Despite reading endless books about women workers during the First World War, I'd never heard of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, household names in their day and the most photographed women of the War. This is probably because their story is so exceptional. Elsie, a trained nurse and midwife, and eighteen-year-old Mairi, formed part of an ambulance corps which went out to Belgium in the early days of the war; they became the only women to work permanently within shouting distance of the front line at their first aid post in the little Belgian town of Pervyse. Working independently, outside military organisations, their experience of the war was probably unique among women.
Elsie and Mairi had met before the war through their shared passion for motorcycling, and it was Mairi's ability on her bike that brought her to the attention of Dr Hector Munro when he was selecting members of his ambulance corps. Mairi recommended Elsie to him, and the two women would work together for the rest of the war. Elsie is an impressive character: she divorced her first husband for his violence and infidelity - no mean thing in Edwardian England - and trained as a midwife in the East End of London. A strong-minded and determined woman, she helped develop medical understanding of how to treat war casualties, insisting that they be given proper rest and first aid before they were transported to a hospital, saving many lives and giving great comfort to those who would not have survived the journey. She also brooked no suggestion that the Belgian front line was no place for a couple of women to work, either defying or ignoring orders to leave that came from various military authorities.
Mairi is no less impressive, a young woman dealing stoutly with scenes of death and devastation from her first days in Belgium, and enduring the privations of war service from their first aid post, a series of cellars in the bombed-out houses of Pervyse. She had defied her mother to come to Belgium, although her father had encouraged her and for a short while joined the women, taking on the job of servicing their ambulances. Both women made regular fund-raising trips back to Britain, speaking to large audiences and appearing alongside the music-hall stars of the day; Mairi's old school was very proud of their alumna and raised a great deal of money to support the women's work, which was entirely dependent on donations. As well as caring for the wounded and joshing with the German troops dug in only a hundred yards or so from their post, the two women formed a little social centre for Belgian and British soldiers; Elsie eventually married a Belgian officer, changing her name from the memorable Knocker to the impressive if awkward Baroness de T'Serclaes.
Diane Atkinson's book brings their remarkable story to light, giving a vivid impression of the hardship and effort they endured in Pervyse, and finishes the story by telling of their later lives. Both women also entered war service during the Second World War and both were repeatedly honoured for their work. As well as writing their story, Diane Atkinson is also campaigning for a statue of Elsie and Mairi to be erected in London.