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  • The Wee History Blog

Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

Mairi Chisholm was born February 26th, 1896 in Dachet to an upper-class Scottish family. Mairi quickly became passionate about the technology and motorbikes of the time.

Elsie Knocker was born June 29th 1884 in Exeter. Her parents died when she was young, and she was adopted by a teacher at Marlborough College and his wife, who ensured she was given a quality education. She shared Mairi's love of all things tech, especially motorbikes.

Elsie Knocker [image: Wikipedia]

At the outbreak of the first world war in 1914, an 18-year-old Mairi travelled to London by motorbike to volunteer for the Women’s Emergency Corps. After joining the Corp as a dispatch rider, Dr Hector Munro, a prominent Scottish neurologist noticed Mairi’s skill at driving. He offered her a position as a driver in his Flying Ambulance Corps. The FAC acted as an unofficial ambulance service in Belgium. On September 25th, 1914, both Mairi and Elsie arrived in Ostend, Belgium as new members of the Ambulance Corps.

However, only a few months later the women left the corps, disheartened by the number of men dying in transit. The women opted instead to set up a medical post in Pervyse, Belgium. This enabled them to save more men, as they found many men were dying in transit to the hospitals. They were working without modern medicine or tools. There was a vast number of injured men coming through their doors and the women had to prioritise saving some men, who they believed to have a higher chance of survival over others.

The women's efforts did not go unnoticed.

Some of the Belgian soldiers had not expected Mairi Chisholm [image: Wikipedia]

the women to last 24 hours so close to the front.

Luckily, this was not the case. Not only did they become known as the Madonna's of Pervyse by the Belgians and the press but they were also visited at Pervyse by the King of Belgium. One aspect of their celebrity was that they were the only women who were given unrestricted access to the front line in order to carry out their work. In 1915 they were given honours (the equivalent of a knighthood) by the Belgians.

In 1916, after Elsie's marriage to a baron in which she became Baroness T’Serclaes, the women returned to Britain in an attempt to raise enough funds to continue giving medical assistance in Belgium. Mairi’s relatively high-status family and Elsie’s connections meant they were able to raise the funds necessary through concerts and lectures. The women were covered frequently by the press, who wrote about their efforts in fundraising. After their return to Pervyse, the British managed to take control of the area. In 1917 both Mairi and Elsie were subsequently awarded the British Military Medal for their efforts in saving British airmen.

It really cannot be stressed enough the conditions that these women were working under. They were only metres from the front line and were contending with bombs, gunfire and gas whilst attempting to manoeuvre and save wounded soldiers. The Germans launched an offensive attack on Belgium in the march of 1918. Mairi remembered this as '48 hours of intensive bombardment'. In the course of this attack, the women were hit by mustard gas. Both women were injured and Elsie, who was more injured that Mairi, was sent back to Britain. Mairi, although only half-healed, returned to Pervyse in an attempt to continue her practice alone. But only three weeks after the initial gassing, she was hit again. It became apparent that Elsie would not be able to return to Belgium, and Mairi could not continue alone, so she was sent back to Britain, something which she called her ‘greatest regret’.

Despite her poor health after the war, Mairi joined the Royal Air Force for a short time, before becoming a motor racer. In 1919 Elsie and Mairi's friendship broke down, as did Elsie’s marriage, when it was revealed that Elsie was not widowed as she had claimed, but rather divorced.

During World War II, Elsie joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where she rose to Squadron Officer by 1942. However, after the death of her son, she left the air force in October of 42’ to care for her ageing father.

Elsie died in Surrey, on April 26th, 1978 of pneumonia and dementia. Mairi died in Perth from lung cancer on August 22nd, 1981, aged 85. The women’s story is genuinely incredible to read, and if you would like to read excerpts from Mairi Chisholm’s diaries, they are available at the National Library of Scotland. They’re well worth a read.

Awards given to Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker

· Officer of the Order of St John of Jerusalem

· Military Medal

· 1914 Star

· British War Medal

· Victory Medal

· Knights Cross of the Order of Leopold II with palm

· Belgian Queen Elizabeth Medal

· War Medal 1939-1945 – Elsie Knocker only.


- The Chisholm Papers, National Library of Scotland -

- The Nurse, National Library of Scotland -

- Visit Flanders -

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