Stepping up to help

Minnesota’s Alice O’Brien flouted traditional gender roles before, during, after World War I

Alice O’Brien (right) and her friend, Doris Kellogg, posed with a group of men during World War I. “My hands are behind me,” O’Brien said, “because they were covered with doughnut dough.” Photo courtesy of Alvina O’Brien / Minnesota Historical Society
Alice O’Brien (right) and her friend, Doris Kellogg, posed with a group of men during World War I. “My hands are behind me,” O’Brien said, “because they were covered with doughnut dough.” Photo courtesy of Alvina O’Brien / Minnesota Historical Society

On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany, officially entering World War I.

The Great War began in Europe in the summer of 1914 and quickly engulfed the world. Already an industrial superpower, America supplied European nations with weapons; food, mostly flour produced at Minneapolis mills; and people, first as volunteers and then, after the U.S. entered the war, also as soldiers, known as doughboys.

About 2 million doughboys served in France, and almost as many Americans volunteered. While most volunteers were men, thousands of women also served. Hundreds of women from Minnesota joined the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW), the Red Cross and the Salvation Army as nurses, clerks, drivers and canteen workers.

Volunteering for war

Minnesota’s Alice O’Brien was one of these women. And she left behind a treasure trove of letters describing her time in Europe.

The letters, written to her family in elegant and sometimes humorous prose, have recently been compiled into a new book — Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O’Brien, edited by O’Brien’s grand-niece, Nancy O’Brien Wagner, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Born in St. Paul in 1891, the daughter of successful lumberman William O’Brien, Alice O’Brien flouted traditional gender roles at an early age. As a young woman, she became enamored of cars, learning mechanics and driving her “roadster” across the country at age 19.

Alice O’Brien had no need to work, and could have easily stayed home and raised money for the war effort. But in March 1918 at age 26, seeking adventure and responding to the crisis overseas, she headed to Europe with three of her closest friends to help with the war effort.

Women maintained vehicles as part of their work for the American Fund for French Wounded during the World War I, including Alice O’Brien from St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Jo Wright / Minnesota Historical Society

Her many letters home

“Major Olds says that they have not half as many people as they need and that in a month there is going to be three jobs for every American man or woman in France,” O’Brien wrote on May 11, 1918. “No one talks of going home until the work is over and I guess that will be a long time from now.”

O’Brien started out as a mechanic and driver for American forces in Paris. Later she worked for the American Red Cross serving in a canteen, treating wounded soldiers as an auxiliary nurse and, whenever possible, driving a supply truck.

O’Brien did earn a salary, however, she chose not to accept it, asking for the money to be sent elsewhere, where it was more needed.

In France, O’Brien witnessed death and disease firsthand, working long days without a break.

In one letter on April 21, 1918, she commented, “You see so many wounded that the abnormal becomes normal and a man without a leg or an arm is considered lucky or ‘bien blesse,’ they say here, meaning happily wounded.”

Doughnut dough

At the same time, O’Brien appreciated her surroundings and was able to find humor amid the harsh realities of war.

On one occasion, she sent an image of her and a friend, Doris Kellogg, and wrote: “Enclosed find a photo of Dode and me taken in the woods, just outside the Canteen, with a group of men who are guards here. Aren’t their poses killing? They fixed and primped for half an hour before the event came off. My hands are behind me because they were covered with doughnut dough. They begged us to come, but we were so busy we hated to, but finally tore out — just as we were — so, therefore, the result.”

‘While I am in need’

Throughout it all, O’Brien understood what she had given up.

“America looks pretty good to me and I think I will fill the Harbour with tears of joy when I stand on the deck of the steamer that brings me in sight of the Statue of Liberty, but I don’t want to leave while I am in need here,” she said in a letter dated July 16, 1918.

During the summer and fall of 1918, and particularly around the brutal 47 days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, American soldiers suffered their greatest losses. As many as 50,000 soldiers died in just six months of fighting.

But the Allied effort turned the tide of the war, giving hope that an end would be near. German troops began to surrender in large numbers, and on Nov. 11, 1918, an armistice was signed.

O’Brien was thrilled, writing on the day of the armistice, “Dear Mama, Dad and All — I have managed to dry my eyes and pull myself together to write this letter. I have been crying with joy over the signing of the Armistice!”

Back home again

O’Brien returned to St. Paul in December 1918. Back home, she took up social and political activism, including working for universal women’s suffrage.

In 1925, her father died and she, along with her brother, Jack, began managing her father’s business affairs.

O’Brien spent the rest of her life advocating for social causes and traveling, spending her summers in Marine on St. Croix and winters on Captiva Island, Fla.

An ardent conservationist, in 1947 she donated 180 acres of land along the St. Croix River to create William O’Brien State Park in her father’s honor. She died in Florida in 1962.

Extraordinary stories like that of Alice O’Brien’s aren’t often told. O’Brien’s story provides context and gives a fresh look at the many ways women were central players during war time.

Jessica Kohen is the media relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.

See the exhibit

Alice O’Brien’s story, along with other extraordinary stories of the era, are featured in the new exhibit, WW1 America, opening April 8 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

Through original artifacts, images, voices, music, interactive elements and multimedia features, visitors will hear the stories of an era, a nation and a people transformed by war.

See the exhibit through Sept. 4.