A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
British women were expected to support their men when their country entered World War I in 1914. They could write encouraging letters, knit socks and hats, and prepare bandages. They were not expected to actually go to the battle front, but motorcycle club chums Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, who obviously had already proven themselves un-ladylike, immediately volunteered as ambulance drivers. After a couple months of mechanic’s training, they were in the thick of it, according to Diane Atkinson, author of Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front.
The two bold women turned heads right away by disobeying commands and driving right into the battles, pulling the injured right out of the rubble and outrunning enemy shells to get soldiers to the hospitals. Knocker was particularly bothered when their efforts were in vain and their patients died. She believed moving the injured too quickly decreased their chances, so she established aid stations just behind the trenches, where she and Chisholm stabilized patients before moving them. For months at a time, they stayed within range of mortars and poisonous gases, winning the admiration of common soldiers, British newspaper readers, and the Belgian Royal family.
In Elsie and Mairi Go to War, Atkinson does more chronicle the lives of brave women. She describes an almost forgot era, when gentleman bought military commissions, volunteers tended to soldier’s medical needs, and the rules of war were rapidly changing. Based on the women’s diaries and other sources, the text sometimes seems a bit detail heavy and filled with characters who appear once, but the dedicated history reader will find much to enjoy.
Review by Rick