Elsie and Mairi Go to War:
Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front
Edited extracts from the first three chapters of the uncorrected proofs
Eighteen-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elsie, a divorcee and mother of a young son, were madcap motor-bikers who met while roaring round the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, and had competed in motorbike and sidecar trials for the last year. Elsie was nicknamed 'Gypsy' because of her love of the open road and membership of the Gypsy Motorcycle Club. She was a passionate biker who wore a dark green leather skirt and long leather coat buttoned all the way down with a belt 'to keep it all together' designed for her by Messrs.Dunhill of London. She rode two motorbikes, a Scott with a sidecar and a Douglas solo.
Mairi's elder brother Uailean had an Enfield motorbike and was competing on it in rallies and the Bournemouth Speed Trials in September 1913 when their father Captain Roderick Gooden-Chisholm, bought Mairi a Douglas motorbike, with her mother's shrillest disapproval. Instead of the usual round of tennis parties and dances Mairi spent hours in the stables in her brother's overalls stripping down motorbikes, repairing them, and riding hard.
Because of the looming war Elsie had to cancel the 'ladies stiff reliability trial over 120 miles of Hampshire and Dorset countryside with plenty of hairpin bends' she had arranged for the middle of August. When war was declared Elsie wrote to Mairi that there was 'work to be done', and suggested they go to London to join the Women's Emergency Corps. Mairi, during a ferocious family row – her father was keen to let her go but her mother flatly refused to lend her a box to put her clothes in – crept up to her bedroom, tied a change of underclothes and her dress allowance of ten pounds (equivalent to eight hundred pounds today) into a headscarf, slipped out of the house and sped off on her motorbike to meet Elsie.
They rode straight to the Little Theatre in John Adam Street, off the Strand, the headquarters of the Women's Emergency Corps. The place bustled with suffragettes, fashionable actresses, a couple of duchesses and a marchioness, and a handful of lady novelists. The Honourable Mrs Evelina Haverfield, splendidly got up in a short khaki skirt worn over riding breeches, had launched the Corps to provide women workers to help the country in its hour of need. Living in lodgings in Baker Street, Elsie and Mairi were hired as dispatch riders and spent their first month whizzing about London carrying messages. One day Mairi was spotted by Dr Hector Munro (socialist, vegetarian, suffragette and nudist) who was impressed with the way she rode crouched over her dropped-handlebar racing motorbike. He tracked her down to the Women's Emergency Corps and asked her to join his Flying Ambulance Corps to help wounded Belgian soldiers. She agreed immediately and recommended to Munro her friend Elsie, who was a trained nurse. Keen to show that women were as brave and capable as men, Hector Munro selected Elsie and Mairi out of two hundred applicants, and also took Lady Dorothie Feilding, well-connected and fluent in French; the novelist May Sinclair, a generous donor to his favourite causes; and Helen Gleason, a glamorous American whose journalist-husband was touring the Western Front and filing copy for British and American newspapers. Doctors, a clergyman, two London bus drivers, cooks and medical orderlies made up the motley crew of the Flying Ambulance Corps.
Arriving at Victoria Station, 'the Palace of Tears' as Elsie called it, on the morning of the 25th of September, Elsie and Mairi were tut-tutted at by ladies scandalised at their breeches, leather boots and overcoats: they were the only women in trousers. One of their colleagues in the Corps called them 'Valkyries in knickerbockers.'
At first Elsie and Mairi were larky girls in khaki, but six weeks later they were the only women to live and work on the fighting Front in any of the theatres of that global war.
In the early evening of the 25th of September 1914 Elsie and Mairi followed their leader Dr Munro and the rest of the Corps down the gang-plank of the Princess Clementine at Ostend and onto Belgian soil. The four-hour crossing had been calm, no-one was sick, they were looking out for the German submarines at the entrance to Dover Harbour and for their destroyers and light cruisers in the English Channel. The Corps sang their way to Belgium in the ‘highest spirits’. The words of Gilbert the Filbert, one of the most popular music-hall songs of the year, floated away on the breeze:
“I’m Gilbert the Filbert, the knut with a k,
The pride of Piccadilly, the blasé roué.
Oh Hades! the Ladies who leave their wooden huts,
For Gilbert the Filbert, the colonel of the knuts,
They spent the night at the Station Hotel in Ostend which had been shelled the evening before but escaped serious damage. Elsie and Mairi shared a room; when it was ‘lights out’ at 8.30, despite Munro’s warning that the hotel could be shelled again, Elsie went to bed ‘feeling quite cheery in spite of it … and determined to sleep peacefully.’ It was a quiet night. They tried to make an early start the next day but a shortage of petrol meant they could not leave until the afternoon. While she waited Mairi sent a telegram to her parents telling them she was in Belgium and scribbled a note to her Aunt Lucy in London, assuring her that she had arrived safe and sound, saying that 'Mum has cut up rough about my coming out. She had wanted me to go to Trinidad but I had already fixed this up.' Taken aback by her mother's suggestion, she added primly, 'Fancy going out to Trinidad and lolling about doing nothing when there is such a tremendous lot to do here. It's too rotten to think of.'
As they motored along, Mairi was surprised that Belgium was such ‘ a remarkably flat country, with not one hill the whole way to Ghent’. The Corps was loudly cheered along the way and at first the party saw few signs that the country was at war, but within a day of arriving in Ghent they were confronted with evidence of the battles that had raged, and the humanitarian disaster that had been unfolding since the Germans had invaded the country on the 4th of August.
A thousand Belgians gathered to greet them when they arrived at Ghent and made their way to L’Hopital Militaire Numero Un, where ‘all the nurses were most kind in seeing to our wants.’ English habits preceded them and they were served with a ‘glorious tea’ in the hospital kitchen. The beautiful American Helen Gleason slipped away to see her roving reporter-husband, Arthur. They were billeted at the Flandria Palace Hotel and the next day Dr Munro and the Corps got down to work. Elsie was sent out in one of the ambulances to the Front fifteen miles away and had her first glimpse of a country at war. She collected fifteen wounded soldiers from a convent, the area was abandoned and filled with burnt-out ruins, roads were choked with refugees wandering ‘along the road in huddles with their children, it is all so sad and pathetic.’ Back in Ghent Mairi was kicking her heels, itching to get behind the wheel of an ambulance, any vehicle. Her first sight of the war was a German car that had been captured, its radiator riddled with bullets, the interior was covered in blood and there were ‘many bloody rags on the ground.’
For the next few days Mairi, Elsie, Helen Gleason and ‘Dot’ Feilding helped feed the eight thousand refugees that were crammed into the Palais des Fetes. When that was done Elsie and Mairi would go to the wards and practise their French by ‘ragging with’ the wounded soldiers. Shyly, Mairi noted they were ‘very cheery and like to see us very much’, whereas the more worldly-wise Elsie enjoyed the flirting, realising that it was ‘most unprofessional but they love it.’ On the 30th of September Elsie spotted a handsome Belgian officer for a second time and had coffee with him before he went back to the Front. She found him ‘so kind and considerate … I am falling horribly in love and shall have to be careful if I want to get out of Belgium with my heart whole.’ When Elsie went to collect the wounded twenty miles beyond Ghent panic-stricken refugees warned her that the Germans were coming.
Money was tight. The Belgian Red Cross was grateful for Munro’s Corps, but it received no official funding from either the British, French or Belgian authorities. The British Red Cross eventually donated two ambulances and sixteen pounds a week, but most of the day-to-day running costs had to be raised and from the outset Munro and his team struggled to keep going, members paying their own way.
By the end of their first week in Belgium, Mairi's diary which at had at first brimmed with school-girlish enthusiasm, was starting to show her frustration at not doing enough and not what she had thought she would be doing. Everything took too long for her and there were all those bits of paper to flourish and passports to show. From a sheltered background, used to servants, Mairi was the youngest member of the Corps by at least ten years, her learning curve was the greatest. Elsie’s on the other hand, revealed the years of experience she took to Belgium and the worldly wisdom she had acquired since her divorce. From the outset Elsie was upbeat, a sharp observer of the medical situation that confronted her, and very focused on what would need to be done. In those first few days she showed her emotions and her interest in men, possibly a new father for her seven-year-old son Kenneth.
From the 1st of October Elsie had drinks and meals with the 'gay and gallant' Belgian officer whom she worried about falling in love with. He was tall, blond and handsome, his hair contrasted with his ‘well-fitting dark green uniform.’ Nicknamed by Elsie ‘Gilbert the Filbert’, his name was George Suetens, a member of the Voluntary Motorcycle Corps. His role was to go out on his motorbike at night and shoot as many Germans as he could, and in the last week he had killed forty-eight. Elsie and ‘Gilbert’ would have drinks and meals with the other members of the Corps but sneaked off for romantic encounters on their own. To be given the moniker ‘Gilbert the Filbert’ suggests that George was a snappy dresser: the work ‘knut’ is army slang for officers who were so smartly dressed they were almost dandified; and filberts are small nuts. There was a feeling that their new friend was perhaps vain and a bit of a ladies’man.
One afternoon Mairi ‘hastily turned round and beat a retreat’ from a teashop in case Dot Feilding followed her and saw Elsie and Gilbert canoodling. Feeling awkward, Mairi told Dot ‘there was a great crowd in there’ and they went elsewhere. The shortage of petrol meant that sometimes the Corps was unable to make many trips to the battlefields to bring in the wounded and they would hang around Ghent. Mairi grabbed a chance to have her hair washed - for the first time since they had left London- in a little salon in the town. They bought postcards and souvenirs, and played rounders with the lightly-wounded soldiers and orderlies in the backyard of the hospital. But on the 3rd of October news came that a train full of badly-hurt Belgian soldiers was due to arrive from Antwerp where the Germans had inflicted heavy casualties. The survivors were in a shocking state and this was Mairi’s first encounter with serious battle-field casualties: she was upset at the sight of a badly-burned young man, perhaps the same age as her brother Uailean, whose face was ‘completely smashed up.’ At the same time a train carrying British soldiers to the front pulled in at the station and Elsie was moved by the ‘very pathetic sight’ of the wounded Belgians greeting ‘the English with such joy’ and seeing them waving ‘their poor bandaged arms and hands’ at their English comrades. Elsie and Mairi and the others were dealing with the casualties and ferrying them to the hospital until three o’clock in the morning and were up again at half-past-five to deal with the eight or nine hundred more victims that arrived from Antwerp that day.
After two nights of almost no sleep, on the 5th of October Elsie heard that Gilbert has had a ‘smash’ on his motorbike and she and Mairi rushed out to look for him and found his wrecked machine in a motorcycle shop in the town and heard that he was not badly hurt. They were scrambled to go out in different teams to Zele and Berlaare, towns twelve miles to the east and south east of Ghent. Elsie was in Berlaare during a bombardment and then went on to Appels where they left the car by the side of the road and walked four miles over meadows to the trenches by the river Schelde, on the other side of which were the Germans. Elsie, Dot and Munro found two seriously-wounded Belgians, a major, and a private who had been shot in the back and had his foot blown off. It began to rain, making it a ‘terrible journey’ having ‘to sneak back in the dark and under fire …with two men so bad.’ One of the drivers, Tom Worsfold, who had stayed with the ambulance, had been under fire since they left. Berlaare was on fire, (where Mairi was with other members of the Corps) ‘making a great glow in the sky.’ It was a cold, bumpy and weary ride home, trying to make the two men comfortable, the major survived his wounds but the young soldier would die in the hospital after an operation.
Mairi’s night was no less hair-raising. Driven by Bert Bloxham, she was sent out with Doctors Reese and Shaw and their driver Eustace Gurney to Zele. This was her first experience of being in the danger zone, very close to the enemy forces. All her senses were fully engaged, she saw hundreds of troops trudging along the road and the sound of German guns filled the air. They walked through the trenches at Berlaare looking for any wounded they could take to Ghent. It was pitch dark and they came across the Belgians building up the trenches in complete silence. Mairi was only a hundred yards from the front line when they found a badly-injured man whom she helped carry on a stretcher. Dr. Reese was ‘taken very bad’ in the car going home, perhaps his nerves were shattered. Mairi was ‘utterly fagged-out’ when they reached Ghent.
At ‘brekker’ on the 7th of October Dr Munro and Dr Reese ‘had words’ suggesting tension in the Corps, not surprising considering the conditions under which they were operating. There was news that Mairi’s father had arrived. Leaving home in a flurry, Roderick Gooden-Chisholm was sent by his wife to bring their daughter home. He caught a boat to Ostend, hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him to ‘The Front’. Roderick arrived with an unhelpful opinion of Mrs Knocker, whom he had met only once, but feared had a powerful influence over Mairi. In a letter written to his sister Lucy, a month after Mairi had dashed off to the war, he described Elsie as ' a very mad woman who is very changeable, and Mairi is rather chameleon-like.' Mairi showed him the sights of Ghent and caught up with family news and his forthcoming visit to Trinidad. Despite the Atlantic being haunted by German submarines and battleships, her father had booked a first-class passage on the fourth of November on the S.S Magdalena. It was typical of him to be undaunted by danger, if he wanted to go there he would. That evening Elsie had dinner with Mairi and her father and told them the lurid details of the aftermath of a massacre she had seen at Nazareth, a village uncomfortably close to the centre of Ghent. Three hundred Germans had taken twenty-six military Belgian military policemen by surprise and shot them at close range with dum-dum bullets and then ‘bashed’ their heads in. Elsie had been horrified: ‘the Germans are truly brutes to mutilate them after death.’
The next day Mairi and Dot drove Dad out to Zele again and gave emergency first-aid where they could, they left him there and returned to Ghent with eight wounded soldiers: ‘it was pretty hot for a time as some bullets whizzed over the ambulance’. When they went back to Zele her father was nowhere to be found, and as the Germans were advancing they had to dash back to Ghent as fast as they could. Mairi had no time to worry where he was when she was sent to Lokeren, eleven miles to the north-east, to take as many wounded as they could to the hospital in Ghent as fast as possible. On the way back they ran in to Helen's husband Arthur, whose car had broken down and was being towed by a cart, so 'we took it in hand an towed it home.' Back at Ghent they found Mairi's father had hitched a ride home. Meanwhile, Elsie heard that an attack was planned on Nazareth that day so she and one of the doctors took an ambulance and sat by the road. Nothing happened and they ‘fooled around’ taking ‘silly photographs’ before going home. The sight of the Belgian troops in ‘full retreat’ must have filled them with dread. Mairi’s Dad checked out of the Flandria Hotel and went back to England. As he was leaving he told Mairi that: ‘If it weren’t for your mother I’d stay out here with you, you’re having the most wonderful time, I wouldn’t take you back for anything.’
As soon as he got back to the family home in Dorset, Roderick wrote a letter to his sister Lucy describing his time in Belgium. Mairi was looking fit and being 'most sensible.' Dr Munro had told him she had been a great help and had a 'remarkably clear head and enormous strength.' Fortunately Mairi had overcome her squeamishness about 'blood and sights', of which her father was very proud. He had had the time of his life and 'lots of adventures' – which may have gone some way to assuage his disappointment at being rejected by the War Office on account of his age in the early days of the war.
Elsie’s romance with Gilbert was taking place in the highly-charged atmosphere of war. Her diary for October is full of him: teas and coffees, lunches and dinners, anxiety about where he is and if he is safe and a sense of relief and calm when he returns.
One day Elsie and Mairi were sent to collect a wounded officer from Lokeren, six miles north-east of Ghent, and dangerously close to the German lines. As they hurried to him they passed the Belgian army in retreat. They opened the door of a cottage, stepped into the gloom, and heard 'a horribly eerie sound ringing through the emptiness.' It was the sound of a steady drip, 'like the sound of a kitchen-tap.' They groped their way down the hall and into the room where they found the young officer lying on a table. He was a new recruit – his uniform was brand-new, the buttons brightly polished – and his blood was dripping on the floor, his life was 'draining away.' Elsie and Mairi could do nothing for him as he was 'beyond help.' As they were leaving the cottage they could hear the Germans pouring into the other end of Lokeren: they drove off.
From the middle of October the Corps were on the run from the Germans: Elsie and Mairi had several close encounters with them, and had heard terrifying tales of what had happened when they over-ran Antwerp. One day they walked out to the battlefields close to Ghent and they noticed a sentry crouched in a ditch and realised they had strayed from the Belgian lines, and that the had gone ' a bit beyond where they should have gone.' Nonchalantly, they decided to carry on walking before turning round. Suddenly a car came along with three German officers 'fully-plumed in their helmets' driving straight towards the Belgian lines. They looked closely at Elsie and Mairi and went on their way.
A few days later at Melle, the women were caught up in the thick of hand-to-hand fighting and had to skulk in a side street while the Germans launched a bayonet charge down the main street. The sound of the bayonets being plunged into men's 'innards' haunted Mairi for years: German bayonets had a saw at the hilt so that they could also be used to cut up wood, but they inflicted gruesome, bloodcurdling injuries. Elsie and Mairi filled the ambulance as fast as they could and had to ‘to scoot’ while under heavy fire from shells bursting all around them, the air was filled with ‘screaming shrapnel.’ Although the Corps’ mission was to help wounded Belgians, all the members risked their lives giving medical attention to wounded German soldiers. Elsie and Mairi made three attempts to rescue the Germans who had been lying wounded in the battlefield at Melle: stumbling over dead bodies and turnips that had been blown out of the ground, the first time they tried to collect the wounded they had to withdraw when they came under fire from German snipers, but not before Mairi had managed to cut four buttons as souvenirs off the uniform of a German soldier who had been shot in the mouth. When they returned they came under shellfire and had to withdraw for a few hours, and when they went back for a third time they were defying Munro’s orders. So they borrowed a Belgian ambulance and returned at dusk to ‘ghastly sights.’ One of the soldiers they had been trying to save all day had died, but they brought two men back to Ghent, barely alive. Elsie spoke to the men in German, one of whom suggested she remove his coat and crawl underneath it, telling her 'I'll guard you with the remains of my life.' There was criticism when they got back for taking such a 'frightful risk.'
Elsie described it as 'the greatest day of all my life… never shall I forget that turnip field…I got all my German trophies that day.’ A modern reader feels uncomfortable to read of them cutting buttons off the uniforms of the dead, but at the time it was part of going to war. Later Elsie and Mairi would donate their souvenirs to auctions to raise money to pay for the work they were doing. The ‘pretty hot scrap’ at Melle, so-called by Mairi, and worsening news from every direction, were the prelude to Munro ordering the evacuation of the Corps from Ghent in the early hours of the morning of the 12th of October 1914 and taking the wounded to Ostend. It was chaos on a bitterly cold night; there was no time to collect much clothing and the patients were evacuated wrapped in blankets and little else.
Before the outbreak of war, Ostend was known as ‘Queen of watering-places’, but quickly it had become the funnel for refugees fleeing the country and a sprawling ad hoc military hospital. The smart hotels and grander houses quickly filled with casualties but by the time the Corps arrived there were no spare beds and little floor space on which to sleep on a straw pallet, and so they drove to Malo-les-Bains, a pretty seaside town just over the border in France, two kilometres from Dunkerque, a vital re-victualling centre and ‘cram jam’ with British, Belgian and French troops. The wounded were taken to any hospital that could take them and Elsie, Mairi, Dot and Helen and the doctors and drivers hung around having a bit of a break while Hector Munro rushed back to England to ‘collect funds’. They stayed at the Ocean Hotel, wrote postcards, sent spare clothes back to ‘Blighty’, had tea at the casino, and they waited. This enforced leisure gave time to write letters home to their families, extracts of which often appeared often in their local newspapers. The Bournemouth Daily Echo was proud that Mairi was their ‘Dorset Lady at the Front’, and extracts of her letter to her aunt Fraser in Nairn appeared in the Nairnshire Telegraph describing the ‘Thrilling Experiences of a Nurse at the Front’. Elsie, Mairi, Dot and Helen’s ladylike appearance and cool courage under fire often dominated the wide coverage given to Munro’s work .The ladylike appearance of Elsie, Mairi, Dot and Helen, and their cool courage under fire could not be ignored, and war correspondents could not help themselves from being bowled over by their beauty. In his mid-thirties, the swashbuckling Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, the Daily Telegraph’s veteran war-reporter on the Western Front, was clearly smitten when he met them ‘arrayed in the most-up-to-date khaki uniforms’ believing their name ‘should enjoy an immortality associated with the greatest heroines in history.’ He described Munro’s ‘daring enterprise’ as ‘the most remarkable and useful voluntary organisation I have ever seen in any campaign.’ Philip Gibbs, another journalist, met Elsie, Mairi, Dot and Helen and his initial impressions remind us how resistant and sceptical the authorities were to having women close to the fighting, but seeing them in action his mind was changed: ‘ They did not seem to me at first the type of women to be useful on the battle-field or field hospital. I should have expected them to faint at the sight of blood, and swoon at the bursting of a shell. Some of them were at least too pretty to play about in the fields of war among men and horses smashed to pulp.’ However, he was humbled to see them holding their nerve when helping the wounded, ‘ without shuddering at sights of agony which might turn a strongman sick.’
While Hector Munro was fund-raising in England Gilbert was back in the picture. Elsie and Mairi had been strolling round Dunkerque when they spotted him in the crowd: there was no mistaking his ‘gait and gay insouciance.’ They flew towards him with ‘outstretched hands’. He was dusty and weary from his adventures but unhurt. Mairi remembered him flirting with them: “You won’t have the pleasure of nursing me, I believe you’re disappointed,” he chaffed in his quick French, but she quickly spotted ‘the tender, quizzical look he gave her friend’ and Mairi tactfully left them alone. She started to wonder if Elsie would marry Gilbert. Mairi was impressed by Elsie, almost star-struck by the older woman, believing she was ‘so good-looking, so high-spirited, so charming, that many, many men would want to marry her; and … she did love to be loved.’
Gilbert returned feeling despondent and Mairi helped Elsie prepare his bath. Mairi's parents would have been appalled at this kind of behaviour: it may have been the first time Mairi had drawn a bath and certainly the first time she had done such a thing for a strange man. Everyone’s lives and manners were in a state of flux.
The Corps would spend hours in the Gleasons' room talking about politics and the war and this was a fascinating time for Mairi. She was mixing with people older than herself from different places and backgrounds, there was a lot of running to keep up. Arthur Gleason had just returned from spending five weeks in the trenches and the relief of him being safe would have added to the holiday atmosphere. To Elsie’s delight Gilbert was asked to join the Corps and for her ‘things were going swimmingly.’ Most nights there were romantic walks along the beach ‘with the revolving searchlights sweeping it all the time and all lights out all along, no café lights.’ She would take his breakfast to him and get his motorbike ready. But Mairi, who had palled up with Sarah Macnaughtan, a new member of the Corps, had enough of the holiday mood and was itching to get to their next destination: Furnes.
On the 21st of October Munro's Corps drove in convoy to Furnes where the main hospital, hurriedly converted from a boys’ college, was in ‘a terrible muddle’ and struggling to cope. Many of the town’s six thousand inhabitants had fled in advance of the German ‘push’, and Dixmude, Pervyse and Nieuport were being pounded in an attempt to break the line that the British, French and Belgians were struggling to hold. Towns and villages, houses and woods blazed for days on end and quickly Furnes was overwhelmed with hundreds of casualties, many of them serious. Those for whom there was no room at the hospital, and were likely to survive the journey, would be taken to the railway station and sent off to military hospitals in Calais or England. There was not enough of anything and the wounded continued to pour in; when the beds ran out men were laid out on stretchers on the floor or were propped against the wall. There were so many men dying and not enough male orderlies to remove the bodies from the wards, especially those who had died in the night, that as soon as Elsie and Mairi got there they were told to remove all the bodies they could find to the mortuary and the convent, which Elsie called ‘a horrid job.’ Mairi witnessed her first death on her first day at Furnes, a young man with a serious head injury. It became obvious that he did not have long to live and she sat with him until he died. Then the nurses laid him out and Mairi and Elsie carried his body on a stretcher to the convent. They also helped out in the operating theatre, carrying away amputated limbs and returning the men to the wards. The days at Furnes were shocking and bewildering for Mairi: ‘no one can understand … unless one has seen the rows of dead men laid out on a stretcher, the majority wrapped in a winding sheet but here and there one is uncovered who has been left as he died.’ The wards were hellish places: ‘one sees the most hideous sights imaginable, men with their jaws blown off, arms and legs mutilated and when one goes in to the room one is horrified at the suffering… which is ghastly. I could not believe that I could have stood these sights.’