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From New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini, a bold, revelatory novel about one of the great untold stories of World War I—the women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, who broke down gender barriers in the military, validated women as essential workers, and battled a pandemic as they helped lead the Allies to victory.
In June 1917, General John Pershing arrived in France to establish American forces in Europe, but communications with Allied commanders and troops in the field were perilously unreliable. Pershing needed telephone operators who could swiftly and accurately connect multiple calls, speak fluent French and English, remain steady under fire, and provide the absolute secrecy required for conveying classified military information. At the time, nearly all American telephone operators were women—but women were not permitted to enlist, or even to vote in most states. Nevertheless, the U.S. Army Signal Corps promptly began recruiting them.
More than 7,600 women responded, including Grace Banker of New Jersey, a switchboard instructor with AT&T and an alumna of Barnard College; Marie Miossec, a Frenchwoman and aspiring opera singer; and Valerie DeSmedt, a twenty-year-old Pacific Telephone operator from Los Angeles, determined to strike a blow for her native Belgium.
They were among the first women sworn into the U.S. Army under the Articles of War. The male soldiers they replaced had needed one minute to connect a single call. The female switchboard soldiers could do it in ten seconds.
Deployed to supply depots, Pershing’s headquarters, and exchanges near the front lines, the operators endured hardships and risked death or injury from gunfire, bombardments, and a deadly new influenza. Not all of them would survive.
The valiant women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps served their country with honor and played an essential role in achieving the Allied victory. Their sacrifices cleared the way for generations of women who followed, not only in the military, but in all aspects of American life. Jennifer Chiaverini’s Switchboard Soldiers is an enthralling historical saga that recreates the danger, romance, and sacrifice of World War I .
August 4, 1914
Marie glowed with pride and anticipation as her mother took her customary place in front of the gleaming grand piano in the gracious parlor of their Mount Auburn home. From the far side of the room, Marie glimpsed only the faintest traces of silver in her mother’s honey gold hair, which she wore in an elegant knot on the back of her head, a few stray wisps curling around her lovely face. A fresh breeze through the open window stirred the lacy ruffle on the bodice of Maman’s rose silk poplin gown, carrying birdsong and a faint scent of wisteria from the garden, offering a momentary respite from the heat and humidity of the late summer afternoon. Maman could make her parlor seem as grand as a stage and a concert hall as intimate as a room in her own home. In everything, she was effortlessly graceful, poised, and stunningly beautiful, a manner her eldest daughter strove to emulate but could not yet master. She often feared she never would.
Her father sat before the piano, his long, supple fingers poised above the keys, the sunlight picking up the auburn highlights in his chestnut brown hair, only slightly darker than Marie’s own. Awaiting his cue, he gazed at his wife with the admiration everyone there shared and the warm, enduring affection that was his and hers alone. A trickle of perspiration wended its way down Marie’s back beneath her ivory muslin dress—invisibly, she hoped—but like everyone else in the room, she held perfectly still, riveted by Maman’s presence as she prepared to let her voice take flight. Squeezed between her two younger sisters on a small sofa behind their guests’ chairs, Marie waited, breathless, for the first exquisite notes. When little Aimée mewed a complaint and squirmed about for a better view, Marie clasped her hand to settle her down. She took Sylvie’s hand too, although at fifteen Sylvie knew how to behave properly at a concert, even a casual one among friends such as this. In reply, Sylvie squeezed her hand and flashed a quick smile. As often as they heard their mother sing, they never tired of it.
Nor did any of their parents’ friends who had gathered there for their weekly musicale, most of them colleagues from the Conservatory of Music, longtime friends from the city opera company, or new acquaintances from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Their Tuesday afternoon gatherings had become a favorite summertime tradition ever since the Miossec family had come to America two years before so Marie’s father, a renowned pianist, composer, and music historian, could accept a professorship at the conservatory. The provost had sweetened the deal by offering Maman a position on the voice faculty. Papa liked to claim that the provost had really wanted the magnificent diva Josephine Miossec, and had recruited him only to acquire his otherwise unobtainable wife. Whenever he said such things, Maman would gaze heavenward, shake her head, and murmur demurrals, but the warmth in the sidelong smile she gave her husband told the three sisters that he had charmed her once again.
Marie longed for a love like theirs someday, and she knew Sylvie did, too. They often confessed their hopes and dreams to each other, but only late at night after Aimée had fallen asleep. Although Aimée was a darling, she was too young to understand, and she might accidentally blurt out an embarrassing secret in front of their parents or, worse yet, their neighbors or classmates.
Sylvie alone knew how much Marie wanted to be like their mother, to travel the world as she had done at the height of her career, enchant- ing audiences in the glorious concert halls of Europe, performing iconic roles in the world’s most hallowed opera houses, garnering rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, inspiring the greatest composers of the era to create songs perfectly suited for the unique timbre of her own voice. Ever loyal, Sylvie never cautioned Marie to set her sights a little lower, never admitted aloud what Marie had begun to suspect as she completed her first year at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music—that she indeed had a lovely voice, but fervent hope and diligent study could take her only so far. If she persisted, she would surely become better than she was now as a mere girl of nineteen, but would that be enough? Or would all that she desired forever remain just beyond the touch of her fingertips?
When Sylvie squeezed her hand again, Marie glanced up to find her sister studying her, a question in her eyes. Marie managed a small smile and deliberately turned her gaze toward their mother, who just then broke the expectant hush with the first splendid notes of a Schubert Lieder, one of three on the program. Within moments Marie’s nagging doubts subsided, swept away on a river of music. All around her, she sensed a sudden easing of tension she had not been conscious of until it was gone, like a breath held too long, finally released.
She savored the moment, knowing the tension would surely return when the music ceased.
All summer long the dreadful news from Europe had troubled their family, ever since that fateful June day when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary, had been assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. Long-simmering dis- agreements between rivals had boiled over as friendly nations strengthened their alliances and locked arms against enemies. Marie’s beloved France was an ally of Russia, which in turn had an alliance with Serbia; thus in the steadily worsening conflict, her homeland was opposed to Austria-Hungary and its longtime ally, Germany. A few weeks after the archduke’s assassination, Austria had attacked Serbia for harboring terrorists. In response, Russia had moved troops to the border it shared with Germany to discourage Kaiser Wilhelm II from strengthening his ally’s position. Diplomats from many nations had worked frantically to restore calm ever since, but it seemed to Marie that their voices were drowned out by the accusations of treachery and threats of greater military force flying back and forth above their heads.
Only three days before, on August 1, Germany had declared war on Russia. The next day, Germany had sent troops into Luxembourg and had demanded unimpeded passage across Belgium, the neutral country standing between the kaiser’s armies and France. Then—had it really been only the previous afternoon?—Germany had declared war on France. Within hours France had declared war on Germany in return, crushing the peacemakers’ last hopes for a diplomatic solution.
Now France was preparing to move troops into Alsace-Lorraine, provinces lost to Germany in the treaty that had ended the Franco- Prussian War more than forty years before. When Marie’s father was a young boy, his parents and aunts and uncles had abandoned their homes and businesses in the annexed territory and had resettled in Nancy, preferring to remain proudly French rather than have their nationality legally and forcibly changed to German. Now German troops were massing on the border of Belgium, and politicians in Great Britain, a nation committed to Belgium’s neutrality and to peace in Europe, had set aside their own partisan disagreements to unite in opposition to German aggression. It had seemed to Marie that this boded well for France, but when she thought of her beloved family and friends back home, her heart ached with worry. She could only imagine how frightened they must be, waiting in dread for the first distant sounds of artillery and cannon.
For days, Marie’s parents had been tense, their words brief and quiet, their smiles rare and quickly fading. Marie had assumed they would cancel the musicale, but earlier that day her mother had asked her daughters to help her tidy up and prepare as always, and later she had withdrawn to her bedroom to warm up her voice while she dressed and fixed her hair. “We need the solace of music and good company today more than ever,” Marie had overheard her tell Papa moments before the doorbell rang, heralding the first arrivals.
Their friends must have agreed with Maman, for nearly three dozen guests crowded into the parlor that day, one of the best turnouts of the summer. If their smiles were a bit strained, if their laughter was some- what forced, they all seemed to share an unspoken agreement not to spoil the gathering with dark speculation about events beyond their control unfolding thousands of miles away.
Their determination to gather despite their worries was rewarded with Josephine Miossec’s beautiful soprano.
Her friends and family listened, spellbound, until she finished her third Lied, with a final note so pure and resonant it seemed to linger in the air until it was only a memory. A warm crash of applause followed. Maman bowed graciously, and Papa too rose to take a self-deprecating bow, but he waved his friends to silence when he decided they had gone on too long, evoking fond laughter. Then he summoned his friend and fellow professor, a gifted cellist, to take the stage, and soon, with Papa as accompanist, the rich, mellow notes of Saint-Saëns filled the room.
A guitar duet followed, and then a piano, flute, and violin trio, and so passed an hour and then some, until Maman brought the concert to an end by inviting everyone outside for refreshments. Recognizing their cue, Marie and her sisters bounded up from the sofa and hastened to the kitchen to help their mother. In deference to the heat, they served iced lemonade, chilled wine, and cold beer alongside a tempting assortment of light sandwiches, delicate pastries, and fresh fruits and cheeses.
Well practiced in their roles, the Miossec sisters circulated with trays, collected empty glasses, and kept an eye on their mother in case she beckoned them over to receive new instructions. Someone turned on the Victrola, and the lively notes of an Irving Berlin tune wafted outside through the kitchen windows, a bright counterpoint to the thrum of cicadas and the distant, intermittent clang of the streetcar. Amid the laughter and conversation, the friendly teasing and academic gossip and ardent discussion of all things musical, Marie occasionally caught a wisp of anxious speculation about the strife overseas. Each time she quickly moved along with her tray of sweets and savories, unwilling to dispel the illusion that all was well, if only there and if only for now.
Even so, when she returned to the kitchen to reload her tray, she stopped to listen when she heard her father’s voice, urgent and serious, just outside the open window. A name caught her attention—Bertha Baur, the president of the conservatory. “All we know is that she’s vacationing in Germany,” Marie’s father was saying. “She sent a letter from Berlin, but that was weeks ago.”
“Last I heard, she was in Munich,” another man said. “She was plan- ning to spend the entire summer in Germany. With things the way they are, who knows if she’ll be able to return in time for the fall semester?”
“The Germans won’t detain her, will they?” a woman asked. Marie recognized her voice—the flutist.
“They might not need to,” one of the guitarists said darkly. “All they have to do is make the ocean crossing too dangerous.”
“Has anyone heard from Louis Victor Saar?” asked the cellist.
At the sound of her music theory professor’s name, Marie drew closer to the window. At the end of spring semester, he had mentioned plans to visit his native Holland in June and spend the rest of the summer performing and lecturing in Bavaria.
“We had a letter from him in July,” said Marie’s father. “He was in Munich at the time. He said nothing about any political or military developments.”
“Perhaps the Germans are censoring the mail,” said the guitarist. “That would explain why we’ve heard so little from all of our colleagues abroad. Surely they couldn’t all be too busy to write.”
“I can’t imagine any of our friends will be forbidden to leave Germany even if war comes,” said Marie’s father. “Except, perhaps, Kunwald and his wife. I admit I’m concerned for them.”
The others murmured agreement.
Marie had met Dr. Ernst Kunwald, the Austrian conductor who had left the Berlin Philharmonic two years before to lead the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. A few months ago, he had also taken charge of the Cincinnati May Festival, where he had conducted the American premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. In his two years in the Queen City, he had impressed audiences with his flashing blue eyes, commanding presence, and striking discernment for repertoire. Rumor had it that he was corresponding regularly with his countryman Richard Strauss in an effort to secure the American premiere of his as-yet- unfinished new tone poem, already years in the composing.
“But Kunwald isn’t in Germany, is he?” asked the flutist. “At the end of the symphony season, he told us he was returning to his home in Vienna for the summer. Austria hasn’t declared war on anyone.”
“Yes, but considering Austria’s traditional alliance with Germany, that may only be a matter of time,” Marie’s father said. “Kunwald retired as a lieutenant in the reserve army of the Austrian Empire. He may be called back into service.”
“Surely not,” the flutist exclaimed, and everyone chimed in an opinion.
Marie had heard enough. She finished replenishing her tray with hors d’oeuvres and carried it outside, past her father and his companions, whose voices had become low and urgent.
“Marie,” her mother called from the far end of the garden, smiling and beckoning.
Setting the tray down on the nearest table, Marie hurried over, tousling Aimée’s hair in passing. Her mother was conversing with a dark- haired, mustachioed man in his midforties. He carried a cigar in his left hand, and a gold watch chain crossed his ample midsection and disappeared into the waistcoat pocket of his light gray suit.
“Ma petite,” said Maman, reaching out to clasp Marie’s hand and drawing her near. “Allow me to present Dr. Stephen Brooks. Stephen, this is my eldest daughter, Marie.”
Dr. Brooks inclined his head in a slight bow and extended his hand. “Delighted to meet you, mademoiselle.”
“It’s my pleasure, sir,” said Marie, shaking his hand.
“Dr. Brooks will be joining the conservatory faculty as a visiting professor this fall,” her mother said. “The last time he came to Cincinnati was for the May Festival.”
“As I told your mother, I was quite impressed with the conservatory chamber choir’s performance,” Dr. Brooks said. “Imagine my surprise to learn that Josephine Miossec’s eldest daughter was one of the sopranos.”
“Oh.” Marie felt heat rise in her cheeks as her mother and Dr. Brooks beamed at her. “She mentioned that?”
“And why not?” said her mother. “It was a wonderful performance, and it’s a mother’s prerogative to boast.”
“Of course it is,” said Dr. Brooks, chuckling. “I understand only the very best students are selected for this ensemble.”
Marie offered a small shrug and a smile. “It’s true the audition was very competitive.”
“Ma petite is too modest,” her mother protested. “She was the only first-year student to make the cut.”
“Indeed?” Dr. Brooks’s dark eyebrows rose as he puffed on his cigar. “Most impressive, Miss Miossec. I look forward to hearing you as a soloist. Perhaps at next week’s musicale?”
“Oh, I—” Marie fumbled about for an excuse. “Well, I would, but—” Just then the telephone rang inside the house, faint but unmistakable. “If you’ll excuse me—”
“No, stay, ma petite. Your father will answer it.” Her mother nodded toward the house, and, sure enough, Marie glimpsed her father entering through the back door, ruining her excuse and quashing her hopes for a quick escape. Fortunately, her mother changed the subject, so Marie managed to avoid committing to sing the following week, or explaining why she would not. How could she confess to a probable future conservatory teacher that she was not good enough yet to sing in such company, at least not the way she wanted to? She didn’t want her parents’ colleagues to indulge her as a precocious child. She wanted them to respect her, if not as an equal, then at least as an aspiring artist in her own right.
Lost in her own thoughts, it took her a moment to realize that her mother and Dr. Brooks had stopped speaking, and that their attention had shifted somewhere behind her. Turning, Marie observed other guests drawing closer to the rear windows, where her father stood just inside, candlestick phone raised to his mouth with his left hand, the speaker raised to his right ear with the other. He was repeating the conversation for the benefit of their guests, but Marie was too far away to grasp more than the most urgent phrases: Great Britain had issued an ultimatum to Berlin. The Germans must cease military activity along the Belgian border or provoke war with Britain as well. Belgian’s King Albert had made a formal appeal for help to France and Britain as guarantors of its neutrality by international treaty.
“Mon dieu,” Maman murmured.
Heart thudding, Marie felt her mother’s hand close around her own, and together they joined those gathered around the windows.
“Germany has declared war on France and Belgium,” her father repeated, pausing to listen between sentences. “This is their third war declaration this week, having already declared war on Russia and invaded Luxembourg. German troops have moved into Belgium at three points, violating their neutrality policy. It is reported that there are already one million French men near the frontier line, but France is at an even greater risk with Germany’s invasion of Luxembourg and Belgium, right on their border. France has very limited defenses along the Belgian border, making it vulnerable to attack on that front.” A long pause as he listened. “You can’t be serious.” Another pause. “Yes, I hear you. I can’t believe it, but I hear it. Thanks, Paul.” He hung up, shaking his head and frowning.
“What is it, mon cher?” Marie’s mother prompted.
“Wilson has officially proclaimed that the United States will remain neutral in the conflict, ‘impartial in thought as well as in action.’”
“What exactly is that supposed to mean?” asked the cellist.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Marie’s father replied grimly. He stepped away from the window to return the phone to its usual table.
Marie caught a few muffled oaths in several languages as the guests murmured in consternation and anger and worry. Her father reappeared in the doorway, arms folded over his chest, his expression bleak as he sought out Maman’s gaze in the crowd.
Suddenly it seemed that everyone had been seized by the urgent need to return home. For many of them, Marie knew, for her own family, their true homes were thousands of miles across the sea, in the line of fire or somewhere near it. Two of Maman’s friends lingered to help tidy up, but she soon sent them on their way, with tight smiles and embraces and mutual assurances that everything would be all right, somehow.
As soon as the family was alone, Aimée burst into sobs. “What will happen to Grand-mère and Grand-père?” she asked tremulously, tears slipping down her cheeks. “Our family, my friends. Our home. My school.”
Papa swept her up in his arms. “Our friends and family are very clever and careful,” he declared, kissing her cheek as she snuggled her face against his shoulder. “They’ll keep themselves safe, whatever comes. Who knows? Maybe those Germans will decide to stay right where they are. It’s a long walk across Belgium in this summer heat. Why should they leave their homes and biergartens just to annoy their neighbors?”
His words and gentle tone soothed Aimée, but Marie and Sylvie understood perfectly the look he gave their mother over their younger sister’s head, apprehensive and full of warning. They knew, though Aimée apparently had not figured it out, that soldiers would go wherever their generals commanded, regardless of their own preferences.
“How can America remain neutral?” Marie overheard her mother lament to her father later that night as Marie and Sylvie helped Aimée prepare for bed. “They cherish freedom and democracy and justice, or so they say. This German aggression is an outrage. How can the United States stand by and do nothing when their closest international friends are forced into a war of self-defense?”
“The Americans don’t want any part of a conflict in Europe,” Papa replied. “They think it’s none of their concern.”
“That’s an astonishingly provincial attitude for this day and age!”
“A vast ocean separates our continents. A certain provinciality should be expected, even in this century.” Papa sighed. “Try not to worry. That same ocean protects the girls, and you and I.”
“Try not to worry?” Maman’s lovely voice was choked with tears. “How can I not worry? We may be safe, for now, but everyone else we love, everything else we hold most dear—oh, Stephane, I—”
“Hush, my love. The girls are not yet asleep.”
Their voices descended into whispers, and Marie heard no more.
Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times bestselling author of several acclaimed historical novels and the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as six collections of quilt patterns inspired by her books.
Her original quilt designs have been featured in Country Woman, Quiltmaker, Quiltmaker’s 100 Blocks Volumes 3-5, and Quilt, and her short stories have appeared in Quiltmaker and Quilters Newsletter.
A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin.
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