 seriously injured soldiers. These military hospitals, understaffed and overwhelmed by the wounded, were a particular horror. There were soldiers who knew they were dying, and there were soldiers who didn’t know they were dying. There were dismembered men, and men sporting wax casts where their faces used to be. And, in a horror that echoes to the present day in places like Syria, there were victims of gas attacks, their throats and lungs scarred by poison, struggling to breathe. Alice had no prior medical training, and she lamented to her parents, “I am sorry that the men in my ward are not lucky enough to have an A number one nurse but I give them the best I have and pray for results.”
After several days, she was transferred to the Red Cross’ canteen operation, where for hours on end she slopped grub to weary poilus (literally “hairy ones,” the affectionate nickname for French infantrymen). Because of her automotive skills, Alice also drove trucks and procured supplies to keep the canteens in food and other goods. The work was not glamorous or easy, but there was a lot of it.
As the German offensive went kaput and the war’s tide permanently turned, Alice continued her canteen work. Sometimes she knew the meals she served would be the last ones the soldiers would ever eat. It must have been exhausting, as she confessed to her parents, “I am glad I am young and full of hope for the future, or the present would be too much for me.”
Shortly after the November 1918 armistice, Alice left France for her home and life in St. Paul. Like many of her volunteer cohort, she never married and never had children. Her story, and the experiences of women like her, “got lost,” Alice’s grandniece O’Brien Wagner believes. “They themselves weren’t boastful, and because they didn’t have direct descendants to tell their stories . . . we kind of forget that they were there.”
Alice might not have thought she was doing anything special, and her grandniece notes, “When you’re reading the letters, she just comes across as this regular person. I don’t think she realized how extraordinary she was.”
Yet Alice O’Brien knew she was taking part in an extraordinary moment in history. The morning after her first German air raid, she wrote to her mother, “We are living in thrilling times, and I would not give up the last few days for all the money in the world.”