There’s a film to accompany Elizabeth Cobbs’s book on the Hello Girls, the women who served as switchboard operators in the US Signal Corps during World War I. For further details or to purchase the DVD, visit the film’s webpage.
“The dead bodies greet you at the front door.”
—Anna Louise Tittman, on the Russian hospital in Irkutsk, Russia,
Sept 1919 (oral history 129)
Anna Louise Tittman (1884–1977) earned her nursing credential from the Springfield [IL) Hospital Training School in 1906. She then did private duty nursing and worked at Johns Hopkins University, Boston Floating Hospital (originally a hospital ship in Boston Harbor and now a children’s medical facility at Tufts), and Bellevue Hospital in New York City before becoming an inspector for schools of nursing.
In May 1919, at the request of Director of American Red Cross Nursing Clara Noyes, she set off for Siberia with 29 US nurses under the auspices of the Red Cross Commission to Siberia, as some 10,000 men of the American Expeditionary Forces had been sent there by President Woodrow Wilson. At the time, Siberia was battling typhus and cholera epidemics as well as effects of the Russian Revolution. Tittman was appointed chief nurse of the Eastern Division when the previous chief nurse sustained an injury to her eye and needed to return to the United States for treatment. The History of Red Cross Nursing termed her “a nurse executive who would be particularly valuable in straightening out the organization difficulties in Siberia. She possessed a penchant for details and with it a keen and well-balanced mind” (930).
In 1974, Barbara B. Herndon conducted an oral history with Tittman, which included Tittman reading from and commenting on her diary kept during her service in Siberia. This oral history (both audio files and typed transcripts) was originally part of University of Illinois at Springfield’s Archives and Special Collections, and can be found in the Illinois Digital Archives of the Illinois State Library.
Tittman provided a sense of the colorful, mini UN that Vladivostok was at the time:
The blending of the various uniforms—the gray blue of the French and the Poles, the khaki of the United States, the Japanese with their yellowish and bright red trimmings, the Italian greenish gray, the Annamites [Vietnamese] with their flaring brimmed hats, our American sailors with white caps and blue uniforms, the Czechs with greenish khaki and violet trimming. There were also the Russians, the Chinese, the Serbians, the British and the Cossacks, the latter looking like a field of dandelions with their yellow caps and stripes shining in the sun. (111)
I went to Second River and the Sixth Virsta Fortress with [nurses] Miss [Ethel] Pinder and Mrs. [Carrie Stallard] Cook. Large ARC barracks for refugees are located at these points. . . . . At Second River there are six large red brick buildings, built for barracks for Russian soldiers. (113)
Mary Fitch Watkins (1889–1974) was the daughter of Vermont Episcopal minister Schureman Halsted Watkins (who was the chaplain for the Tombs prison and the prison on Blackwell’s Island at one time) and Helen Randolph Smith Watkins. Her book The Rainbow Bridge (1954) discusses her seven years as assistant to diva Olive Fremstad (1871–1951), who is regarded as a model for Thea Kronborg in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915). Watkins regarded the experience as “a better education than I might have found in college and a privilege far greater than I could possibly have deserved” (Rainbow Bridge 7).
Sometimes referred to by Fremstad as “little Miss Watkins” (she was 5 foot 3), she served as a driver for the Motor Corps of the National League for Women’s Service before taking up the same role with Anne Morgan’s American Fund for French Wounded (see Watkins, “Anne Morgan: An Intimate Portrait,” The Woman Citizen, Aug 1927). She sailed for France in April 1918, with an item in the 18 April 1918 Barre [VT] Daily Times listing her prospective duties as driving “motor trucks carrying supplies, clothing, and building materials to the devastated villages” (3). Her 20 April 1921 letter in the New York Times, supporting one by author Owen Wister that advocated for the bodies of US service members to remain buried overseas, provides a glimpse into some of her wartime experiences:
I was one of two women sent ahead of a relief unit into the Chateau Thierry district when it was freshly evacuated by the enemy. I turned my little truck into an ambulance and drove our wounded for ten days. . . . Our unit stayed behind in this territory after the army moved forward and I had ample opportunity to observe at first hand the care which the bodies of our fallen boys received. . . . . Well I remember a shattered little garden in the village of Vaux, where three boys fell. An old man came back to the ruins of his home and found them there. With what reverent joy he considered these graves as his especial charge. . . .[H]e hung about the middle cross his rosary, the only thing he had saved in his flight, and we found him daily kneeling beside “his honored guests,” the tears rolling down his cheeks as he prayed for the boys who had come so far to help restore to him his beloved little corner of the earth. It has broken his heart to take this charge from him. . . . .
Can nothing stop this desecration of the loveliest fruits of that most dreadful harvest? And . . . to those mothers and fathers who want their boys back in the family plot. If you had seen what I have seen, you would not breathe the wish. (11)
She added in Rainbow Bridge, “I survived all the perils and uncertainties of torpedoes, bombs, shells, incendiaries, and Ford cars . . .” (313). Although Watkins’s tone was matter-of-fact, nurse Carrie G. Ellis of Base Hospital No. 24 (aka the “Tulane Unit”) conveyed a more effusive perspective on the driver in a 5 August 1918 letter to her mother printed in the 4 Oct. 1918 Polk County [NC] News:
I met a Miss Watkins of New York, an ambulance driver . . . I know no girl I admire more. This woman is as plucky as they make men or women. She goes right up to the front and brings in the wounded. She was the first woman in Chateau Thierry after the Germans evacuated it. (1)
She returned to the United States in January 1919 and published First Aid to the Opera-Goer (1924) and Behind the Scenes at the Opera (1925). She contributed articles and short stories to publications such as the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and Vogue; her short story “Stolen Thunder” (1930) was the basis for the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy film Oh, for a Man (1930). As Jennifer Dunning discusses in this New York Times article, Watkins became a dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune.
In 1926, Watkins married Brooklyn Eagle music critic and magazine editor, bookstore owner, OSS operative, and mountaineering enthusiast Edward T. F. Cushing (1903–56). Their daughter, Antonia Stone (1930–2002), was a mathematics teacher who established the organization Playing to Win (now CTCnet) that seeks to provide access to computers and technology to disenfranchised populations. Their grandchildren include Nicholas D. Stone, director of Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region Operations, and Rebecca Stone, acting chair of the Brookline [MA] Commission for Women.
“[. . . I]n a stagnant place there is much ugliness.”
— Ellen N. LaMotte, The Backwash of War
There is a new edition of The Backwash of War, the collection of accounts by Ellen Newbold LaMotte (1873–1961) of her overseas WWI nursing service alongside Mary Borden (The Forbidden Zone, etc.), which was originally and controversially published in 1916. This edition includes little-known essays on the war by LaMotte: “An American Nurse in Paris” (1915), “Under Shell-Fire at Dunkirk” (1916), and “A Joy Ride” (1916). Yeshiva University professor Cynthia Wachtell provides invaluable biographical details on the feisty LaMotte, who was a gay, less affluent member of the DuPont family. (Wachtell writes more about LaMotte here.)
Soprano Irene Anna Dieterich was born in Washington, DC, in April 1886 and graduated from DC’s Business High School in 1902. She studied with Otto Freytag at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stuttgart and composed “The Teddy Bear March” (1907) in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt (listen to a recording).
Adopting Rene Dietrich as her stage name, she appeared in operas, musical comedies, and vaudeville. She met British-born Horace Wright when they were singing in “The Bohemian Girl” with the Aborn Opera Company; they married in May 1909. They sometimes appeared together as “The Somewhat Different Singers.” For Victor Records, they recorded songs such as “On the Beach at Waikiki,” “My Luau Girl,” and “Isles of Aloha.”
Along with Billy Gould, Louise Carlyle, and Gilbert Gregory, Dietrich and Wright were members of the “Yankee Doodle Five” that entertained US troops in France as part of the Over There Theatre League under the aegis of the YMCA.
Dietrich and Wright arrived in France in August 1918. A 1 Nov. 1918 letter from Dietrich was excerpted in the December 1918 issue of Variety:
We have just returned to Paris for the first time, after nine weeks’ continuous work in the field. . . . The officers tell us a good show raises the morale of the boys 100 percent. . . .
Miss Carlyle and I always make it a point to shake hands and talk to as many boys as we can after each show, and believe me, I have had fellows actually cry with happiness when I talked to them. . . . [T]his whole experience is one which brings out the best in all of us, and when it is all over, I am sure the realization that we were able in our small way to help these fine boys right here when they needed us most, will be the greatest comfort, satisfaction and joy that we can have.
We are all having experiences such as we never dreamed of before, but the inconveniences and little hardships we always see in a humorous light and the boys’ gratitude is our sweetest reward. The only thing that troubles me is that after playing on wagon tops, under all sorts of circumstances in the open, in tents and huts–sometimes with a bum little old organ or just the ukelele for our “orchestra,” we won’t know how to act under normal conditions again at home. We have played within a few hundred yards of the lines with the Boche flying over us and on several occasions where we had to have our gas masks in the alert position and our “tin hats” on. Once in an old village we gave our show in a church, using the altar for the stage and the candles as footlights. . . . .Aside from our work with the Yankee Doodle Five, Mr. Wright and I often go through the wards of the hospitals, singing for the men who are badly wounded. And sometimes in the railroad stations or while we are traveling, I’ll get out the little old ukelele and we give the boys a few songs to brighten them on their way. (8, 18)
Dietrich and Wright continued performing after the war, especially in the vicinity of their New Jersey home, and occasionally on the radio. Wright became a car salesman and died in March 1939. Dietrich married Victor W. Mori, former rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, NJ.
Other compositions by Rene Dietrich
“An American Girl for Me”
“Because of You”
“Everybody Acts Like Us When They’re Falling in Love”
“I Heard You Singing on My Radio”
“I’m After You” (with Horace Wright)
“The Little White House with the Little Red Roof (Tucked Away in the Heart of the Hills)”
“I Love to Promenade with Madelon”
“Old Fashioned Home on the Hill” (with Horace Wright)
“Tell All Our Friends in America” (with James Donahue)
“That Star-Spangled Baby of Mine” (with James Donahue)
The Over There Theatre League, headed by theater legend George M. Cohan and theater director-producer-playwright Winthrop Ames, formed in April 1918 to mobilize volunteer performers for entertaining US troops in France under the auspices of the YMCA. According to the 24 Apr 1918 New York Times, nearly 2,000 theater professionals attended the first meeting (but a 1 November 1918 issue of Variety signaled discord between the league and those rejected for performances in France).
According to the 3 May 1918 Variety, “No woman under 25 will be eligible as an entertainer overseas” (23). One female league participant was the 25-year-old Amparito Farrar, soprano (1893–1989, no relation to opera star Geraldine Farrar). Promoted from chorus girl to star of the 1914 production of High Jinks, Farrar sang for service members at the new base hospital at Fox Hills, Staten Island, before leaving the United States in Aug 1918 with her mother, who served as her accompanist, for four months in France. She said in the 15 Aug 1918 Musical Leader, “I want to bring them solace and comfort when they come back wounded or for first aid. I consider my work just as much first aid as the medical treatment…” (149).
As the 2 Oct. 1918 New Era noted, Farrar stated:
I have sung in motor camps, ‘Y’ and Knights of Columbus huts, Salvation Army bakeries, Red Cross hospitals and even at the bedsides of the boys, one at a time, everything from grand opera to ‘Tickle Toe’ [probably a song from the 1917 musical Going Up]. I even dance a little” (9).
I have looked over the German line as far as the Rhine. . . . Last week I was in a very beautiful part of the country, singing every night, being forced to ride from fifteen to twenty miles every day to do so. . . . In the afternoon I went with one of the ‘Y’ men to see a track meet for a negro regiment arranged by white officers. After it was over they all gathered around a little bank of grass, over 3,300 of them, and I sang many songs to them amidst cheers and yells of delight. (“Amparito Farrar Writes from France” 521)
In June 1919, Farrar married surgeon Goodrich Truman Smith, who had treated her in France for influenza.
Listen to Farrar sing the World War I song “Madelon.”
The Connecticut Trio was composed of Nutmeg State performers Carolyn Washburn (violinist and an industrial secretary of the YMCA in Hartford, 1880–1967), (Annie) Irene Richards (a dancer who graduated from Oberlin in 1913 and physical training director of the YWCA in Hartford, b. 1891), and Norma Lelia Smith (voice teacher, accompanist, and singer, b. 1893). Signing up as YMCA entertainers, they left for France in January 1919, but their path was not a smooth one. According to a letter from Washburn in the 2 June 1919 Hartford Courant, she was questioned by the British before her departure about her activities over the past four years and about a Baron Koff (possibly Baron Sergei Korff, who became a professor of international law at the University of Georgia). It is possible that the British believed she was related to war correspondent Stanley Washburn (1878–1950), who reported from the Russian front and was connected to US diplomatic missions involving Russia.
In addition, the ship of the Connecticut Trio, the Lapland, sprung a leak due to previous torpedo damage “and let in eight feet of water, more than the machine could possibly pump out, then a three-day storm came up. . . .The old steamer listed on one side constantly, giving us a most unwelcome view of the fifty feet waves tossing over and under and around until all were desperate” (“One of Conn. Trio Mistaken for Spy” 3).
After their arrival in Liverpool, the trio gave a concert in Lincoln and were requested by the British YMCA to perform in Plymouth, Winchester, and other British locations before proceeding to France. Washburn told of a lack of heat and lodgings in French ruins where “if we were fortunate enough to draw the second floor we climbed up a step ladder to enter” (3). She wrote:
Each night at 7 o’clock . . .we are called for by some sort of vehicle—Ford or Red Cross truck. . . At 7:30 o’clock we are several kilo[meter]s away performing in our best clothes in a hut or tent; maybe an American organ, possibly a piano with no ivories, no stage or one made out of a piano box, but always an audience. The attendance averages 900. Often we play for 2,000 in one group. . . . . We have been through 200 miles of battlefronts and shelled roads, trenches, barbed wire; have seen lost families and lonely women everywhere rebuilding their ruins, families moving back in two-wheeled carts with a feather bed and a dog behind their only property. The roads are depressing to travel, crosses all along the sides marking the graves of some ally or enemy, also a lonely cross now and then against the outline of the horizon, with trenches, maddening barbed wire and shell holes, dugouts with deserted ammunition marked in German script, all forming a horrible foreground. (3)
Washburn’s brother Wilford A. Washburn Jr., who had enlisted in the Canadian infantry, had died of wounds in Amiens in August 1918, and Washburn visited his grave. The book Jefferson County in the World War states that the Connecticut Trio also performed in Belgium and Holland. Smith returned to the United States in July 1919, and Washburn and Richards in September 1919. Smith sang in vaudeville under the name Norma Grey. Washburn was listed on the faculty of the Hartford School of Music in 1922–23 and opened her own studio in 1924.
Kitty Steele Barrett was born in Atlanta in 1888, the daughter of Rev. Robert South Barrett and noted social activist and physician Kate Waller Barrett. In 1916, she married Lt. Charles Henry Pozer of the Canadian Railway Troops, who was a nephew of Canadian senator Christian Henry Pozer. Kitty served as a mechanic and ambulance driver with the Canadian Army Service Corps for more than two years. In a 25 Mar. 1919 interview with the Sherbrooke [Canada] Daily Record, she described some of her duties:
…[W]e were under the Canadian army and as such were included in the service corps. We were . . . the only division of Canadian women who were actually under army supervision. We were busy transporting wounded Canadians from hospitals to convalescent homes, and doing other odd jobs on the side. . . . .
Our principal work was to transport those men across London . . . But we also handled work throughout London whenever a discharged man fell sick, or men coming home had to be brought from trains to their homes.
Her husband rose to the rank of major and later became resident engineer for the Southern Railway. He died in 1947. Kitty wrote a longtime gardening column for the Washington Post and died in 1981. The publication La Famille Pozer (1927) refers to her as “femme courageuse et digne d’admiration” (a brave woman and worthy of admiration).
• “Kitty Pozer Day” in Fairfax, VA, with photo of Kitty and Charles Pozer in World War I and information on Earl’s Ordinary (aka Ratcliffe-Allison-Pozer House) and garden, Fairfax Connection newspaper, 28 June-July 4, 2018. The house currently has the exhibition “The Barrett-Pozer Family in World War I.”
The audio has been posted from my appearance on the World War I Centennial News podcast, talking about some of the roles of the US women in the war. I’m on at about minute 37.15. There’s also information on an interesting documentary on the Hello Girls (the US switchboard operators who served in France) that will be part of several film festivals. As I am from New Jersey, I was happy to mention Flemington’s own Marjorie Hulsizer Copher.
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