ELSIE KNOCKER AND MAIRI CHISHOLM IN YPRES/IEPER
At three o’clock in the afternoon of 22nd of November 2014, a life-size bronze sculpture of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, and their little dog Shot, was unveiled in the garden of the Hotel Ariane in Ypres, a hundred years to the day since they started giving ‘golden hour ‘ treatment to Belgian soldiers in their dug-out in Pervyse ten miles away.
The sculptor, Josiane Vanhoutte, of Ostend has made many fine pieces of public art. Several of her works can be seen in her home city.
About seventy people attended the ceremony including relatives of Mairi Chisholm, my friends, and Mr Stefaan Vandenbussche, and his family and friends who helped me to raise the money for the statue. The owners of the Hotel Ariane, Natasja Feliers, Johan Vanhaute and Ringo Lemaire commissioned the landscaping of the garden, and the architect Wilfried Feliers designed a splendid platform for the installation of Elsie and Mairi and their dog, Shot, who died saving their lives in a gas attack in 1918.
With a documentary in mind, the unveiling ceremony was filmed by award-winning documentary film-maker, Nigel Walk and cameraman Fraser Rice. Eight vintage motor-bike enthusiasts led by Richard Mummery, wearing replica First World Ward uniforms, with three of their wives dressed as nurses, roared up to the hotel garden on their 1914 Douglas motorbikes. Mairi Chisholm’s family arranged for a Belgian bag-piper to play ‘Will Ye No Come Back Again’ and ‘Amazing Grace’.
I made a short speech: “Welcome everyone. Today is a special day for Elsie and Mairi and for us too. About eighteen months ago I received an email from a Belgian gentleman saying how much he liked my book, Elsie and Mairi Go To War. A couple of emails later he liked my idea that there should be a statue to the women in Belgium, and bravely said he would dedicate himself to help me make this happen. That gentleman is Mr Stefaan Vandenbussche (below). Since then we have worked together to raise the money for this beautiful sculpture of Elsie and Mairi by the wonderful artist Josiane Vanhoutte (above left).
I can honestly say that the many donations that have made this possible have been given with a great deal of affection and respect and awe at what these two women did in Belgium a hundred years ago. They risked their lives for four years to help save Belgian soldiers lives; they were decorated with medals and had many column inches devoted to them.
Today, they are off the page, out and proud in the world. Natasja, our host, asked me what Elsie and Mairi would have thought of being cast in bronze. Well, I think Elsie would have loved it and seen it as her due. Mairi was more modest and reticent about the work they did. Some of her relatives are here today, so please correct me if I’m wrong. I think she would have not expected it but would not have been very honoured.
Thank you everyone for everything you have done and given to this project, and thank you Elsie and Mairi for everything you gave to Belgium a hundred years ago.”
Three of the firemen who are buglers at the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, every evening at eight o’clock, asked to come and play the Last Post for Elsie and Mairi. It was a perfect and fitting end to the project whose aim was to remind the world of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, the only women who serve ON the front line, extraordinary women who risked their lives for nearly four years to save Belgian, British, French and German soldiers’ lives. Elsie and Mairi are an inspiration to us all.
Today humanitarian aid workers are giving the same loving care to victims of war everywhere.