Listening to Isobel Graham’s determination to go out to France as an ambulance driver on the BBC’s Home Front reminded me of this book about two other young women who decided to use their practical skills for the war effort during the Great War.
Elsie Knocker was 30 years old in 1914. Born Elsie Shapter, she was orphaned very young & her siblings were separated, going to live with relatives. Elsie was adopted by Lewis & Emily Upcott. They were educated & artistic people & Elsie was well provided for by a legacy from her father. Elsie made a disastrous marriage, to Leslie Knocker, an accountant ten years her senior, who may have been influenced by Elsie’s inheritance. Leslie got a job with an insurance company & they travelled to Java where he took up a position. He turned out to be violent & cruel, subject to mood swings which may have been influenced by alcohol. Eventually, Elsie returned to England & they divorced after six years of marriage. This was a bold step for Elsie to take as divorced women were not considered respectable. Elsie was determined to be free of Leslie & she had a son, Kenneth, to think about as well. Her adoptive parents cared for Kenneth while Elsie looked for work. Eventually she decided to train as a midwife.
Mairi Lambert Gooden-Chisholm was the daughter of a well-to-do Scottish family. Born in 1896, she had a traditional upper-class upbringing. She & her brother were to be seen & not heard. Her education was scrappy & not very thorough. Mairi wasn’t particularly close to her parents. They had an estate in Trinidad & often traveled there to attend to business. Mairi rarely accompanied them & when they settled there permanently, she didn’t visit them in over 30 years. Mairi’s passion was for motorcycling & this is where she met Mrs Knocker, who was a dashing figure in this new circle of friends she met through her membership of the Gypsy Motor Cycle Club. Both women could not only ride but were also excellent mechanics, skills they would find useful during the war.
Elsie & Mairi joined Hector Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps almost as soon as war was declared. They had gone to London to join the Women’s Emergency Corps & were hired as dispatch riders. Hector Munro recruited them for the ambulance corps he was setting up to go to Belgium along with a varied group of women including the novelist May Sinclair, drivers, cooks & orderlies. Their role would be to get as close to the front line as possible & transport the wounded back to the Casualty Clearing Stations & hospitals further back. Elsie & Mairi were excited to be given the opportunity to do such worthwhile work & their experiences in those first weeks gave them the idea that would make them famous, the most photographed women of the war.
Elsie was horrified at the number of men who died from shock & exposure as they were being driven to hospital. She felt that if they could be given immediate first aid & somewhere to rest before making the dangerous, uncomfortable journey to hospital, more lives could be saved. This was the genesis of her idea to set up an outpost virtually on the front line at Pervyse. Pervyse was on the Yser Front, the northern section of the Western Front, midway between Nieuport-Bains on the coast to Ypres in the south. Although the English authorities did not approve, the Belgians welcomed Elsie & Mairi & they set up a soup kitchen & first aid post within sight of the trenches. For nearly the next four years, the two women went into No Man’s Land to retrieve the wounded (the Germans said that if they wore woolly hats they wouldn’t be fired on but if they wore tin hats, they could be mistaken for troops), received official visits from dignitaries including King Albert of Belgium, made a lot of friends on both sides of the conflict & saved many lives.
When the women wanted to retrieve bodies from no-man’s-land they sent Shot, their little black-and-white dog, over to the Germans with a note telling them what they wanted to do. Mairi had fond memories of how well the Germans behaved when they were in no-man’s-land: ‘they looked upon us, I suppose, as being thoroughly daft … but they were always nice to us’.
There were also personality conflicts with Hector Munro & the other Ambulance Corps members, clashes with officialdom, petty squabbles, the occasional jaunt to a nearby town & romance when Elsie met a dashing airman, Baron Harold de T’Serclaes, whom she later married.
One of the amazing things about the women’s work at Pervyse was just how precarious their position was. Not only did they have to keep the work going but they had no official funding. They often had to dash off to England & raise funds by going on speaking tours & courting any publicity they could get. There were so many worthy causes & charities that they had to use every contact they had to raise the money to buy food & supplies. Elsie was an inspiring speaker & she would give lectures illustrated with photographs of the outpost & showing the dreadful conditions they lived in. On one visit Mairi went to Bournemouth to meet her mother & sister, Lucy.
The sight of her in grubby breeches, dusty boots and coat, carrying that lance (a German souvenir) , brought the place to a standstill: ‘all the porters flocked round and I had difficulty moving about with it as a crowd followed everywhere’. The sight of a young girl, dusty from the battlefield, like Joan of Arc, brought the war to the heart of London in the same way as the sight of hundreds of soldiers. Her fellow passengers on the train to Bournemouth were fascinated by her stories of the war. When she told them that blankets and pillows were urgently needed at Furnes Hospital they gave her fifteen shillings and wished her well.
The end of the first aid post came when they were gassed in March 1918 & barely escaped with their lives. They returned to England to recuperate & that was the end of their war service. After four years of constant companionship, Elsie & Mairi went their separate ways & never saw each other again. Like many men & women who served during the war, they found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Elsie’s marriage to the Baron didn’t survive. She had told him that she was a widow & when his very Catholic aristocratic Belgian family discovered that she was a divorcée, the marriage was doomed. Elsie eventually found her niche as a housekeeper & ran hotels, work that used her gifts as an organiser. She was also active in many volunteer organisations. Mairi became a poultry farmer & was secretary of the Clan Chisholm Society. Elsie gave an interview in 1964 about her war work which is played in this BBC Radio 4 clip from Woman’s Hour. I love the photo of the two women in their ambulance – Elsie driving & Mairi beside her. There’s also an interview with Diane Atkinson about the book here. This is a terrific book about two brave & determined women who made a great difference to so many wounded men under the most difficult circumstances.