Elsie and Mairi Go To War...
Since then Marilyn has re-cast the part of Elsie Knocker who will now be played by the splendid Glasgow-based actress Clare Waugh. Marilyn is a rock and has been my mentor and best friend throughout this new experience. I could not have begun to do it without her. She is a hugely-experienced and talented director. I love her.
This is a true story about best friends. Elsie Knocker was thirty and a lady with a past; and eighteen year-old Mairi Gooden-Chisholm, who had just left school. They met on motorbikes two years before the outbreak of the First World War. Elsie roared round the Dorset and Hampshire lanes in her bottle-green leathers made specially for her by Dunhill. Mairi was her brother’s mechanic when he took part in rallies and trials.
In September 1914 Elsie and Mairi rushed off to London to ‘do their bit’
Munro was an interesting chap: a doctor, a suffragette, vegetarian and nudist,
At night Elsie and Mairi would take out hot chocolate to the Belgian sentries and even once gave some to a German sentry who asked them who they were and what on earth they were up to. They grew marrows to make jam, had a giant see-saw in the back yard and took a punt out in the massive shell craters that littered the landscape pretending they were at the Henley Regatta. Their reputation for extraordinary courage while retrieving the wounded often under sniper fire, quickly grew and when King Albert of the Belgians awarded them a medal in 1915 their fame was assured. By the end of the war they had seventeen medals.
A stray fox terrier called Shot moved in with them and became an important member of the team, keeping the rat population in order. He was also used to take messages, written by Elsie, to the German trenches asking if she and Mairi could retrieve the bodies of Royal Flying Corps pilots who had been shot down in No Man’s Land. In March 1918 Shot saved their lives, barking when an arsenic gas shell dropped into their dug-out; the women and their orderlies and patients got their gas masks on but the dog died.
Elsie and Mairi lived through so much together for four years. They were extremely close, sharing a bed, and a bath when they could have one. After they were demobilised at the end of the war they never saw each other again.
I hope to see lots of you who read this Blog at the show. Any questions and reviews welcome.
Elsie and Mairi Go To War...
At first light, dressed for the cold and driving rain, I set off for Belgium on Thursday 8th October, to give a power-point presentation in the town-hall in Ieper. It turned out to be a balmy day but at least I was prepared for typical Flemish First World War Weather.
I was keen to present the story of Elsie and Mairi Go To War in Ypres as Pervyse is just 15 miles away and when the wind was in the right direction our dauntless duo could hear the big guns booming in the Ypres Salient. A million soldiers from all sides were killed defending and attacking this town.
I had received an astonishing amount of help from Piet Chielens and Dominiek Dendooven of the In Flanders Fields Museum. Just days before I handed in my manuscript Dominiek emailed me some explosive material concerning what became of Elsie’s dashingly handsome Belgian husband, the Baron de T’Serclaes; his betrayal of his country when he became a Nazi and infiltrated the Antwerp Resistance.
One day, while Dominiek was chatting quietly to a colleague at the Documentation Centre attached to In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, he was overheard by Dr De Moor, a gentleman in his eighties who was researching the Belgian medical services during the war. In the hushed room of the archives Dr De Moor announced that during the war, De T’Serclaes had visited his mother’s house in Antwerp looking for his two brothers who were members of the local resistance. Immediately Mrs De Moor suspected he was a spy and sent him on his way. Later, dozens of members of the resistance, who included school teachers and those who hid Jewish families, were rounded up by the Germans in de T’Serclaes’s presence and arrested. Some were executed and others died in captivity.
Imagine how I felt when Dominiek introduced me to Dr De Moor and his wife Sabine. This was one highlight of my visit.
My good friend Hermine came from Picardy. Walter Pieters, who told me so much about Belgian airmen in the Great War, and his wife Hilde, travelled from Kontich, near Antwerp, for my talk. Christopher Vandewalle, the city archivist of Dixmuide, came too; he also has a connection with Elsie and Mairi. His family had a brewery in Pervyse before the war and there is a super photograph of Mairi popping her head out of a shell hole blown in the wall of Chris’s grand-dad’s brewery. He is keen to have a memorial to Elsie and Mairi in Pervyse, and he and I are going to work on this together.
It was also good to meet Gen and Elizabeth, two English women who have bed and breakfast accommodation near Pervyse, and run battlefield tours. They are mad keen to have a memorial to Elsie and Mairi and have pledged their help.
A few days after I returned I had an email from Herman Declerk who could not come to my talk but kindly arranged for me to see the cellar of the house where Elsie and Mairi had their first dug-out, just a hundred yards from the fighting, on a more recent visit to Ieper. It was wonderful to stand in the room where Elsie and Mairi had patched up so many wounded soldiers nearly a hundred years ago, and to walk down the same steps that Elsie’s future husband, Baron Harold de T’Serclaes, had walked down in crimson jodhpurs. Herman has also curated an excellent exhibition about Pervyse during the First World War which I saw for the first time. It is well worth a visit.
Elsie and Mairi Go To War...
My great friend Marilyn Imrie asked Jennifer Black and Pauline Lockhart, two wonderful actors who live in Edinburgh, to read Elsie and Mairi’s parts, and then she script-edited and directed the piece. Duncan was very happy with the change to the evening’s programme. So, armed with a few props - two battered Union Jacks and an equally tattered Belgian flag, and two of the same the Order of Leopold Medals that were awarded to Elsie and Mairi in 1915 for their courage and care of Belgian soldiers – I set off for Edinburgh.
We four read the piece through on Sunday night and the next day Marilyn and I went to check out the sound and lighting at the venue, the Board Room at the Library. A few days before I set off I had a remarkable conversation with a lady who telephoned me from Oban. Her son Benedict was the great-nephew of Jack Petre, Mairi’s ‘special friend’ whom the Chisholm family say she would have married if he had survived the war. Sadly he was killed in a flying accident in the spring of 1917.
I had the great good fortune to be put in touch with Kirsty by Mrs Elizabeth Edwards who was Jack’s niece, and who only recently learnt that her relation Kirsty had, quite by chance, met Mairi in 1980. So, all those years after his death we found that Mairi had met and spent an afternoon with Jack’s great-nephew shortly before she died in 1981. She bequeathed her Jack memorabilia to Benedict, who hero-worshipped his great-uncle. One of the precious objects Mairi gave him was a toy soldier he had chucked to her out of his plane attached to a parachute – one of many love tokens he threw down. It survived its unusual delivery method intact, Mairi went out and retrieved it and cherished it for all those years and then gave it to Benedict.
Imagine my excitement when Kirsty offered to bring the doll from Oban to the performance. It was a thrill to have such precious object for Pauline, who played the part of Mairi, to have as a prop. It was the prop of props, and a real coup de theatre.
Among the hundred or so people who were at the reading were Mairi’s great-niece, Mairi-Angela Foster; Mrs Elizabeth Edwards, Jacks’ great-niece, came from Harrogate and her daughter Nicky joined her from London. Also, my friend Liz Goring, whom I met in the 1990s on suffragette business.
Elsie and Mairi Go To War...
On the 7th of November, the day before Remembrance Sunday, I spent the day signing my book at the Imperial War Museum. Much of the material, such as their diaries, is from their Department of Documents and many of the best pictures come from their Photographic Collection. Mairi was interviewed in the 1970s and the tapes, held in the Museum’s Sound Archives, reveal some of the finer details which appear in the book. The Museum was very busy that day and many visitors made their way to the shop. I sold and signed 32 copies of Elsie and Mairi Go To War, every copy they had in the shop, by the end of a long day.
Elsie and Mairi Go To... Ypres/Ieper
8 October, 2009 at 20:15
On Thursday night, October 8th, at 20:15, after the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate at 8pm, I will be giving a power point presentation at the Town Hall (Nieuwerck) which is situated on the east wing of the Cloth Hall (Lakenhallen) which houses the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres/Ieper. The event is free; you do not need to book but do let me know if you are coming.
Every night during the half hour leading up to 8pm crowds start to gather at the Menin Gate as they have been doing for the last eighty ears. Four local firemen in best uniforms, buttons gleaming, march to the Menin Gate to play The Last Post. The ten minute ceremony is a moving tribute to the hundreds of thousands of British men who died near Ypres. Winston Churchill said of the ruined city: ‘a more sacred place for the British race does not exist’.
I hope that if you are one of those people, on October 8th, you will make the short walk to the marvellous Town Hall in the east wing of the museum in the Cloth Hall (Lakenhallen), Grote Markt 34. I have been invited by Piet Chielens,
the Coordinator, to give a talk on my book Elsie and Mairi Go To War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front.
Elsie Knocker and Mairi Gooden-Chisholm were the only women to nurse ON the front line, operating from a snug dug-out just yards from the German trenches at Pervyse, not far from Ypres/Ieper.
I will tell the women’s story through wonderful photographs of their time in Belgium for about hour and then take questions. I’ll sign copies of the book which will be on sale that evening.
I look forward to seeing you on Thursday 12th October at 20:15.
Town Hall (Nieuwerck)
In Flanders Fields Museum
Cloth Hall (Lakenhallen)
Grote Markt 34
Elsie and Mairi Go To...
The National Library of Scotland
12 October, 2009, 19:00
On Monday the 12th of October Elsie, Mairi, and I will be at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. When I say that, I mean I shall be the narrator of their extraordinary story, and their words will be interpreted by two actresses, Jennifer Black and Pauline Lockhart. My friend Marilyn Imrie will be producing this show which is free to the public.
Tickets which are free are to be had from Duncan Welsh at the National Library of Scotland, telephone 0131 623 3918.
The evening starts at 19:00 and the performance will last for one hour. My new book about this daring and dauntless duo, which is on sale in the library shop, will also be available on the night. During October Elsie and Mairi Go To War will be the N.L.S’s Book of the Month.
I have just finished the first draft of the script, something I haven’t done before. It is quite a different discipline constructing a narrative for an audience who is with you in the flesh. Elsie and Mairi are the stars of the show, I shall be putting them in their context and cuing them in to speak their own words which I have taken from their letters and diaries. I’ll be taking big blow-up pictures of them to put up all round the room.
ELSIE: Sometimes Mairi and I felt extremely lonely in our little ambulance. We were often the last of the column, so if anything happened to us no one would have known. One day Mairi and I were sent to collect a wounded officer at Lokeren which was very close to the German line, as we drove there the Belgian army was streaming towards us in retreat. We found the cottage where the officer had been left and stepped inside; it was pitch black. All we could hear was the horribly eerie sound of a dripping kitchen tap. We groped our way down the hall and found our man lying on a table. His uniform was brand new, his buttons shone in the gloom, his blood was dripping on to the floor, his life was draining away. We could do nothing for him and left. As we got into the ambulance we heard the Germans pouring into the other end of the village and scarpered as fast as we could.
At Pervyse the day would start at 6 am when they lit the stove and made cauldrons of soup or hot chocolate which they served to the wounded or took to the Belgian trenches. Sometimes German sentries asked them what they were doing.
MAIRI: We had to walk in icy freezing stillness without a light and in silence. Sometimes the Germans would call out asking us who we were and what we were dong. Elsie, who could speak German, was rather cheeky, and would reply “Do you want a cup of hot chocolate? There’s one going spare.” So there we were, with the Belgian sentry and the German sentry imbibing hot chocolate, right out in No Man’s Land. I mean it was just too silly for words.
When I re-read the book I was taken aback by Elsie and Mairi all over again; so brave, so selfless and so amusing. They were good at making the best of the most difficult situation they could have found themselves in. Reading their diaries and scrap books, it is clear that at times they were at the most dangerous party in the world. They never grumbled, just coped with life and death as best they could, and when the occasion arose they partied, trying to inject some normality into their far from normal lives. Tea and cakes, wine and champagne, bloater paste and bunting flutter through their accounts. Writing the script I was struck again by their determination to make their dug-out at Pervyse as homely and as jolly as possible.
Last weekend I bought an old Belgian flag from a bric-a-brac stall at Spitalfields Market, which we can hoist on the night, and I’m now in search of a well-worn British flag. Any help would be much appreciated.
I look forward to seeing you on Monday October 12th at 19:00.
National Library of Scotland
George IV Bridge
Edinburgh EH1 1EW
Why I wrote Elsie and Mairi Go to War
Imagine you are 18 years-old and go off to Afghanistan with a friend to set up a first-aid post in the cellar of a bombed-out building in the most dangerous part of Helmand Province.
Staying there for nearly four years during which time you live for months under heavy bombardment, are sniped at, and have to come back to Britain to raise money to pay for your work.
Living under extremely dangerous conditions, lightened by parties with the soldiers; you have several romances with the men who come and visit you- after all you are the only women for miles around. You fall in love and plan to marry when the injured, some of them die in your cellar, too badly injured to save and all you can do is hold their hand and watch them die. Your friend marries a pilot in the nearest town and you are her bridesmaid.
You patch up hundreds of soldiers you send them to military hospitals in Britain, and the dog-tags and personal effects of those who die you have to send back to their families at home.
Imagine talking to the enemy in their own language and having an irregular relationship with them; they tell you not to wear your tin-helmet otherwise you risk being mistaken for a soldier and being shot. They also ask you for the hot drinks you take to the sentries on duty. Riskily you exchange messages with them about the war, saying "We're all bloody fools, why don’t we all go home?"
Being attacked with arsenic gas, and surviving, being evacuated back to England, convalescing, going back to Helmand and being gassed again.
This is what happened in Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm's war service which took place in Belgium from September 1914 until the spring of 1918.
I have wanted to write this book ever since I saw a television interview with a neat Scottish lady in her eighties talking about her work in the First World War. In a modest, sometimes funny, but always matter-of-fact way, Mairi Chisholm described how she had 'done her bit'. I was spellbound: as I watched I became proud of that eighteen-year-old who had given up her cosy middle-class life, dashed to London on her motorbike, sold it to pay her way, drove ambulances and nursed on the front line in Belgium. She and her friend Elsie Knocker risked their life hundreds of times bringing in men from no-man's-land; lived under heavy bombardment for months at a time; toured Britain to raise money for their work, and were nearly killed by arsenic gas. I became fascinated by them and how the war defined their lives.
I have always written about strong women: the suffragettes whose campaign for the vote was shouty, dangerous, daring and funny; the hard-pressed homeworkers of the East End of London whom successive governments tried to drive from the workforce by legislation from the 1880s onwards even thought it would have meant destitution for them and their families; the servant Hannah Cullwick who was secretly married to a Victorian gentleman for over fifty fetishised years and who refused to be bullied by him to become 'a lady'.
I enjoy writing about two people. When I first came across Elsie and Mairi they seemed quite similar, meeting through a shared passion for motor-biking. But I soon discovered they were very different people and this made them a joy to write about. Telling the story of their lives as they roared around Dorset and Hampshire lanes, their war careers, and their 'after-lives' until their deaths as old ladies, allowed me to revisit my favourite period of women's history, the 1880s to the 1920s, when many of the women, some of whom who would go on to become suffragettes were being born, educated and presumed to be waiting to embark on marriage and the essential task of raising a family. I was studying the First World War, had been to Ypres a dozen times, I had often driven through Pervyse, Elsie and Mairi's home for three and a half years, before I became acquainted with them.
Looking back over the last few years I see that my work has been about strong women who would not do as they were told, who were determined to lead their own lives come what may. These are the people we want to know about, the brave and the strong who throw caution to the wind and live their lives the only way they can.