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Signal Soldiers in WWI France

When Fort Monmouth began, it was constructed as a Signal Corps training camp.  In 1917, the Signal Corps faced an urgent need for telegraphers and radio operators in France.  A six-week intensive training course on foreign codes and languages began at Camp Alfred Vail.   The Army sent 223 men to the Camp for training and testing as German-speaking personnel.  Additional groups of fifty or more arrived each month thereafter.   The need for telegraph operators in France was so great that operators volunteering for overseas duty received bonuses.

France - American Infantry, Somme France, 1918

Between August 1917 and October 1918, American Expeditionary Forces in France received five telegraph battalions, two field signal battalions, one depot battalion, and an aero construction squadron from Camp Alfred Vail.  

Soldiers writing messages for pigeon delivery in the trenches of France, 1918

The service (consisting of three officers, 118 enlisted men, and a few hundred pigeons) finally arrived in France in February 1918.   A total of 572 American birds served in the St.  Mihiel offensive and 442 in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Signaling in France, 1918

Thanks to the preservation efforts of Karin Armstrong, a collection of letters from Camp Vail Soldiers to a local resident provide some “boots on the ground” information about life in France during WWI.  Our summer 2010 intern Suzanne Moore transcribed the 300+ letters, and a few of their thoughts on the country are now available to us.

Private Jim Nudd wrote about the scarcity of chocolate in France in January 1918.  Not only was it hard to get, but expensive.  He states “for one bar of chocolate that cost 5¢ at home, we have to pay 30¢ in France.”

Some Soldiers were more concerned with imbibing than buying candy.  Sergeant Louis Belshaw reported in May 1918 that they could acquire “light wine to drink, and also beer, but nothing like the good old U.S.A.”  He laments that the beer and wine in France is much weaker – lower alcohol content – and “you could drink a barrel of this stuff and never know that you had any.”  However, despite his complaints, SGT Belshaw reported that the first things he learned in French were how to order drinks and swear. 

France 1918 - Soldiers releasing pigeon

Unlike today’s forces, those stationed in France during WWI had to walk or take trains nearly everywhere.  Charles Fusselman from the 34 Service Company Signal Corps, wrote from Tours, France, in November 1918, that “it is a very beautiful country” and he was looking forward to sending photo postcards of the scenery to his friend Amelia back in New Jersey.

First American telephone operators in France.

Being in a war doesn’t mean losing your sense of humor, either.  One of the men, Irwin Billet, reported in January 1919: “I am still located at Belleville on a switch board and doing the same work as a ‘Hello Girl’ in the States.  But I am getting fat and sure having a fine time.” 

 I guess France wasn’t all bad.

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  1. Signal Soldiers in WWI France – CECOM Historical Office linked to this post on October 13, 2010

    Read the original here: Signal Soldiers in WWI France – CECOM Historical Office

  2. Movin’ on up! – CECOM Historical Office linked to this post on October 18, 2010

    being without your computer for a few hours (which is especially trying when there’s WWI history blogs to write), and then setting up the new (albeit temporary)