“Elsie Knocker has an irresistible inclination towards the greatest possible danger.” Author May Sinclair.
When I first heard about the war-time achievements of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, my first thought was not only how remarkable they were, but also how on earth hadn’t I heard about them before?! It makes me furious that so many extraordinary women have been neglected or ignored – and I’ve been determined to shine a light on Elsie and Mairi ever since.Elsie and Mairi were extraordinary. Both were passionate about motorcycling and engaged in speed-racing all over the South West of England (in a time when very few women rode). Elsie was also known as ‘Gypsy’ and kept several motorbikes. They both were also proficient drivers and mechanics. When the first world war broke out, they volunteered for a ‘flying ambulance group’ lead by Doctor Hector Munro. The group planned to go to Belgium to support the medical teams there. Elsie, 30, had nursing training and experience, Mairi, only 19, did not.
Their arrival in Belgium in early September 1914 was a baptism of fire as they witnessed the aftermath of a terrible massacre of over 20 Belgian policemen at Nazareth. The flying ambulance core went on to work from a base in Ghent where Elsie and Mairi’s main task was to pick up wounded soldiers from near the front line and to drive them back to the hospital. Within a short time, Elsie and Mairi had decided they had to get closer to the battlefield. They had realised that treatment is most likely to be successful if it takes place within ‘the golden hour’ – the first hour after a trauma. They set up a British First Aid post in the old cellar of a ruined house in the abandoned town of Pervyse. It was only one hundred yards from the Western Front. In quieter periods, they took the soldiers hot drinks and soup, and treated their minor ailments. During worse times, they helped injured soldiers out of the trenches, treated them in the cellar, or transported them to the nearest hospitals.
The cellar was dirty, dusty and a damp place to live and work. Elsie and Mairi cropped their hair, slept on straw and washed in the nearby canal. It was also extremely dangerous. They could be shelled at, sniped, or gassed at any time. But they persisted. They got on with rescuing men in the most terrible conditions. It is thought they saved hundreds of lives over the three and a half years they spent there.
Elsie and Mairi weren’t affiliated with the British or Belgian army or Red cross and so they had to find a way to support the first aid post and themselves. Elsie gave barn-storming speeches all over England which helped raised funds and they were in the newspapers so much that they became “the most photographed women of their day”. They also received visitors to the cellar in the hope that people would understand the conditions there. Visitors included British politicians, journalists from all over the world, scientists including Marie Curie and royalty. As time went on, they received several honours for their work including: Order of Leopold 11, Knights Cross British Military Medal, and they were made Officers of the most venerable order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. The Belgians knew them as ‘The Madonnas of Pervyse’.
Elsie and Mairi were heroes, but they also were normal, relatable people. Elsie was a mother: her son, Kenneth, was only 6 when she left for the front. He went to live in Dorset with the family who had adopted her when she was a little girl. Mairi was a religious young woman, fond of her Scottish family. They kept a little rescue dog. Even from the cellar, there were dates, there were boyfriends. Elsie eventually married a Belgian Baron gaining her the title: Baronness de T’Serclaes. Mairi became engaged to Jack Petrie, a British pilot from Ingatestone.
As time went on though, cracks in Elsie and Mairi’s relationship began to show. They had in common a fierce devotion to the soldiers but perhaps this wasn’t enough. Their once close friendship floundered. Shortly before the end of the war, the cellar was affected by a bombing raid and a gas attack and they were forced to leave.
After the war, Mairi took up auto racing but had to give up due to ill health. She became a poultry breeder in Scotland before moving to retire in Jersey. During the second world war, the Baroness, as Elsie was known, joined the RAF – and she continued to fundraise for them for the rest of her long life. Sadly, her only son Wing Commander, Kenneth Duke Knocker was killed when his plane was shot down over Holland.
If you want to find out more about Elsie and Mairi:
The Cellar house of Pervyse: a tale of uncommon things from the journals and letters of the Baroness T’Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm by Geraldine Edith Milton, published 1917, is a fabulous online resource.
I also recommend Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front by, Diane Atkinson, published 2010.
The Imperial War Museum and the National Library of Scotland have interviews and resources related to both women.
A stature of Elsie, Mairi and their dog is at the gardens of the Hotel Ariadne, Ypres.
My novel ‘The War Nurses’, by Lizzie Page, published by Bookouture in April 2018, is a fictionalised account of Elsie and Mairi’s intense relationship.