Madonnas of the Western Front

SCOTS-born Mairi Chisholm and her English friend, Elsie Knocker, won 17 medals each in the First World War for bravery that saved the lives of thousands of soldiers. Now their amazing story is being brought to life in Edinburgh, finds Emma Cowing

• Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, right, find a moment to relax for the camera

MAIRI CHISHOLM, 18 years old and with her hair flying out behind her, was racing through London traffic on a motorbike the day her life changed forever. It was 1914, not long after the outbreak of the First World War, and the young Scot was working as a dispatch rider for the Women's Emergency Corps. Her love of motorbikes had already proved too much for her stern Victorian parents, and when she insisted on joining the war effort, much to her mother's dismay, it was her bike that provided her means of escape when she ran out of the family home in Dorset for London. But on this particular day, her motorbiking skills were to her advantage when Dr Hector Munro, a Scot who had come to London to set up a Flying Ambulance Corps, spotted her haring round corners in the capital.

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"He was deeply impressed with my ability to ride through the traffic," said Chisholm, originally from Nairn, in an interview just five years before her death in 1981. "He traced me to the Women's Emergency Corps and … said, 'Would you like to go out to Flanders?' And I said, 'Yes, I'd love to.'"

Her answer would not only change her life, but that of her English friend, Elsie Knocker, a 30-year-old divorcee who roared around the countryside on her motorcycle wearing bottle green Dunhill leathers, and accompanied Chisholm to Belgium as a nurse. And it also went on to save the lives of thousands of soldiers who would otherwise have died if the two women, with little thought for their own safety, had not set up a first-aid post on the Belgian frontline – becoming the only women working on the Western Front, which earned them the nickname the "Madonnas of Pervyse" and an impressive 17 medals each by the end of the war.

This week, a performance based on a recent book about the pair will take place at Edinburgh's Dovecot Studios. Using words taken from their own letters and diaries, read by actresses Jennifer Black and Pauline Lockhart, it will be narrated by Diane Atkinson, whose book on the two women was a critical hit when it was published in July.

Atkinson, a historian and former lecturer and curator at the Museum of London, where she specialised in women's history, says she was first drawn to the two women when she stumbled upon some curious old photographs of them. "They were wearing medals and looked slightly unusual in their boots and great coats and headscarves. It was captioned 'the Madonnas of Pervyse' and I thought 'gosh, how interesting – why Madonnas? And why Pervyse?' As I unpicked the story, this extraordinary tale emerged of these two women who were given these medals by the Belgians for courage under fire running a first aid post on the frontline."

The two women first met at a motorcycle club in Bournemouth in 1912, and despite the age gap (Chisholm was 16 and Knocker 28 at the time), became friends. Chisholm's family were from Nairn and owned a plantation in Trinidad. They had moved from Scotland to Dorset, where Chisholm had grown up. Knocker, meanwhile, had – in a highly controversial move for the era – used her family money to get out of an unhappy marriage and divorced her husband. So scandalous was her decision that she lied to everyone she met – including Chisholm – about the situation, claiming that she was a widow.

"Where they met is the clue to the whole story," says Atkinson. "They're brave, they're practical, they don't mind getting their hands dirty and they're not neat, prissy Edwardian ladies. They both came from comfortable backgrounds but they were not typical women of their day. You've got to remember that back then there were only 30 or 40 other women in the whole of Britain riding motorcycles at that time."

After Dr Munro's approach, the two joined his motley band of volunteers (which included doctors, vicars and bus drivers), and in late September, 1914, they arrived in Belgium in the middle of a humanitarian disaster. Germany had occupied great swathes of the countries and many Belgians were headed for the borders, carrying what they could. The Flying Ambulance Corps turned its attention to the military casualties already mounting.

"They were involved in driving ambulances out to battlefields and bringing in the wounded, that was their mission," says Atkinson. But before long, the women started to become disillusioned at the long distances injured soldiers were having to travel to receive medical aid.

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"Their experience of hanging around and waiting to be sent off hither and yon meant they were seeing men dying from injuries they thought they should have survived," says Atkinson. "They felt they needed to go where the action was. When they got to Pervyse, just a few yards away from the German trenches, they found nothing but a few broken buildings in a blitzed landscape. They discovered a cellar that hadn't been shelled, and that's where they opened up their first-aid post." Conditions were ghastly: there were rats underfoot, no running water, constant shelling, and everywhere, the smell of decomposing bodies. The women, however, got on with things. They tended to the wounded, patching them up often moments after they had been brought in from the battlefield, then sent them on to a military hospital further behind the lines. It was vital, dangerous work, and all done with a spirit of derring-do typical of a certain breed of British woman.

"Their diaries were very matter of fact; they sound very schoolgirlish," says Atkinson. "It's all a bit jolly hockey sticks and 'those beastly Germans', everything was either 'horrid' or 'spiffing'. When you read them it's almost like the writing of 13-year-old girls. They write about being shelled and describe it as being 'ripping fun'. Then you think, 'Hang on, that must have been actually really terrifying'."

Not that they didn't still let their hair down occasionally. Being the only women on the Western Front, they became popular with many of the officers – British, French and Belgian – who, starved of female company, would often come to visit.

"They found a piano in a bombed-out building, so, if it was quiet and there weren't any casualties, they would have parties where they'd open a bottle of wine and have a sing-song round the piano," says Atkinson. "They created this little bit of Britain right on the frontline. Elsie even had a giant marrow in the back garden to make jam. It was so huge that local soldiers would come and salute it."

When the money ran out – by this time the two had severed their connection with the Flying Ambulance Corps and were funding the first-aid post with their own money – they would return to the UK, doing tours of the country and giving presentations about the work they did. Soon they had become celebrities in their own right, and earned the nickname, "the Madonnas of Pervyse".

There was even time for love affairs. In 1916, Knocker married a Belgian baron, Harold de T'Serclaes, who had come to visit the women in Pervyse, while Chisholm became engaged to a British pilot who was later killed in action. But, as they continued to work in Pervyse, earning more medals for bravery as they risked their lives to save soldiers, conditions turned more dangerous.

One night in 1918, they were awoken by the sound of their stray pet dog barking, and realised they were under a gas attack. Both inhaled several lungfuls of the poisonous gas, but survived, managing to evacuate the wounded soldiers under their care as well. Seriously ill, they returned to Britain, where Knocker was forbidden to return to Belgium. Chisholm recovered and did return, only to be gassed again – again narrowly escaping with her life. The Belgians shut down the first aid post, and she returned to Britain, where both women saw out the rest of the war as members of the fledgling Women's Royal Air Force.

Following the end of the war, both went their separate ways. Chisholm found out that Knocker had lied to her about her divorce and was devastated that, after all they had gone through, her friend had not been honest with her. They barely spoke again. Chisholm moved back to Nairn, where she became a successful poultry breeder and lived into her nineties. She never married.

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Knocker, meanwhile, struggled to adjust to civilian life. "She felt so fulfilled by war that she found it very hard to get over. It was the defining moment of her life," says Atkinson. "She felt needed, loved, adored, wanted, and she was always trying to recreate that atmosphere. The closer to death she was the more alive she felt. She really struggled to find her way."

De T'Serclaes found out about her divorce and immediately left her, and she worked as a housekeeper to a rich family to keep herself and her son from her first marriage – who was seven when she left for Belgium and lived with her parents – afloat. She kept up her connection with the military, however, and spent a lot of time volunteering for servicemen's charities. Even in her late seventies, she could be spotted hitch-hiking to visit a serviceman's family.

The pair's legacy, says Atkinson, remains relevant today. "Their attitude to life is incredibly inspiring, particularly in a contemporary context. They were celebrities, but they were never in it for what they could get out of it. Our experience of celebrity now is quite tawdry, but what these women did they did out of the goodness of their hearts. They lived in the most awful conditions and they just got on with it.

"They were wonderful. They had an appetite for life, they were charismatic, they never complained and they never thought about giving up. We could all do with being a bit more like that."

• Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front by Diane Atkinson (Preface Publishing, price 20).

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