Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm were nurses during the First World War and saved hundreds of wounded soldiers. Sally Knocker is Elsie’s great grand-daughter and, as a consultant for Dementia Care Matters has become a good friend to the Charity. Here she tells us about the amazing life of her great-grandmother.
At a time when we recognise the gallantry and sacrifice of those who fought in the First World War one hundred years ago, and especially the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, it is important to remember two very special women who broke convention to save lives on the Front Line.
My great grandmother, Elsie Knocker met Mairi Chisholm at a motorcycle club in Bournemouth. When war broke out, “they roared off to London to do their bit.”*
Within a month, they were on the Western Front in Belgium, driving ambulances to take wounded soldiers from the battlefield to distant military hospitals. At that time, it was not considered fitting for women to be exposed to the dangers of the front line, but Elsie and Mairi realised that many men were dying of shock on the journey because they were not receiving vital first aid. They set up their own first-aid post a hundred yards from the front in Pervyse, near Ypres. Despite being shot at by snipers and living under constant bombardment for months at a time, they treated and saved hundreds of wounded men, often carrying men over their shoulders to their first aid post, including wounded Germans. Elsie and Mairi were awarded seventeen medals for bravery. During the Second World War Elsie joined up and became a senior officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She was twice mentioned in Despatches.
I met Elsie when she was in her nineties. As a twelve year-old, I remember being nervous about talking to her about her life and had no idea what an incredible woman my great-grandmother was.
Recently, I was asked by Buckingham Covers to sign their first day covers recognising the contribution of women in the Forces. They offered to donate money to a charity and it felt fitting to nominate The Royal Star & Garter Homes, with whom I have been closely associated over the last five years through my work with Dementia Care Matters. Elsie herself had dementia in her later years and I have no doubt that the Home in Surbiton would have been a source of great comfort to her, being surrounded by others who had served in the wars and with staff who would have understood and valued her huge contribution.
I bear a very strong physical resemblance to Elsie but I definitely don’t share her immense bravery in dangerous situations! However, I am proud that I share her determination to want to make a difference to others who are vulnerable: in my case ‘on the front line of older people’s care’, for as Elsie said to Mairi Chisholm in a letter in 1914, there is ‘work to be done’.
To commemorate the centenary of women serving in the Armed Forces, Buckingham Covers are releasing First Day Covers which include images of the two brave women. Part of the money raised through the purchase of the covers will go to The Royal Star & Garter Homes. Visit www.buckinghamcovers.com/starandgarter
*Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front, Diane Atkinson, Preface Publishing, 2009