They were the ‘most photographed women of the War’ – that war being WW1 – which is a pretty unlikely lot for a couple of nurses. But Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker were a pretty unlikely pair, who spent the War a mere 100 yards from the front line of Ypres (‘Wipers’ in Tommy slang), in a makeshift basement hospital treating wounded soldiers – British, Belgian, and German alike. Their bravery, and perhaps love of danger, earned both women the highest commendations of that conflict, from Belgian and British authorities. and an awful lot of press in the day. They’re nearly forgotten now, but in the ‘Teens, Mairi and Elsie were household conversation topics as incredibly brave and ‘plucky’ women in the Victorian era, before women even had the right to vote. And the path that led to their involvement in that dreadful conflict was a mutual love of motorcycles.
Elsie Knocker was born Elizabeth Shapter (July 29 1884 – Apr 26 1978) in Exeter, was orphaned by age 6 (her mother died when she was 4, her father at 6, from tuberculosis), and adopted by Emily and Lewis Upcott, a teacher at Marlborough College. The Upcotts had the means to send Elsie to study at Chatéau Lutry in Switzerland, and she later trained as a nurse at the Children’s Hip Hospital in Sevenoaks. She married Leslie Duke Knocker in 1906, and they had a son, Kenneth, but divorced soon after. She then earned her living as a midwife, and to save face during Victorian social strictures, invented the story that she was widowed when her husband died in Java.
She became a passionate motorcyclist, and wore very stylish outfits while riding, notably a dark green leather skirt and long leather coat, which was cinched at the waist to “keep it all together” – the outfit was designed by Alfred Dunhill Ltd! She owned various motorcycles, including a Scott two-stroke, a Douglas flat twin, and a Chater-Lea with sidecar, which she took to Belgium during the War. She earned the nickname ‘Gypsy’ as a member of the Gypsy Motorcycle Club, and because she loved the open road.
Mairi Lembert Gooden-Chisholm was 12 years younger than her friend Elsie, being born on Feb 26 1896 (died Aug 22 1981), in Nairn, Scotland, to a wealthy family who owned a plantation in Trinidad. The family moved to Dorset when she was young, where Mairi’s older brother (Uailean) competed in rallies and speed trials aboard his 425cc Royal Enfield single. Her father, no doubt after much entreating, bought her a Douglas flat twin, which she soon learned to both ride and strip down/repair completely. She was 18 years old and loved riding her Douglas around Dorset roads, which is where she met Elsie Knocker in 1912, also motorcycle mounted and enjoying the countryside, even though Knocker was by then 30 years old. The pair became close friends and riding companions, and competed in motorcycle (and sidecar) trials together.When War was declared in 1914, Knocker felt the call of duty, and convinced Chisholm to move with her to London and become despatch riders for the Women’s Emergency Corps. Chisholm rode her Douglas to London, and her riding skill as a courier negotiating London traffic caught the eye of Dr. Hector Munro, who set up a Flying Ambulance Corps to help Belgians after the German army invaded and brutalized that supposedly neutral country. Chisholm described her meeting Dr. Munro in a 1976 interview, “He was deeply impressed with my ability to ride through traffic. He traced me to the Women’s Emergency Corps, and said, ‘Would you like to go to Flanders’, and I said ‘Yes I’d love to!’
Chisholm and Elsie Knocker had to apply for Dr Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps, and beat out 200 other applicants. Knocker was a natural, both as a nurse, and because she was an excellent mechanic (and driver), and spoke both German and French fluently, from her Swiss schooling. Lady Dorothie Fielding and May Sinclair were also included in Munro’s special unit, with all women acting as nurse/ambulance drivers, and they all landed at Ostend in September 1914. The team initially set up camp at Ghent, but by October they’d moved to Furnesin, near Dunkirk, ferrying wounded soldiers to the hospital who’d been carried from the Front. They soon realized they’d save a lot more lives if they were actually at the Front, regardless the horrors they’d already witnessed. “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” – Chisholm.
In November 1914, Chisholm and Knocker left Dr Munro’s Corps and set up a small wound-dressing hospital in the town of Pervyse, near Ypres, in the basement of a destroyed house, a mere hundred yards from the Front lines. They called it the ‘British First Aid Post’, and it was tiny, with a 6′ ceiling, and the women slept on straw, leaving the only (rock hard) bed for the wounded. The local water was so contaminated they had to import barrels of water from England, could eat only canned foods, and the pressures of fighting meant most nights they worked till 3:30, and started again at 5:30. They made hot soup and cocoa for the soldiers, which they delivered every morning, but when things got hairy the women couldn’t even bathe; Elsie had to have her vest cut away from her skin after not removing her clothing for 3 weeks in one stretch!
This was their life for an incredible 3 1/2 years; treating the wounded as totally free agents, who had to raise their own funds at first. Luckily, they had a camera, and began photographing the front, which secured them space in British newspapers, and the fame of these women motorcyclists began to grow, and funds to flow. When they needed a bullet-proof door for their clinic, it was supplied by Harrod’s! They returned occasionally to London on fundraising tours, riding a sidecar outfit and collecting money, knitted socks and hats for the soldiers, as well as tobacco and cigarettes. The press loved them; ‘Sandbags Instead of Handbags!’ proclaimed one British paper.
Their proximity to a local Belgian garrison eventually gained them an official attachment to the Belgian military. Word of their bravery and their work saving soldiers under incredibly difficult conditions spread far and wide. Fellow Flying Ambulance Corps member May Sinclair described Knocker as “having an irresistible inclination towards the greatest possible danger.” Many times the women crossed the front lines to save fallen soldiers, sometimes carrying them on their backs through the mud, and under fire, including one German pilot who’d been shot down and wounded in No Man’s Land. For that, they were awarded the British Military Medal and were made Officers of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, and awarded the Order of Léopold II, Knights Cross. Yet more awards and honors followed, including the Croix de Guerre, which meant the ladies had to be saluted by all the soldiers, which they found most amusing.
In January 1916, Knocker had a whirlwind romance with Baron Harold de T’Serclaes of the Belgian Flying Corps, and was soon married. “So much of me went into my work that I suppose I was easily swept along on a tide of glamour and welcome frivolity. Perhaps I had a desire just to drift for once, not to struggle …and after 15 months risking my life at the Front, marriage seemed a comparatively small risk to take.” Because of the War, the two saw little of each other. That year Chisholm became engaged to a Royal Navy Air pilot, who was soon killed in his plane. In March 1918, the women were both wounded in a German bombing raid and arsenic gas attack, and taken back to England. It was the end of their Belgian adventure; both women joined the Women’s Royal Air Force, and Chisholm got engaged to an RAF 2nd Lieutenant (Wm Thomas James Hall), but soon called it off.
After the War, the Belgian Baron discovered that his wife Elsie Knocker was not a widow, but a divorcée, and the Catholic church forced an annulment of their marriage. Read into it what you will, but apparently that was the breaking point of her friendship with Mairi Chisholm. Chisholm took up auto racing after the War, but her injuries (from the gas attack and septicaemia) had weakened her heart, and doctor advised her to take it easy. She spent the rest of her days on the estate of her childhood friend May Davidson, and moved with her to Jersey in the 1930s, and never married (a man). Elsie Knocker was a senior officer in the WAAF during WW2, and earned distinction, but lost her son in the RAF in 1942, and left the military to care for her elderly foster-father. She lived the rest of her life in Ashtead, Surrey, and was notorious for being “flamboyantly dressed with large earrings and a voluminous dark coat!”
With such widespread acclaim and press attention, it was inevitable the women told their stories, and several books exist on their Belgian experiences. In 1916, Geraldine Mitton worked with Elsie and Mairi to write a book from their letters and notes while still at the front, ‘The Cellar-House of Pervyse’, which is available in reprint here (or original edition here), and more recently, Dr. Diane Atkinson wrote ‘Elsie and Mairi Go To War’ (2009), which is available here. They’re two women motorcyclists who are definitely worth investigating!