[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-War]: Walton on Wagner, 'Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O'Brien'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Fri Nov 8 11:55:33 MST 2019

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Andrew Stewart 
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Begin forwarded message:

> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: November 7, 2019 at 7:57:51 AM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-War]:  Walton on Wagner, 'Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O'Brien'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Nancy O'Brien Wagner, ed.  Alice in France: The World War I Letters 
> of Alice M. O'Brien.  St. Paul  Minnesota Historical Society Press, 
> 2017.  Illustrations. 216 pp.  $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-68134-026-5.
> Reviewed by Whitney Walton (Purdue University)
> Published on H-War (November, 2019)
> Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
> These letters from Alice O'Brien are an excellent source for 
> understanding American women's involvement in World War I. They 
> reveal the high demand for American women's service in France in 
> several different capacities, including as drivers, canteen workers, 
> and nurses. Patriotism, anti-German sentiment, and enthusiasm for 
> being useful drove twenty-six-year-old O'Brien to respond to the call 
> for volunteers. Readers learn about the challenges of overseas 
> transport during war, the sorrow over so many young French and 
> American men dead or maimed, and the expectation of victory that 
> enabled everyone to continue.  
> Editor Nancy O'Brien Wagner carefully reconstructs her grandaunt 
> Alice O'Brien's family and social class background in St. Paul, 
> Minnesota, prior to the outbreak of war in 1914. O'Brien was a 
> well-educated young woman from a family of means involved in the 
> lumber business. After completing her education at the Bennett 
> Finishing School for Young Women in Millbrook, New York, in 1911, she 
> traveled extensively in the United States and abroad; she was an avid 
> car driver, mechanic, and outdoorswoman, and she worked for the 
> suffrage movement. While O'Brien's motivations for volunteering for 
> war work are not entirely clear, Wagner notes that many in O'Brien's 
> peer group of East Coast-educated women and men supported the French 
> even before the United States entered the war in April 1917. 
> Thereafter, the American Red Cross and other relief organizations 
> redoubled their efforts to assist American soldiers and their allies. 
> Wagner reasonably speculates that O'Brien and three friends applied 
> to work for the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW), rather than 
> the American Red Cross, because of personal connections, less 
> bureaucracy, and more opportunities, notably to be drivers and 
> mechanics. After providing several testimonials to American loyalty, 
> but undergoing no training, O'Brien and her friends set sail on the 
> French Line ship _Rochambeau_ on March 30, 1918. 
> The letters from the ship convey wartime apprehension about submarine 
> attacks, blackout conditions on board, and sugar shortages, but the 
> heart of the book describes the experience of the German offensive 
> from the perspective of civilians in Paris and the rigors and 
> pleasures of canteen work. After surviving an air raid in Paris 
> unscathed, O'Brien wrote home: "We are living in thrilling times and 
> I would not give up the last few days for all the money in the world" 
> (p. 33). O'Brien and her friend Doris Kellogg did some driving in 
> Paris, fetching and delivering supplies, and constructing a working 
> automobile from parts, but they increasingly yearned to work in a 
> canteen for the Red Cross because the AFFW could not obtain cars from 
> the United States for the volunteers to drive and repair. Eventually, 
> the AFFW released them from their commitment since it could not 
> provide any work, and the young women joined the Red Cross and headed 
> to a canteen near Chantilly. 
> O'Brien thrived on the long hours and constant activity at the 
> canteen. She described the food they prepared and distributed, the 
> almost round-the-clock shifts to accommodate French soldiers leaving 
> and returning to the front, and housing for the canteen workers. 
> After a military engagement when wounded soldiers flooded nearby 
> hospitals, the canteen workers pitched in to help in distributing 
> water, food, tobacco, and kind words. They mourned the young men who 
> did not survive. 
> The letters raise several questions. Wagner suggests a connection 
> between O'Brien's driving and suffrage activism before the war: 
> "owning and driving a car were political statements" (p. 8). It would 
> be interesting to learn more about the effect of the war on her 
> politics. Does O'Brien fit into Lynn Dumenil's analysis of the 
> connection between activism and war service in her book, _The Second 
> Line of Defense: American Women and World War I_ (2017)? Wagner hints 
> at such an effect when she writes about the founding of a women's 
> club in 1920-21: "Alice and her contemporaries were charging into the 
> public and political frontiers with the same determination they had 
> brought to the front in France," somewhat of an exaggeration of their 
> time near the front, and perhaps it is impossible to know more since 
> the letters ended when O'Brien returned to the United States (p. 
> 162). Another question is, in what specific ways was O'Brien's 
> account similar to or different from those of other American women in 
> World War I? O'Brien's unquestioned patriotism, support for the 
> Allied cause, and vicious hatred of Germans contrast markedly with 
> the modernist writings of American nurses Ellen Newbold La Motte 
> (1873-1961) and Mary Borden (1886-1948), which Margaret R. Higonnet 
> collected and edited in _Nurses at the Front: Writing the Wounds of 
> the Great War_ (2001). The two works complement one another and 
> invite further research. 
> Citation: Whitney Walton. Review of Wagner, Nancy O'Brien, ed., 
> _Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O'Brien_. 
> H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54000
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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