Montgomery Motor Corps Contributes to War Efforts
April 11, 2017
By Laura Newland Hill, Encyclopedia of Alabama
Staff of the Montgomery Motor Corps of the National League for Woman's Service. Alabama Department of Archives & History
Left to right on the lower row: "Captain, Mrs. Fred S. [Florence] Ball; Adjutant, Miss Anna S. Ball; Lieut., Mrs. Gaston [Cecile] Greil; Lieut., Mrs. Leopold [Sophie W.] Strauss; Lieut., Mrs. W. H. [Kate] LeGrand; Lieut., Mrs. John A. Flowers." Left to right on the top row: "Mrs. W. J. [Elizabeth] Hannah, local chairman; Serg., Mrs. Sidney [Selma] Winter, treasurer; Lieut., Mrs. Mose [Lillie W.] Scheur; Lieut., Mrs. Ellis [Nettie G.] Burnett; Lieut., Mrs. J. M. [Mittie] Nicrosi." (The identification accompanying the photograph identified the married women only by their husband's names. The women's first names were determined by consulting city directories from the period.)
The 1918 photo (above) of the women serving on the homefront in Montgomery is filled with an air of patriotism. The uniforms look sharp. The faces of the woman convey a serious demeanor. The photography studio background adds gravitas. The women in it are the officers of the Montgomery Motor Corps and they directed the activities of more than 100 local female volunteers who provided a variety of driving services to Camp Sheridan, the 4,000 acre U.S. Army post a few miles north of town. As was the norm at the time, the Motor Corps volunteers were identified with the convention of “Miss” or, if married, “Mrs.” plus a husband’s name. All but one are married.
In the process of looking for their names, I learned that several were rearing young children at the time. A few of them were Alabama-born daughters of German immigrants. Others were from families that had been in the country for several generations; two of them would serve as regents of the Peter Forney chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Montgomery. One was the daughter of a successful Jewish retailer in Atlanta. Another was the daughter of a well-known Methodist circuit rider. One had a twin brother who was drafted into the U.S. Army in late June of 1918. Their last names were ones that Montgomery residents saw on professional office doors, storefronts in town, and in local advertising for lumber, insurance, and dry goods. Given the purpose and requirements of the Motor Corps, it can be assumed that all the women knew how to drive and, in all likelihood, were using their personal vehicles in service to the country.
WW1 poster using artwork drawn by Charles Dana Gibson and presented to the National League for Woman’s Service by the Federal Food Administration. Library of Congress
“As we close the second year’s work of the National League for Woman’s Service, we realize with gratitude the privilege of service which has been given to the League and through the League to several hundred thousand women throughout the United States.” Maude Wetmore, National Chairman, NLWS
The Motor Corps was one of eight divisions of the National League for Woman’s Service (NLWS). The league was established on January 27, 1917 to “organize and train the great woman power of the country for specific and economic service; to be prepared to meet existing needs; to be ready for emergency service; and to supplement the work of Governmental Departments and Committees—Federal, State, and City—and other official and unofficial bodies.”
At least 78 Motor Corps units were established across the country. The one in Montgomery was activated on April 25, 1918. The NLWS’s 1918 annual report recorded that the Montgomery Corps had 84 active, 21 reserve, and 38 auxiliary members. Florence Richardson Ball served as its captain. The unit had seven lieutenants, 16 sergeants, and 12 corporals. The Montgomery Motor Corps was divided into six groups, each under the command of a lieutenant, which were assigned to cover activities for a specific day of the week. The seventh lieutenant worked specifically with the Red Cross and had a driver on call at all times. (The NWLS Motor Corps was the official motor division of the Red Cross nationally until it developed its own in June 1918.)
According to a 1920 history of the organization, more women applied to join the Motor Corps than any other division “because of its originality, its daring and, as many imagined, its romance.” It also noted that the “requirements, discipline, and the hard unromantic work” expected of the volunteers “curtailed the active membership.” The NLWS adopted national standards for qualifying as a Motor Corps driver. Once a volunteer received her certificate she was qualified to serve in any of the units across the nation. Corps membership was restricted to women between the ages of 21 and 45 (or 18 to 50 for reserves). One could become a “full-fledged” driver after passing examinations in mechanics, driving, first aid, and signaling. Participants were expected to “live up to her pledge of definite hours of service and be on call for emergencies” and “keep herself and her car neat and of military appearance.” There was also a requirement for “a vaccination certificate and several injections of prescribed serums.”
Convalescent soldiers from Camp Sheridan "enjoying a touch of home life" at the Montgomery Motor Corps's official roadhouse. Alabama Department of Archives and History
“In order that southern hospitality might find expression without any ill effects to the sick boys, a prominent Montgomery woman offered her home as an official roadhouse…On each trip the boys were carried to this home where they enjoyed a half hour or so of real home life.” Account of activities in Alabama in the National League for Woman’s Service 1918 annual report.
Providing assistance to Camp Sheridan was the primary focus of the Montgomery Motor Corp’s work. “The first work of the Corps and the most appreciated is recreational rides for convalescent soldiers at the Base Hospital on Tuesday and Thursday of each week.” Over the course of six months, at least 2,300 soldiers participated in this opportunity. Additionally, the Motor Corps volunteers transported approximately 80 teachers a day, starting at 6:30 a.m., who were teaching illiterate soldiers at Camp Sheridan to read and write. (A few of the drivers also served as teachers.) Assistance to the local Red Cross also utilized significant resources. Seventeen drivers were specifically designated for its service, which included 60-mile trips to nearby town to deliver supplies.
The Motor Corps did not curtail its activities when the influenza epidemic reached Camp Sheridan. “…each train coming into Montgomery brought anxious relatives of influenza stricken soldiers. The city taxi service was temporarily suspended and the distance to the Base Hospital was great. The Motor Corps came to the rescue and for a week every train was met and transportation to and from camp was furnished…Many trips to camp were made late at night through rain and mud…” The Motor Corps also provided transportation for women who volunteered to assist sick soldiers, and had the sad task of furnishing cars for the military funeral of a “trained nurse” killed by the flu.
Montgomery Motor Corps members with bouquets of flowers in front of the capitol. Lieutenant Kate LeGrand is in the driver's seat, and Lieutenant Sophie W. Strauss is seated behind her. Alabama Department of Archives and History
“Quantities of flowers, the gift of a local florist have been sent to the Base Hospital and distributed to the boys by the Floral Committee of the Corps. During the epidemic of influenza, when the camp was quarantined, the Corps collected flowers in their various neighborhoods which, with thousands of roses donated by generous florists, were taken out to the hospital.” Account of activities in Alabama in the National League for Woman’s Service 1918 annual report.
Other transportation activities were numerous. They included providing rides to the camp for relatives of sick soldiers who were unable to pay for other transportation; helping the Y.M.C.A. bring in singers for Sunday Services; transporting volunteers who distributed “books, dainties to eat, and flowers contributed by local florists;” carrying visiting football and baseball teams to the camp’s ball field; transporting the camp’s military band into town for events; chauffeuring Divisional Headquarters officials; and providing rides for Alabama boys who had returned from overseas wounded. On top of all of this, they provided transportation to the U.S. Department of Public Health’s malaria treatment and prevention efforts in the area and its assistance to families with sick babies. The Montgomery Motor Corps also regularly participated in parades, bond drives, and patriotic events within the 30-mile radius of the state’s capital.
Montgomery Motor Corps Sergeants Selma Winter and Minnie Anderson driving Division Headquarters officers at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama. Alabama Department of Archives and History
“To the Captain of the Motor Corps. Dear Madam:— I beg to express the deep appreciation of the entire hospital staff of the splendid work your corps is doing for the convalescent soldiers of this hospital. It is very deeply appreciated by the entire medical staff as well as by the convalescent patients themselves. Yours very respectfully, LEIGH A. FULLER, Colonel Medical Corps.”
For God, For Country, For Home: The National League for Woman's Service; Bessie R. James, The Knicerbocker Press, 1920.
Report of the Alabama Council of Defense: Covering Its Activities from May 17, 1917 to December 31, 1918.
National League for Woman's Service Annual Report For the Year 1918, Including a Summary for the Year 1917.