Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front

Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front

by Diane Atkinson

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The incredible story of two courageous and spirited women who were the only female participants to serve on the western front during World War I.
When they met at a motorcycle club in 1912, Elsie Knocker was a thirty year-old motorcycling divorcee dressed in bottle-green Dunhill leathers, and Mairi Chisholm was a brilliant eighteen-year old mechanic, living at

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The incredible story of two courageous and spirited women who were the only female participants to serve on the western front during World War I.
When they met at a motorcycle club in 1912, Elsie Knocker was a thirty year-old motorcycling divorcee dressed in bottle-green Dunhill leathers, and Mairi Chisholm was a brilliant eighteen-year old mechanic, living at home borrowing tools from her brother. Little did they know, theirs was to become one of the most extraordinary stories of World War I.
In 1914, they roared off to London 'to do their bit,' and within a month they were in the thick of things in Belgium driving ambulances to distant military hospitals. Frustrated by the number of men dying of shock in the back of their vehicles, they set up their own first-aid post on the front line in the village of Pervyse, near Ypres, risking their lives working under sniper fire and heavy bombardment for months at a time. As news of their courage and expertise spread, the 'Angels of Pervyse' became celebrities, visited by journalists and photographers as well as royals and VIPs. Glamorous and influential, they were having the time of their lives, and for four years Elsie and Mairi and stayed in Pervyse until they were nearly killed by arsenic gas in the spring of 1918. But returning home and adjusting to peacetime life—and the role of women in British society—was to prove more challenging than even the war itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the heady days preceding WWI, two thrill-seeking motorcycle enthusiasts chucked their comfortable lives to join a small group of British women providing medical care on the Belgian front lines. Atkinson (Suffragettes in Pictures) utilizes wartime journals, interviews, family genealogies, and a sanctioned contemporary biography to give life to the pair of spirited friends who displayed extraordinary courage and plenty of attitude. Elsie Knocker, 30, was a divorced mother of one, and a trained midwife from a unconventionally broad-minded middle-class background; Mairi Gooden-Chisholm was an upper-class Scottish teenager. Together they found their calling in Pervyse, Belgium, as they drove packed frontline ambulances and nursed wounded soldiers in the midst of shelling and gravely unhygienic conditions. Elsie, unimpressed with visiting Marie Curie, who had created a mobile X-ray unit, effectively employed new, and potentially life-saving, methods of treating the soldiers for shock with simple rest, warmth, and comfort before shipping them to hospitals,. The startling end of the women's friendship remains the subject of speculation. And though the lack of footnotes is lamentable, , Atkinson details the gritty effects of trench warfare while fully celebrating the exploits of two intensely linked young women who benefited hundreds of lives. 14 pages of photos. (June)
Washington Post
“It's a lost, antique, opaque England that Diane Atkinson evokes here—fascinating.”
Carolyn See - Washington Post
“indeed, none of this seems to square with the way we’ve been brought up to think of war. The Belgian setting—dotted with Flanders Field and Ypres and Dunkirk, places that now carry such horrific connotations—seemed to these ladies, at least, something of a playground.”
Library Journal
The many women who played supporting roles to the troops in World War I are scarcely ever mentioned by name in the histories of that war. Atkinson, who has published many books in the UK on the suffragette movement, attempts to right this wrong in her portrayal of these two women, who met as part of a motorcycling club in 1912 and joined the Munro Flying Ambulance Corps when Britain entered the war. They set up an aid station on the Western Front, being among the first nurses to realize that the wounded would be better treated for shock before being shipped to a hospital. Atkinson shows that these two women's courage and dedication brought them fame in Britain, yet once the war ended, each tried to find a place back in traditional society and never quite succeeded. They retreated separately into obscurity and near poverty. VERDICT Because World War I histories that involve a true look at women's contributions are few and far between, this accessible work, acknowledging these important contributions, adds dimension to general readers' understanding of the war. Companion works include Margaret Higonnet's Nurses at the Front: Writing the Wounds of the Great War, which is far more rigorous and scholarly.—Maria Bagshaw, Ecolab, St. Paul, MN
Kirkus Reviews
History of the only two women permitted on the military front during World War I. Women's-labor historian Atkinson (Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, 2004, etc.) tells the impressive life stories of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Gooden-Chisholm. Elsie was a 30-year-old divorcee in 1914 when she left her seven-year-old son with her parents and convinced her motorcycling companion Mairi to join the war effort. Mairi was an 18-year-old tomboy from a good Scottish family that moved in royal circles. Her mother was horrified when Mairi followed Elsie to the Women's Emergency Corps headquarters in London, where they were recruited by the liberal Dr. Hector Munro for his Flying Ambulance Corps. What began as a post shuttling wounded Belgian soldiers from the battlefield soon became a legacy of work for which they received numerous medals and international fame. The mercurial Elsie liked to be in charge, so she and Mairi, whose more even-keel temperament was a necessary complement, set up their own first-aid post at Pervyse, in northern Belgium. In addition to providing food and friendship, they treated wounded Belgian soldiers on or near the battlefield before carting them to hospitals miles away. This approach, now standard in EMT practice, combined with their perseverance and fundraising savvy, allowed them to become wartime media darlings, the "Angels of Pervyse." Visits from King Albert and Marie Curie and Elsie's second marriage to a Belgian Baron added to the element of glamour that marked their lives in Pervyse. Still, they endured the less-exciting experiences of treating venereal boils, bandaging mangled faces and making due without plentiful supplies of food and water. Their foreign service ended in 1918, when the Germans gassed their post twice, to devastating effect, and both women returned to Britain. Not a page-turner, but Atkinson's balanced account justly gives its heroines their due and captures the jolly spirit with which they carried out their work.

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Elsie and Mairi Go to War

Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front

By Diane Atkinson

Pegasus Books LLC

Copyright © 2010 Diane Atkinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-2600-1


The Shapter Chapter

On 22 July 1890, Elsie Knocker's father, Dr Lewis Shapter, frail and pale, sat down and wrote his will. He had been ill with tuberculosis for the past four years and must have known he did not have long to live. The will was a painful duty that could not be put off any longer. His wife Charlotte, thirty-eight years old, had died at the family home in Exeter on the second of May 1888 after a week-long struggle with meningitis, leaving him with five children under ten years old. John had had a mother for ten years; Una for nine years; Effie was six; Elsie was four and Lewis Henry was less than two when Charlotte Shapter, née Bayly, died.

Three months after writing his will Lewis Shapter coughed and coughed and died at a nursing home in Exmouth. He was forty-two years old. His father, Thomas Shapter, a well-known doctor in Exeter, was with him when he died. The Shapter children were orphans.

The two oldest, John and Una, and the youngest, Lewis Henry, were sent north to be looked after by Caroline Lucking, a housekeeper, at Rosarium Cottage in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, five miles from their their father's sister Elizabeth Livesay in Sudbury, Derbyshire. She was married to William Livesay, a doctor, and had two daughters, Elsie and Laura. These three Shapters stayed there until legal and financial matters were clarified. Aunt Elizabeth was herself in poor health and this may have been why she did not offer a home to the orphans. Elizabeth Livesay did not have long to live: she died of tuberculosis at Penmaenmawr, near Conway in North Wales, at Christmas 1892.

Eventually John was kept by Uncle William Livesay; Una went to live with her mother's brother and sister, Aunt Georgina and old-soldier Uncle Richard Kerr Bayly in Exeter, and Lewis Henry was adopted by Aunt Frederica, another of his mother's sisters, who lived in Bournemouth with her husband, a retired colonel, Charles Edward Brown. Effie's new parents were a childless couple in Exeter, the Mackeys, a barrister and his wife, perhaps friends or distant relations of Lewis and Charlotte Shapter. Effie and Una were at least in the same town, but not in the same house.

Though there were other Shapter and Bayly aunts and uncles who could have taken Elsie, she was put up for adoption. Many family histories of this time have the ghosts of mothers and babies hovering over survivors' lives. Parcelling up children like bundles and passing them around or placing them in the care of guardians who may or may not have been known to them was often necessary at a time when tuberculosis was a fearsome killer, and childbirth was the most dangerous time of a mother and baby's life.

Elsie was adopted by Lewis Edward Upcott, an inspirational classics master or 'beak' at Marlborough College, and his wife Emily, a talented water-colourist. In 1891 the Shapter family solicitor answered a newspaper advertisement placed by the Upcotts, a childless couple. Elsie's new parents, whom she always called Aunt and Uncle, were educated and arty. Lewis was forty, his classical scholarship and breadth of learning making him a byword for academic brilliance. Emily Upcott was thirty-five and the daughter of Sir Charles Robinson, a curator and connoisseur who had acquired Renaissance paintings and sculptures for the South Kensington Museum, later the Victoria and Albert. Sir Charles was Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures for the last twenty years of Queen Victoria's life, and was knighted for his services to the arts in 1887.

Elsie's new Upcott 'uncles' had either gone into the family business of wool manufacture, or had shone at Oxford and become eccentric and charismatic masters at Wellington College and Christ's Hospital School; another was a big cheese on the Indian railways. Elsie's Robinson 'uncles' were: Uncle Gerald, one of the best mezzotint engravers of his day; Uncle Charles, a barrister, collector of Old Master drawings, ancient and modern engraved gems and Chinese bronzes, and a member of the British fencing team at the Olympic Games in Athens in 1906; and Uncle Frederick, a sculptor and art master at Uppingham School.

The orphan Lewis and Emily Upcott adopted was a six-year-old girl whose father had been dead less than six months and whose mother's face may have been a fading memory. Elsie may not even have had a photograph of her parents or her siblings to remind herself of where she had come from and to whom she was related. Her brothers and sisters were away in Devon, Dorset and Derbyshire, while her new home was in Preshute, near Marlborough College in Wiltshire. The Upcotts had Walter, a fifteen-year-old pupil, boarding with them. One of the school matrons, fifty-year-old Maria Cane, also lived with them, and they were all looked after by a cook and three maids.

Elsie was well provided for: her father had left a legacy to pay for all his children's maintenance and education, also providing his daughters with marriage settlements, and nest eggs for all when they were twenty-one. When her Shapter grandfather and various aunts and uncles died her inheritance was topped up. Life with the Upcotts may have been intimidating; conversations at mealtimes might have been hard to follow when Uncle started reciting poetry in perfect Greek and Latin. His big, black bushy beard brings Edward Lear's limerick to mind:

    There was an Old Man with a beard,
    Who said, 'It is just as I feared!
    Two Owls and a Hen,
    Four Larks and a Wren,
    Have all built their nest in my beard!'

Clever Uncle Lewis only taught sixth-formers. His old boys included J. Meade Faulkner, who wrote Moonfleet; E. F. Benson, the creator of Mapp and Lucia; Arthur B. Poynton, the master of University College, Oxford; Sir Basil Blackett, who became director of the Bank of England; and Earl Jowitt, a Lord Chancellor.

Here Elsie was an only child – she had been one of a family of five. She entered a largely male world: there were boys of all ages, shapes and sizes, and her childhood and adolescence with the Upcotts may have been where her tomboyish, harum-scarum ways originated. Uncle and Aunt had wanted a boy when they advertised for a child but changed their minds when they saw Elsie at the Shapter family solicitor's office in Exeter. Lewis and Emily Upcott passed on to her their love of sports and made sure she grew up to be a good horsewoman, and took her to boxing and wrestling contests in Marlborough Town Hall: 'It was funny sitting beside this prim couple while, frozen-faced, they watched men twisting each other's limbs ... they gave barely perceptible tokens of approval and disapproval.'

The Upcotts' cultural and aesthetic interests meant they were liberal in their sympathies; they were also active in the artistic and educational life of their town and county. Mrs Upcott's work as a Poor Law guardian meant they were more aware than many of their contemporaries of poverty. Elsie's upbringing. was such that she did not grow up to be a typical Victorian young lady, submissive, delicate and modest.

Elsie's father and grandfather had been doctors, and her mother came from a long line of army officers. She grew up a blend of her parents' family backgrounds: medical and military. Elsie's father, Lewis, who was born in Exeter in 1848, never knew his mother, Elizabeth, after whom Elsie was named, who died of pneumonia before his first birthday. His father, Thomas, did not remarry, instead relying on the help of his unmarried sister Margaret, a butler and a cook, two maids and two nursemaids to look after him and the children. When Thomas was widowed he had five children: Elizabeth was five; Thomas aged four; three-year-old Esther; William was nearly two and baby Lewis less than a year old.

Lewis followed his father into medicine, studied at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and qualified as a doctor in 1876. He returned to the substantial family home in Exeter, where he brought his bride, Charlotte Bayly, on 3 September 1877. Quickly the young doctor started to make a name for himself, speaking at the sanitary congress in Exeter in 1880, securing a position as a consulting physician to the Devon and Exeter Hospital and the Lying-In Hospital in Magdalen Street, and becoming one of the governors of the harshly named Wonford Idiot Asylum. His practice enabled him to afford to hire a cook, two maids and a nurse to look after his young family.

Charlotte was born on the island of Jersey in 1846 (five years had been lopped off her age by the time she died in 1888), where her father was a captain in the Suffolk Regiment. The Baylys had a typically nomadic army life: her five brothers and sisters were born in Dublin, England and France.

Being orphaned at the age of six it is difficult to know how much Elsie knew about her family. There had hardly been any time to get to know her parents or be told about any of her other relations. Sixty years later when Elsie sat down to write her autobiography, Flanders And Other Fields, she only mentions a brother and a sister once, suggesting that she had very little contact with her family as they were growing up. The autobiography contains some inaccuracies, perhaps arising from a mix of loss and sadness at having been orphaned and split up from her brothers and sisters, oxygenated by criticism of the way she was treated by her adopted parents, who by all other accounts were delightful. The opening paragraph of Flanders and Other Fields is from a tearful shouty six-year-old standing up straight to be inspected in the Shapters' solicitors' office:

I never knew my parents. They died when I was a baby ... I learnt later that my mother was very beautiful and that my father was a brilliant and highly respected physician. They were both young ... I was the fifth child ... everything had been set so fair ... Suddenly I and the other children were orphans, suspended in a void. The other four children were taken by an uncle ... I was apparently too young and our other relatives were scattered about the globe ... not easily contacted and constantly on the move.

Allowing for the loss of memory of an eighty-year-old, Elsie's recollections of her early years show a degree of hurt that she tries to conceal by making things up when the truth is too painful. She was not a baby when her father died; she was not the youngest child, Lewis Henry was; one uncle did not take the other four children, and their relations were not 'scattered about the globe'. But her account may have been her way of coping with how her life turned out the way it did.

After an unhappy time at a girls' school in Marlborough, where Elsie tells us she was bullied for being a 'charity child' because she was adopted, the Upcotts sent her to St Nicholas's Ladies' School in Folkestone, Kent, where she excelled at sport, dancing and singing, rather than academic subjects. St Nicholas's offered the forty girls the standard curriculum, plus the French and German that would be so useful in Belgium. Elsie's time at the school was scarred by memories of being bullied by one of her teachers, 'who would walk into the classroom and point a long, bony finger at me, and say, "I've got my eye on you," and walk out again. I was frozen with fear and – I did not know any reason why – and the whole class laughed at me. No wonder I grew up with an inferiority complex!'

Elsie left St Nicholas's in 1903 and spent six months polishing her French and German at a finishing school in Switzerland, and then studied at a school for chefs and cooks in Trowbridge in Wiltshire. She got top marks but felt socially awkward when her highfalutin accent was mocked. In 1903 the Upcotts thought it would be good for Elsie to train as a nurse at a children's hospital in Sevenoaks in Kent.

According to Elsie her life went awry in Sevenoaks in 1905, for this is where she met Leslie Duke Knocker, who was 'the first man to take any notice' of her. She was flattered and charmed. He was almost six feet tall, slim, with brown hair and brown eyes. By the time they married on 5 April 1906 Elsie had come into her inheritance, and given their disastrous marriage one wonders if Leslie Knocker, an accountant ten years older than her, married her for the legacy and marriage portion her father had left her in 1890. Years later she would remember feeling rushed into marriage, bewildered and perhaps hurt that her adopted parents appeared to want her off their hands. Elsie may have blamed them for the mess she later found herself in.

The banns were called at Elsie's church in Preshute, a pretty medieval building with a crenellated tower. She and the Upcotts could have walked to the church from their home, the White House, designed by Charles Edwin Ponting, a local architect in the Arts and Crafts style. There was no sign of Elsie's brothers and sisters. Leslie's father, William Wheatley Knocker, was a template for Victorian respectability. A solicitor with his own firm, Knocker, Knocker and Holcroft, he was clerk to the magistrates of Sevenoaks, registrar and high bailiff to the County Court in Sevenoaks and active in local charities. Leslie had been born at Dunmow in Essex in 1875, the middle son of five boys and a girl, two of whom were solicitors and one a doctor.

Leslie was educated at Tonbridge School as a day boy from 1889 to 1892. In May 1893 he went to work as a clerk at the British Linen Company, earning forty pounds a year, less than a pound a week. Leslie travelled by train from Sevenoaks to work at the London branch at 41 Lombard Street in the City of London. When he resigned in March 1899 his clerk's salary had increased to a hundred pounds a year, and his next employer was the Bank of British North America. Before Elsie knew him Leslie had been to New York three times: in 1894, 1897 and 1899, travelling on the SS Teutonic on the first two journeys and the SS Umbria in 1899. Immigration officials recorded him as a 'gentleman' in 1894; he gave no occupation in 1897 and said he was working in insurance in 1899. Whatever had taken Leslie Knocker across the Atlantic it was not enduring and by the spring of 1901 he was back in England, living in lodgings in Croydon and working for the London City and Midland Bank.

Elsie says her in-laws suggested that the young couple go to Singapore where Leslie's elder brother Stanley got him a position at the China Mutual Insurance Company. When he was married Leslie Knocker was working in a bank in the City of London earning three pounds a week, the marriage certificate said he was an accountant. Elsie seems to have plunged into her new life hardly knowing her husband and without much thought as to what their future might hold.

A month after their wedding Elsie and Leslie set sail from the Port of London on the SS Sardinia. By the time they reached Singapore Elsie was pregnant and Leslie's mood had darkened. Her in-laws, with whom they lived, made it clear they would have to find other accommodation as soon as the baby was born. The divorce papers of 1911 document the four years of her frightening and wretched marriage.

In July 1906, less than six weeks after their arrival, Leslie Knocker was 'very violent and ordered her out of the house and threatened to eject her by force if she did not go'. Elsie was two months pregnant. Things were so bad that her doctor urged Elsie to return to England to have her baby, and her son Kenneth Duke was born at the Upcotts' house on 1 February 1907. Fortunately Elsie had her inheritance to pay for her fare home and her keep as her husband gave her very little money. She and Kenneth returned to Singapore in August 1907 and an uncertain future. Elsie did not tell her adopted parents about her violent and drunken husband and the problems in her marriage. She stuck it out for another sixteen months before her doctor 'insisted for health reasons' that she and her son return to England in January 1909. They went back to the Upcotts; it must have been difficult for her to answer the usual questions about how their son-in-law was. Elsie stayed in England for nine months and then went back to Leslie, but this time she left Kenneth in Malborough.


Excerpted from Elsie and Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson. Copyright © 2010 Diane Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Diane Atkinson was educated in Cornwall and London, where she completed a Ph.D. on the politics of women's labor. At the Museum of London she worked as a lecturer and curator specializing in women's history. She has an MA from the University of East Anglia and is the author of Suffragettes in Pictures, Funny Girls: Cartooning for Equality and Elise and Mairi Go to War.

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