Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm shared a love for the thrill of motorbikes. When war was declared in August 1914, the friends zoomed off to London together to do their bit. ‘Their bit’ was to establish a nursing station close to the front, give the first line of care to wounded soldiers, and transport them by ambulance to field hospitals. Elsie and Mairi, nicknamed the Angels of Pervyse, were decorated for bravery and sacrifice, and were amongst the most famous women of World War 1.
Diane Atkinson tells their stories in Elsie and Mairi Go to War.
Elsie and Mairi started their war adventure in the Women’s Emergency Corps. As dispatch riders, they whizzed about London carrying messages. Within a month, they were recruited to Dr. Hector Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps to help wounded Belgian soldiers. The first unit landed in Belgium on September 25, 1914 – Elsie, Mairi, Dorothie Feilding, May Sinclair and Helen Gleason joined two doctors, male drivers, cooks and medical orderlies.
The work of the corps appears not to have been well organized, at least at first. The corps was supported by the Belgian Red Cross, but received no official funding. They had to meet their own costs and members paid their own way.
Elsie and Mairi soon started to work on their own (although always as part of the corps), creating a first-aid post in Pervyse. Courageous work. Very close to the front. And they stayed at it for close to four years.
I’m sure Elsie and Mairi were caring for soldiers throughout the war. However, Atkinson tells more about:
- their interactions with visiting officers, journalists and dignitaries
- their fundraising tours in the UK
- their flirtations
- their seemingly petty rivalries and resentments of other members of the corps.
Granted, documenting their day to day work would be difficult. Their diaries are incomplete. Early books about them and Elsie’s memoirs are not reliable accounts. Photos of them looking relaxed and happy are posed for journalists or other visitors.
Many days were grim, and the breezy schoolgirl language of Elsie and Mairi’s diaries – ‘ripping’, ’beastly’, ‘horrid’ and ‘plucky’ – cannot disguise the awful reality of their work. (p. 73)
But no mention of lice.
Atkinson conveys well the sense of folks being on a lark at the start of what they thought would be a short war. But surely that evolved.
None of this is helped by the writing. Where was the editor??? Rambling, disjointed sentences make parts of the book hard to follow. An informal, breezy style often doesn’t suit the weight of the subject. Dedicating a separate chapter to each woman’s life after the war would be more coherent than the strict adherence to chronological order in one final chapter … especially since their paths did not cross after the war. (Some readers will nod knowingly at my urge to rewrite these annoying details.)
Mairi and Elsie seem like interesting, complex women, warts and all. Their work deserves recognition in all its aspects. I expected a more complete portrait from a writer with a background in the politics of women’s sweated labour. Maybe that’s the point … determined women had to trade on their looks and the veneer of celebrity to finance and succeed at the work they set out to do.