Elsie & Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front
by Diane Atkinson
I can’t think of many occasions where I’ve actually read a book cover to cover on a Transatlantic flight, but this was one. In that sense, Elsie and Mairi was a good book as it kept my interest and was neither boring so that I lost interest nor was it so gripping that occasionally putting it down to doze posed a problem with comprehension. However, despite the interesting subject I have to say it was a fairly middling book on 20th century history.
Elsie Shapter has the more interesting background of the two. As an orphan from the turn of the century, she was separated from her siblings and never, it seems, really fit in with her adoptive family. Eventually, she met Leslie Knocker, a dastardly fellow who gave her grief throughout their marriage. The only benefit she seems to have derived from him was getting an education in the school of hard knocks, as traveling to the Far East to join him probably made her the worldly wise woman who would prove courageous in the First World War. This also seems to have given her the impetus to become extremely independent, to the point of leaving her son with her adoptive parents, so she could become an expert motorcyclist. She was so expert and so daring, in fact, that she was the top woman cyclist mentioned in The Motor Cycle and Motor Cycling. This period in her life, potentially, is the one which shows her at her daring best. The social stigma, of course, was such that she pretended to be a widow rather than an estranged wife.
Mairi Gooden-Chisholm came from a Dorset family of Scottish extraction who had estates in Trinidad. She was considerably younger than Elsie when they met. Mairi was what you might call “gender non-conforming”; she preferred borrowing her brother Uillean’s overalls to work on motor cycle engines to women’s drawing room pursuits. In September 1914, the two women joined Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps and, with an assortment of others, began their nursing work in Belgium. I was surprised to find some of the inter-group backbiting and personality clashes very similar to the diaries Mrs Dubberly kept during the Crimean War. Throughout their time at the Front, Mairi and (especially) Elsie were annoyed by others taking credit for their hard work.
Early on, the starstruck 18-year-old Mairi was surprised at the quick romances Elsie was striking up with Belgian soldiers; Mairi may have benefited even more than Elsie at the freedom afforded her in such unusual conditions as were encountered in Belgium. The mission to help wounded Belgians also extended to providing help for wounded Germans whenever possible, though the two women were not above cutting souvenirs from dead men’s uniforms when it suited them.
The pair’s crowning glory was the soup kitchen they set up in Pervyse in a ramshackle building until they were forced to abandon it. They made huge cauldrons of hot chocolate and soup and distributed them as well as nursing the soldiers under their care. They foraged for food and niceties and slept in their clothes. For their efforts, they were awarded in January 1915 the Order of Leopold by the Belgian monarch. Unlike many of their erstwhile fellow members of the Flying Ambulance Corps, Elsie and Mairi really thrived in a dangerous and rundown setting. Civilian life after the war was difficult for them to adjust to, more so for Elsie than Mairi. Elsie managed to bag a Belgian aristocrat, Robert de Wilde, during the War, but eventually he found out that she was still married to her first husband and not a widow. In the long run this break up was for the best considering De Wilde was later an instrument of the Nazis. Bizarrely, Roderick Gooden-Chisholm, Mairi’s father, got a taste for their exciting lives in Belgium and actually became attached to their nursing efforts, for a time.
Sadly, what could have turned into an enduring friendship seems to have been curtailed by purely class concerns. By this I mean that, it seems, upper middle class Mairi found out about Elsie’s previous marriage sometime after De Wilde did. Her sensibilities, it seems, would not permit her to step into her less fortunate friend’s shoes, and it appears the friendship ended acrimoniously. It’s not in dispute that the older Elsie was a difficult friend to keep at the best of times. Yet it seems really tragic that Mairi should have let such a thing come between a friendship that had changed her life so completely.
The best part of this book is surely the photographs, which breathe a great deal of life into Elsie’s and Mairi’s diary entries and give us a good idea of the combination of determination, hard work, and nonchalance that helped these women achieve what they did.