Friday, February 20, 2015

Elsie & Mairi Go to War - Diane Atkinson


What a fascinating book!  What amazing women!

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were two British women who signed up to help in the war effort.  Elsie was about thirty and Mairi was eighteen when the war began.  They met at a motorcycle club, both being good motorcyclists and mechanics.  Elsie was interested in flying, too, and went up with a noted flier.  Elsie had been married to a horrid man but had divorced him.  This was not commonly done by women in those days.  Mairi was from a proud Scottish family living in England.  They were brave and adventurous women.

In the fall of 1914, they joined Munro's Flying Ambulance Corps and found themselves on the Belgian front line, often within a few hundred yards of the front.  They would treat the wounded,  sometimes retrieving wounded soldiers from the front line, and run them off to a treatment facility in the ambulance.  They were shot at, they were bombed, they were gassed.  But they refused to stop.  They were eventually the only two women allowed to remain in danger at the Belgian front line.  This was mostly because Elsie was very good at refusing to do anything she didn't want to do.  And because the soldiers needed them.

After hassles with red tape and politics, they set up their own independent treatment post.  Elsie had seen many men die of shock on their way to hospitals.  She felt strongly that they would have a better chance if they weren't moved far immediately.  They needed to be stabilized and given a chance to get warm and rest before enduring a longer trip for further treatment.  

Elsie and Mairi saw and treated the most frightful wounds, as well as more common complaints like colds, constipation, and boils.  They sat by young men and watched them die.  They were often wet and covered with dirt and blood and gore.  In addition to medical attention, they provided hot soup and cocoa, tobacco, and amusements such as cards and sing songs.  They strove to lift moral, provide  comfort, and give the men (mostly boys) a break from the stress of war.

The women lived in brutal conditions, happy if they could have a bath every three weeks and wearing the same clothes until they had to be cut off their bodies.  Food was meagre and water was contaminated by rotting bodies on the high water table.  Fresh water had to be brought from England in barrels.  Elsie and Mairi had to be available 24-hours, although they occasionally got breaks to go to the nearest towns.  These were very different conditions from those they'd been brought up in, but they adapted and thrived.

They sometimes needed to return to England to raise funds to keep the post going.  They begged from friends and they gave talks to growing crowds, who were fascinated by these two women and what they were doing.  They were well-known and in the public eye.  People were eager to help, eager just to see them.

Elsie fell in love with and married a dashing Belgian count.  Their marriage deteriorated almost from the start.  Elsie had a difficult time after the war.  The First World War was her time of glory.  She could never reach those heights again and was bitter about that.  Mairi never married and didn't talk about her war experiences unless asked.  She spent the rest of her life looking forward, not backward, raising poultry with a group of women friends in Jersey and England.  Oddly, after the war, Elsie and Mairi did not stay in touch.  They never saw each other again.


  1. How brave! And how terribly sad that Elsie and Mairi did not remain friends after the war. I wonder what happened?

    1. I wondered that, too. The book doesn't give a satisfactory explanation. The two women slept together, bathed together, and worked side by side, forging a bond that Mairi thought would never be broken. She envisioned them working together after the war. Maybe they realized that that level of intimacy could never be maintained or recreated? Years later, Elsie even got bitchy and diminished Mairi's importance.

  2. I've got this one on request at the moment from the library, can't wait.

    1. I think you'll enjoy it, Katrina, especially since you know quite a few places in the book and because I know you like the First World War period. I can't begin to imagine living and working in the conditions they did. What horrors!