Sunday, August 24, 2014

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm

Elsie and Mairi wearing the decorations awarded them by King Albert of the Belgians,
The Chevalier of the Order of Leopold II.
All photos in this post but the last were taken from The Cellar-House of Pervyse: A Tale of Uncommon Things from the Journals and Letters of The Baroness T'Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm, published in London, 1917. Clicking on the individual half-tone photos will provide a clearer image.

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were two motorcycle enthusiasts who, when the war began, became dispatch riders in London with the Women's Emergency Corps. After a month they were asked to join a medical unit called 'The Flying Ambulance Corps" that was headed for Belgium.

Mairi in a shell hole.
The women often came under direct fire.

While in Belgium transporting men from the battlefield to the nearest hospital -- usually miles away -- the women discovered that too many moderately wounded men were dying of shock during the trip. What these men needed immediately, the women realized, was a quiet place where they could recuperate and gather some strength before taking the arduous ambulance ride to the hospital on the muddy, slippery, shell-pocked cobblestone streets.

At the end of November, 1914, after a quick fundraising trip to Britain, Elsie and Mairi moved into a 10 by 12 foot cellar of a bombed out house in the Belgian town of Pervyse, using a second cellar as a dressing station. There they cared for the wounded, a few men at a time, before taking them to the hospital in Furnes. And with their new funds -- and what they could find in other deserted houses -- they made hot chocolate and soup (with the help of a young Belgian man) and distributed it daily to the Belgian soldiers living in the nearby trenches.

One of the cellar houses before the women converted it
The same cellar house afterwards
They also wrote home often, requesting their relatives to send them warm men's clothing. The Belgian soldiers nearby often suffered from relatively minor ailments -- bronchitis, frozen, inflamed feet -- caused by exposure to the cold. Elsie and Mairi let these sick men recuperate in the cellar house if no one else needed it more. The Belgian soldiers were extremely grateful for all the sacrifices these two British women were making on their behalf.

But if the Belgian soldiers admired the two brave women, the feeling was very mutual. Elsie commended them in the following way in a letter home, requesting supplies: "I have lived amongst the soldiers so long, and know how plucky and cheerful they are. I see them patched up, returning to their regiments unmurmuring. I wonder if even our British Tommy would fight so cheerfully as he does if he were established on twenty miles of Kent, knowing that all the rest of his country was in the hands of the Germans, not knowing where his mother, wife, or sisters were, or if he would ever see them again."


 News traveled and soon the cellar house began attracting curious visitors, everyone from the mayor of Paris to British reporters; friends and relatives of the two women read about their activities in British newspapers.

 One day they were visited by some British navy men who were astonished that the women were living in a bombed out village so obviously close to danger.

 In the middle of their conversation, several loud shells fell nearby, one right after the other. The naval men were outraged: "Do you mean to say you get this often?" they asked. "It's shameful! Someone ought to make you come away."

 "Write to The Times about it" said Elsie before calmly suggesting that they all eat the lunch the men had brought.

Elsie & Mairi
Photo via the Imperial War Museum
Portions of the above text are taken from an unfinished, unpublished chapter originally intended for inclusion in Women Heroes of World War I The following is collection of quotes I considered as chapter openers:

The whole British Army objects to our being here.
--Mairi Chisholm

There isn't a man in the Corps who does his work better or with more courage and endurance than this 18-year-old-child.
--May Sinclair, British journalist, speaking of Mairi Chisholm
Perhaps it is by [Elsie Knocker's] services and those of Miss Mairi Chisholm that the Monro Ambulance has best proved the fitness of women in the actual field.
 --May Sinclair, British journalist
So far as I know, you are actually the only women right up in the firing-line at all -- and you jolly well shouldn't be.
 --British Naval Officers speaking to Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm

Read about recent efforts to build a memorial to Elsie & Mairi here.

The Amazon UK link to a recent biography on the women, Elsie and Mairi Go to War.

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