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A History of the First World War in 100 moments: Medals for the nurses dubbed the 'mad Englishwomen' of Belgium

Thousands of nurses flocked to the Western Front in the early months of the war. Few were so unorthodox, or had such dramatic impact, as Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm. Andy McSmith examines the legend of the ‘women of Pervyse’
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Albert, King of the Belgians, was a conscientious monarch who continued with his ceremonial duties in a villa in the little seaside resort of De Panne, near the French border, after the German advance had forced him to abandon Brussels. One of the more important of his tasks was handing out medals to his subjects who had fought with a determination that surprised and infuriated the invaders.

But the two people who stood before him to receive their Chevaliers de l’Ordre of Leopold II medals on 31 January 1915 were not fighting men, nor any good at obeying orders. They were Elizabeth Blackhall Knocker, known to colleagues as Elsie, an orphan from Exeter brought up by her uncle and educated at a cookery school in Trowbridge; and her young colleague, Mairi Chisholm.

When war began, thousands of women were eager to be near the front line, caring for the wounded. Some went because nursing was their vocation, some were driven by a powerful sense of patriotism, but a good many thought it would be more interesting and rewarding than doing domestic chores at home.

The first trained nurses were in France just eight days after the war on the western front began. That first batch included members of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS). They were joined in the following weeks by thousands more young women, many having enrolled either in a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) or the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, known by the mildly unfortunate acronym, FANY. About 46,000 middle or upper-class women served in VADs. A great many had no training as nurses, but their attitude was that while the men were learning how to fight, they could learn how to care for the wounded.

It was a passion for motorcycling that brought the 30-year-old Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, an 18-year-old Scot, to war-torn Belgium. Elsie was a dispatch rider with the Women’s Emergency Corps in August 1914 and was spotted by Dr Hector Munro, who was organising a Flying Ambulance Corps. He invited her to join.

The Corps of six men and four women turned up just after the Battle of the Yser, in October, which cost the Belgians 20,000 men, dead or injured. Elsie Knocker was a trained nurse, who had worked in hospitals and travelled as far afield as Singapore, Java and Australia, but she had seen nothing like this. “There were so many dead bodies – dead, dying, shockingly or slightly wounded – laid on the floor that it was difficult to walk without treading on them. Two small boys with a handcart took the dead to the burial dump,” she wrote in her memoirs, Flanders and Other Fields, published in 1964. “When our ambulances drove in with a fresh load we would have to get down to the loathsome task of clearing the dead to make space for the living.

“In the operating room, amputated limbs were simply swept or thrown out into the courtyard, and there was a frightful smell of rotting, gangrenous flesh…

“We heard cries of ‘Water!’, ‘De l’eau!’, and ‘Wasser!’ We wanted to have compassion, but it was best to stop one’s ears and walk on; otherwise it would have meant running about with a water-bottle all day and probably going mad.”

Elsie had been brought to drive the ambulances, but it annoyed her that she was sent on unnecessary journeys when someone important wanted a tour of the front line, and distressed her that too many patients were dying in her ambulance on the way to hospital, sometimes from seemingly minor injuries.

She deduced that the real killer was shock, and that the way to save lives was to administer first aid on the spot, before the patient was dispatched on the bumpy journey to hospital. She went to Dunkirk to pester the authorities for permission to set up a treatment centre at the front line. When Admiral Pierre Ronarc’h heard what she was proposing he told her not to be absurd: it was out of the question that a woman would be allowed within three miles of the front line.

Undeterred, she and Mairi Chisholm commandeered a ruined, looted house on the edge of a village called Pervyse, about five yards behind the nearest trench, and moved into the cellar, where they worked and slept, alongside two male assistants, and struggled to get army commanders to  take their mission seriously.

Soon, the women known to French marines as “les folles anglaises” were receiving a stream of visitors – men with physical or psychological injuries, and officers curious to meet these strange and determined women. Marie Curie, discoverer of radioactivity, was running an X-ray at Furnes, and called in to the centre now known as Cellar House. Sir Bertrand Dawson, the chief medical officer with the British forces, noted that wounded men who were nursed at Pervyse had a better than average chance of reaching hospital alive, and persuaded the Allied Council to give the nursing station official approval. That made obtaining medical equipment vastly easier.

Appearing before the King of the Belgians was another step up for the women at Cellar House, though it provoked a final breach with Dr Munro, who had never approved of the Cellar House project and thought that the attention had gone to Elsie’s head. She thought he was an “idiot”. Besides, she did not need him any more, because the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Services had recognised her worth and had given her the extra task of spotting enemy aircraft.

In almost four years, the women at Cellar House treated an estimated 23,000 casualties, until a German gas attack on 17 March 1918 put them out of action. As she lay in hospital, the Baroness T’Serclaes – as Elsie was by then, since her marriage in 1916 to a Belgian pilot – was offered a commission in the newly formed Woman’s Royal Air Force.

The two women lived long lives, but not as friends. Elsie Knocker had always maintained that her first husband, an accountant, had died in Java. Apparently, their friendship ruptured when Mairi Crawford learnt that she had been lying: they were divorced. Mairi Crawford died in 1981, Elsie Knocker in 1978.

Tomorrow the: The Singapore mutiny

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar