Posts tagged ‘Belgium’

June 11, 2017

Mairi and Elsie the Madonnas of Pervyse

 

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At this time one hundred years ago two women were three years into serving on the front lines in Belgium under direct attack.

Shortly after the start of the Great War in August 1914 a young Scottish woman, only 18 year old from Nairn in Northeast Scotland, Mairi Chisholm, and an English nurse, Elsie Knocker, decided they would go to Belgium to help wounded soldiers despite being forbidden by the British authorities.

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Mairi and Elsie became the Madonnas of Pervyse and throughout the war newspapers reported their bravery and endurance while under constant bombardment. At their dugout north of Ypres the two remained there for three and a half years tending the sick and maimed.

Initially the women had set up their medical station in an unoccupied area of Belgium, as part of the Belgian Red Cross, but it became clear that the faster men could get attention the better were their chances of survival and so despite the dangers the two women moved close, very close, to the action. Abandoning their official role with the Belgian Red Cross they raised funds to set up their dressing station directly behind the front lines at Pervyse near Ypres and became attached to the garrison there. Their first cellar hospital was reinforced and a steel door supplied from Harrods. Telephone communication was established between there and every trench and given they were right up among the action it was boasted some men were on the operating table within 20 minutes of being wounded. Apparently fearless the women did not shirk from going into no-man’s land and on one occasion rescued an injured German pilot who lay there.

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Elsie and Mairi

They lived and slept in their clothes – dressing consisted of pulling on their boots and brushing their hair. Frequently exhausted they filled in time between nursing casualties from the front lines making soup and cocoa to feed to them and their comrades in nearby trenches and outposts along with providing food and care for local desperate starving children.

Mrs Knocker known as Gypsy either from her fondness for being out on the road or else her penchant for large earrings spoke very good French and German and was skilled as a mechanic and driver. In a huge Wolsley ambulance they drove right up to the front to pick up the wounded but these monster vehicles were criticised for being too obvious to the enemy as well as guzzlers of fuel. But then waste did not figure much in any of the calculations of those behind the Great War. The woman resented instructions to drive miles around the Belgian countryside in them on minor errands, such as collecting supplies of bandages. 

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A soldier, Mairi and Elsie alongside their ambulance in 1916

On one occasion they were instructed to drive five German prisoners to a detention centre which they did. More bizarre was when they were told to take out a group of ‘sightseers’ from England around the battle zone. Visitors were not uncommon on the western front and another who called in to see them at work was the Irish Nationalist leader John Redmond MP.

 Once the Germans got to know about Mairi and Elsie and their remarkable work they deliberately targeted them. When they were bombed out of their cellar in Pervyse, only 50 yards from the trenches, the women moved into a tumbledown cottage where they were shelled twice more. The village of Pervyse was bombed and ruined; its church had its spire shot away and lost all its windows. Graves in its cemetery gaped open offering up their dead in a land producing dead on an industrial scale where men’s bodies were piled up on floors and propped against walls – there was no dignity in their sacrifice.

“No one can understand…unless one has seen the rows of dead men laid out. One sees men with their jaws blown off, arms and legs mutilated.” (Mairi Chisholm)

mairi chisholm nursing in field 1917

At 4 a.m. on March 17th 1918 the women’s makeshift hospital came under a gas attack that almost killed them and more or less ended their time at the front. Wakened by the assault the women were badly affected – deafened, blinded and suffocating they struggled to locate gasmasks for themselves and their patients. Mairi’s little fox terrier, Shot, licked her hand frantically as she fell into a state of near collapse and while Mairi survived the dog died from the gas. The other dog, Chink, and their three cats survived by burying themselves in bedclothes so not breathing in any of the gas directly. Forced back to Britain, Chisholm briefly returned to the front but was too ill to remain there long and she and Knocker served out the war as members of the newly formed Women’s Royal Air Force.

Mairi Chisholm was born in 1896 in Nairn and died there in 1981. This indomitable young Scottish woman came from a wealthy background; her family owned a plantation in Trinidad. They moved to the south of England when Mairi was a child and here she was given her first motorcycle, a Douglas, by her father. She enjoyed stripping it down, repairing it and riding it around the lanes of Dorset and through her love of motorcycles she met the much older Knocker, also a biker, and together they went along to motorbike and sidecar trials.

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Eighteen-year-old Mairi rode her motorcycle from her home in Dorset to London where she met up with Elsie and together they became dispatch riders in Women’s Emergency Corps. Mairi’s daring riding around the city and hairpin corners on her motorcycle caught the eye of Dr Hector Munro who was setting up a Flying Ambulance Corps to help Belgians under German attack. He invited Mairi to become part of the unit and she encouraged him to extend the invitation to Elsie.  

‘Would you like to go out to Flanders’ and I [Mairi] said ‘Yes, I’d love to’.

The women, invariably described as English although Mairi was a Scot, were recognised for their outstanding contribution and service during the war – for almost its entirety. Press and public clamoured for news about the most photographed women of the conflict and they were officially recognised both by Belgium and Britain – awarded the Order of Leopold, Knights Cross (with palm) for courageous work on front lines, the British Military Medal and made Officers Most Venerable Order of the hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Chisholm got the Order of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium and the 1914 Star.

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Mairi on flag day 1918

Daring Mairi took up car racing despite suffering poor health as a consequence of being gassed including septicaemia and suffering from a weak heart. She returned to Nairn and became a successful poultry breeder with her childhood friend May Davidson. There was a move to Jersey but Mairi Chisholm went home again to Nairn where she lived out her life alongside Davidson.

For a time both women were big celebrities, their exploits featured in newspapers but few remember them now. They deserve to be remembered as do the 350 nurses who died during that grotesque and unnecessary exercise in death.

Chisholm’s papers are held in the National Library of Scotland. Her diaries are with the Imperial War Museum.

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