On Saturday 22nd November 2014 it was a hundred years since two British women, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, arrived in the village of Pervyse and opened a first-aid post in the cellar of a badly-damaged house.
Elsie and Mairi gave emergency first-aid, what is now called ‘golden hour’ treatment, to soldiers before sending them to military hospitals further down the Line. They quickly became known as ‘The Angels of Pervyse.’
Elsie Knocker, 30, and Mairi Chisholm, 18, lived and worked a hundred yards from the German trenches, experiencing months of heavy bombardment and were an obvious target for snipers. Their living conditions were dreadful. For their bravery King Albert of the Belgians made them Chevaliers de l’Ordre de Leopold in January 1915.
Elsie and Mairi were the only women to work actually on the Western Front. For nearly four years they worked unpaid and received little official help. When the fighting stopped they would return to the United Kingdom to raise money in theatres and public meetings to keep their post open. Elsie and Mairi and their patients survived an arsenic gas attack in the spring of 1918. Their dog called Shot saved their lives by giving the alarm but died doing so.
Elsie and Mairi’s extraordinary courage in the saving of many soldiers’ lives is the subject of Elsie and Mairi Go To War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front by Diane Atkinson, published by Random House in 2009.
In 2013 Dr. Diane Atkinson and Mr Stefaan Vandenbussche started to raise money to commission a life-size bronze sculpture of Elsie and Mairi as a tribute to them. Stefaan is an employee of the CD&V group in the Flemish Parliament and regularly gives lectures on women in the Great War.
The eminent Belgian sculptor Josiane Vanhoutte has created this work. Elsie and Mairi and their dog, Shot, were unveiled in the garden of The Ariane Hotel, Slachthuisstraat 58, Ieper, Belgium, on Saturday 22nd November at 3pm.
This memorial reminds us of the work done by all women during the First World War, and is a tribute to the humanitarian aid workers who risk their lives to help others in contemporary war zones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.