As we come to the end of our year celebrating the Pardee and Lyon families’ service to country, I offer one last reminder that the role of women during World War I was vital, though underplayed. In 1917, while Marjorie Lyon was working for the Red Cross, she received a letter from her old school friend, Louise Smith.
Louise and Marjorie met at Miss Vinton’s School in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1900, and remained friends for the rest of their lives. In 1917 both women were very anxious to serve their country and support the war effort, and both applied to go to France as U.S. Army drivers. Marjorie was bitterly disappointed when her own application was refused because she was a woman married to a serviceman – despite the fact that she spoke fluent French, already had Red Cross training and preparation in motor mechanics, and her willingness to pay all her own expenses including taking her own automobile.
Louise was unmarried, so in 1917 she did not face the obstacles that Marjorie confronted. She did advanced training in New York in motor mechanics in preparation for shipping out to France. Her letter, after several months of grueling service, describes the hardships and dangers that she faced.
…Let me explain why I chose this job. So far I am in very good health in spite of the strenuous work, with bad food, no beds, and the strain of driving at night without lights. During the attacks we are on duty at the Poste de Secours for 24 hours on and 24 hours off. And during the 24 hours off we have to work on our cars. As for the driving, the roads are awful – hilly, muddy & full of shell holes. We have to go very slowly on account of the bumps but we keep at it continuously. One day I drove 274 kilometres and was still able to work on the car when I got through. When not running at night we sleep on stretchers in our cars, or, when there is shelling, in a dug-out or abri [shelter]. We have the same food as the poilus [common soldiers] only ours is generally cold as we carry it with us.
I have signed up with the unit for six months which will bring me to the middle of November. Then the winter weather will begin and I don’t think I will be able to go on with this work in the extreme cold, but will look for a different job – perhaps with the Red Cross.
So you see … I really did think it all out and I took the best course in mechanics that I could get in New York and worked at the thing from October to the last of March when I sailed. This seems to be the best women’s unit out here and the only one to get to the Poste de Secours. A Poste de Secours is generally in front of our artillery and from 1½ to 6 kilometers behind the first lines. The wounded are carried in from the field by stretcher bearers to the Poste where there is a doctor to give first aid. Then they are put into our cars & taken back to the first hospital – a distance of from 10 to 50 kilometres. The proof that we are needed out here is the amount of work we have been given to do. During the last advance we have been driving simply on account of the need for more drivers. The hospitals have not been able to advance as fast as the army and so we have to make longer trips back and, of course, the recaptured roads are all new to us and we lose time in losing our way on them. I can’t tell you what a thrill it gave me to be the first ambulance over a road just opened up and to drive into a certain village a few hours after the enemy had been driven out and while the German snipers were still all about. It seems to put new life and wonderful endurance into everyone to go forward with a victorious army like this. Even the wounded seem encouraged. I have not written Mother that we are often under shell-fire or bombed, but of course the Germans try to stop all traffic on the roads near the front.
This unit is made up of some very original women, many of them have driven ambulances in Serbia, Rumania, Russia & Antwerp. I can’t do justice to them in a letter but will tell you about them when I see you. There are only six of us Americans in it. The rest are British. It was quite a stroke of luck their taking us, and we had to get ready & come in 24 hours. The unit was started in Belgium the day before England entered the war & was then a Cantine. Last October Miss Lowther started the motor unit & began work last January in France in the rear, but moved out to the front on the day we joined, May 14th.
This is a very long letter but I hope to get an answer sooner than last time & to hear all you are doing. Letters are very eagerly received out here.
With much love,