Women’s History Month: Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, WWI Bad Asses

 

Mairi Chisholm grew up in a wealthy family.  Her older brother rode a motorcycle competitively.  She would watch him at his various events.  Although her mother opposed, her father agreed to teach her everything he knew regarding motorbikes: how they ran, how to ride them, maintenance, etc.  Around the time she was 18 years old, she met thirty year old Elsie Knocker.  Elsie was divorced and the mother of a young son. She had been trained at the Children’s Hip Hospital and also trained as a midwife.  Because of her love of motorcycles, Elsie joined the Gypsy Motorcycle Club.  Not only did the two become best friends, they also began competing in sidecar rallies together.

At the onset of the first World War, Elsie convinced Mairi that they needed to do something for the war effort.  Mairi chose to be a courier for the Women’s Emergency Corp.  While spectacularly driving her motorbike during a delivery, she was spotted by Dr. Hector Munro, the man behind the Flying Ambulance Corps. She and Elsie would both become part of this Corps of Female Ambulance Drivers.  They worked tirelessly moving the wounded from a designated point, located halfway to the front, back to their field hospital.  As the dead piled up, the women were utilized in moving the fallen soldiers to the mortuary.  In her diary, Mairi would write: “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.”

The two women decided they would be able to save more men if they were working along the actual front of the war.  They left the Corps and set up a medical station approximately 100 yards from the trenches.  They utilized a vacant cellar which they called the “British First Aid Post”.  For almost four years they helped the wounded.  Because they were not affiliated with an actual organization, they had to figure out a way to fund their venture.  Elsie Knocker, through her sheer determination, secured their being seconded to a garrison station close by.  Because of their efforts, they were both awarded the Order of Leopold II, Knights Cross (with palm) by King Albert I of Belgium.  They were awarded the British Military Medal and made officers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

In 1918 both Elsie and Mairi were injured during a bombing raid and gas attack on their field hospital.  Mairi recovered and returned to the front but was forced to abandon her post some months before the end of the war.  Upon Mairi’s return to England, she and Knocker joined the new Women’s Royal Air Force.  Eventually the two would go their separate ways when Mairi learned the truth about Elsie’s divorce to her first husband.  The two barely spoke to each other again.

The war had been horrible for the health of Mairi.  She had been poisoned during the gas attack and contracted septicaemia, weakening her heart.  For a while it was thought nothing would slow her down, not even illness, as she took up auto racing.  She became ill before one race and was advised to retire.  She would open a poultry business with an old school friend, May Davidson.  Eventually, they would move that business to Jersey.  Mairi passed away in 1981 from lung cancer at the age of 85 in the home where she had lived with May for almost sixty years.

Elsie would go on to be a Squadron Officer in the Women’s Royal Air Force during World War II.  On July 3, 1942, her son, Wing Commander Kenneth Knocker, was shot down over Groningen and perished. She left RAF after her son’s death.  Later in life she would breed Chihuahuas.  In 1978 she passed away at the age of 93 from the effects of pneumonia and dementia.

If you would like to learn more about these brave heroes of WWII and the women who drove ambulances during the war, below are a few links:

Books:

The Cellar-House of Pervyse: A Tale of Uncommon Things From the Journals and Letters of the Baroness T’serclaes and Mairi Chisholm

Women Heroes of World War One

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