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Cometh the hour, cometh the man … or actually a woman

I am sure we all have our own very personal stories to share at this time and this is a brief insight into mine. I am a great believer that adversity can bring out the best in people … and when I reflect on what our great grandparents and their generation did for us, the sacrifices they made, and the ‘social responsibility they showed‘, many of them through two world wars, it puts into perspective the challenges we face, even today.

In 1914, when the call to action came, one of my great grandparents dropped everything jumped on their beloved motorbike, and headed to the ‘front’ to help; only to be turned away by the British Army. Undeterred, the motorbike was then driven to Belgium where there was a more welcoming reception by the Belgium Army.

The reason for the British Army’s rejection was because my great grandparent was a woman, this was despite having all the credentials one could possibly need for being a medic at the frontline in 1914. She was a qualified nurse, she spoke German, French, and Flemish, she was a qualified mechanic, a motorcyclist (she rallied motorbikes in 1914!), she was keen to help and happy to be there. It was just deemed inappropriate, there was a belief amongst the powers that be that women were just not capable of working in such conditions.

Elsie Knocker, Baroness de T’Serclaes, MM, OStJ (29 July 1884 – 26 April 1978)
Tatler Front Cover

Elsie, with her friend Mairi Chisholm, were not known for taking no for an answer, after all, they was a war to be fought and people to be helped, so Belgium it was. On arrival, they took to driving ambulances backwards and forwards from the front with Hector Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps. However, after seeing so many die from the shock and trauma of their injuries in transit back from the frontline to the field hospital, they took it upon themselves to establish (and self-fund) the first field dressing station on the front line. Their dressing station was based in the Flemish village of Pervyse, within in metres of the frontline and directly within range of the German guns; over the course of the following years, they were regularly shot at, shelled and even gassed. Elsie and Marie become known locally as the ‘Angels of Pervyse’ and they achieved formal recognition from not only the Belgium Army but also, over time, from the British Army for their work. Today, they are the subject of history lessons in Belgium, their antics are written about and they are even the subject of local folk songs.

The bronze sculpture of selfless nurses Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker on trench sandbags at Ypres in Belgium

Reportedly, Elsie and Mairi were the only women to operate at the front line within either the British and Belgium Army sectors. It is recorded that they treated over 23,000 men and became the most photographed and decorated women of the First World War. They even made the front cover of Tatler.

Both Mairi and Elsie were awarded numerous decorations including the  Knight of the Order of Léopold II with palm and the Military Medal.

Recent interest in this period has led to a number of books and documentaries being made about their work and, most recently in 2017, Elsie and Marie appeared on a set of commemorative stamps marking the First World War.

Elsie was just one of the remarkable women in an era where women had to fight to be considered equal. Perhaps we are still in that era? …

For me, she raced motorbikes in a leather skirt in 1914, now that, as my kids would say, is ‘sick’.

Check out the library of photos and the video below that will give you a glimpse into Elsie and Marie’s world:

Check out my nephew’s YouTube video on elsie:

Wikipedia Link

Bibliography from Wikipedia:

  • Atkinson, Diane. Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front. Cornerstone. (2009)
  • Hallam, Andrew & Nicola. Lady Under Fire on the Western Front: The Great War Letters of Lady Dorothie Feilding MM. Pen & Sword Military. (2010)
  • Mitton, Geraldine Edith, T’Sercles, Baroness Elsie, Chisholm, Mairi. The Cellar-House of Pervyse : A Tale of Uncommon Things from the Journals and Letters of the Baroness T’Serclaes and Mairi Chisholm. A.C. Black. (1917)
  • T’Serclaes, Elsie Baroness de. Flanders and Other Fields. Harrap. (1964)
  • Vanleene, Patrick. Op Naar de Grote Oorlog. Mairi, Elsie en de anderen in Flanders Fields. De Klaproos (2001)
  • Vanleene, Patrick. Fearless: Dorothie Feilding’s War, 1914–1917. Academia Press (forthcoming 2015).

Some of the Awards and Decorations:

 Officer of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem[23]
 Military Medal[24]
 1914 Star[25]
 British War Medal[25]
 Victory Medal[25]
 War Medal 1939–1945,[26] with oakleaf for a mention in dispatches[16]
 Defence Medal 1939–1945[26]
 Knight of the Order of Léopold II with palm[26]
Belgian Queen Elisabeth Medal[26]