International Women’s Day

It’s got to be done!  As this is a Great War blog it is only fitting that on International Womens’s Day I give a shout out to all the women who stepped out of their comfort zone during the conflict to help keep the home front running and who rendered valuable service in the war zones.  

We all know about the legions of nurses and VADs who served at the front and female munitions workers at home.  But what about this lady who, not only rendered a community service, but also kept a family business going whilst her husband was away at the front.  It had to be done!

Mrs Kitchener, grave digger at Aley Green Cemetery, Luton, Imperial War Museum photo Q 31238.

Off the top of my head I offer two lesser well known roles: The Women’s Timber Corps and Voluntary Women’s (police) Patrols.

The main focus of this blog, however, is on two remarkable women, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm.  In 1912 these two women, twelve years apart in age, from relatively affluent backgrounds, forged a friendship based on a passion for motor cycling.  When war broke out two years later they went to Belgium with a small, independent ambulance corps founded by a British doctor, Dr Hector Munro.

The older, Elsie Knocker, was a divorcee (but claimed to be a widow to fit with the social mores of the times) and had trained as a nurse.  She had been educated in Switzerland and was fluent in German and French.

Mairi Chisholm’s background was more affluent, but she could strip down and repair the motorcycle bought for her by her father, after she developed an interest following her older brother who competed in speed trials and rallies.  

On arrival in Belgium they were initially located at a base hospital in Ghent before moving to a field hospital at Furnes.  In November 1914 they decided to leave Dr Munro’s corps to move into the heart of the battle zone and they set up a dressing station in a cellar just a hundred yards from the trenches near Pervyse.  That town lies north of Ypres, between Nieuwport on the Belgian coast and Diksmuide.  Nearly all the inhabitants of the area had left.

They were not affiliated to the Red Cross and funded their work privately, which involved trips back to Britain for fund raising lectures etc.  Their living conditions were awful but as well as providing aid to the wounded, they shared their cocoa and soup with Belgian soldiers. They had to move twice when the structures from which they operated were shelled.  

They were awarded the Military Medal and the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Leopold II.  They were also made officers of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John Of Jerusalem.  In 1918 they were seriously injured in a gas attack and returned home for treatment.  Both survived the war and lived long lives, albeit they never sustained their friendship.

In 1916 a Geraldine Mitton worked with Elsie and Mairi to write a book from their letters and notes while still at the front: “The Cellar House at Prevyse” was published in September of that year.  

In her introductory notes Ms Mitton comments at the beginning:-

“Of all the things told of the Great War surely this is the most uncommon, that two women should have been at the front with the Belgian Army almost from the beginning.”

She ends her note:-

“The facts are so astounding that they need no dressing.  My part has been merely that of a recorder, running two parallel journals together and omitting repetitions and details too small to be of general interest.”

Reprints of this book are available and there is a recent biography by Dr Diane Atkinson entitled Elsie and Mairi Go to War

It’s not possible to do Elsie and Mairi’s story justice in a blog and for those who want to know more without purchasing a book, these are some links to look at (and of course there is always Wiki!) and also footage on BBC social media platforms.

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