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Alice in France

Alice in France

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The World War I Letters of Alice M. O’Brien

Author Nancy O'Brien Wagner

Minnesota Historical Society Press (April 1, 2017)

The engaging and revealing letters of a woman who, with thousands of others, volunteered for service in World War I Europe, taking on jobs that freed men for the trenches.


July 19, 1918: The wounded were pouring into the four Hospitals of the town. . . . We have decided to double up for a few days—half of us work at the Canteen and half at the Hospitals, taking turns. It will be hard work for awhile but everyone feels that you can’t work hard enough these days.

In March 1918, twenty-six-year-old Alice O’Brien and three close friends set off from New York harbor, bound for wartime France. Unlike the soldiers aboard their ship, they were unpaid volunteers. As the daughter of a wealthy family, Alice had no need to work—no need to go to war. But she also drove her own car, was trained as an auto mechanic, spoke French, and had the passion and determination to contribute selflessly to the war effort.

Alice and her friends joined hundreds of American women serving as nurses, clerks, drivers, and canteen workers for the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other organizations. Her letters home, full of breezy gossip and telling detail, describe living conditions, attitudes and actions of French soldiers and civilians, and her own remarkable efforts near the front. Alice was brave and funny, proud and jingoistic, privileged and unassuming, and Alice made a difference in France.

Author information

Nancy O'Brien Wagner is the co-founder of Bluestem Heritage, LLC, which does research, program development, interpretive planning, and project management for historical organizations.

Nancy has worked as a historian, exhibit developer, and interpretive planner for nearly twenty years. At Bluestem, Nancy designed "81 Minutes” an exhibit about the 35W Bridge Collapse, which won an American Association for State and Local History award. She has authored many local histories, including a history of Saint Paul’s Central High School, as well as the recent centennial history of the Minnesota’s Governor’s Residence. Her history on the Trout Brook Valley was a winner of a St. Paul AIA/Historic Preservation Commission award. Previous to her work at Bluestem, Nancy was an employee of the Minnesota Historical Society, where she co-authored the award-winning 2003 edition of the Northern Lights textbook.

Reviews and news

In the Media:

New York Post

Pioneer Press

Star Tribune

MN Good Age

WTIP Radio

Minnesota Book Award Finalist

"These letters from Alice O’Brien are an excellent source for understanding American women’s involvement in World War I."

Advance Praise:

“This absorbing collection of World War I letters from France highlights the multiple roles of Alice M. O’Brien—from mechanic and supply truck driver to nurse and canteen worker. One of many unsung U.S. women in the war, the resourceful O’Brien—with her compassion for Allied wounded, capacity for grueling work, and self-deprecating humor—shines through the miseries of war.”
Elizabeth Foxwell, editor, In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I

“The American war effort during the World War is full of stories. And if we’re lucky enough, they are eloquently preserved in the writings of those who lived it. Alice O’Brien, through her charming and detailed letters, shares both a volunteer’s and a woman’s perspective. These reveal insights into the internal motivations, recount adventurous experiences, and demonstrate women’s contributions to U.S. victory in an era before American women had the right to vote. A welcome read.”
Matthew Naylor, President and CEO, National World War I Museum and Memorial

Related Links:

Minnesota History magazine article: "Awfully Busy These Days: Red Cross Women in France During World War I" by Nancy O'Brien Wagner
(Winner of the Solomon J. Buck Award for best article in Minnesota History)

Minnesota History magazine article: "Alice M. O'Brien and the Women's City Club of St. Paul" by Thomond R. O'Brien

The Alice M. O'Brien Foundation

  • This title is also available at your favorite e-book vendor.
  • 216 pages
  • 30 b&w illustrations, notes, index
  • 6x9 inches
  • ISBN: 9781681340265

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