Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, February 26, 2016

Elsie and Marie: The Angels of Pervyse

Many of those [women] who initially rushed to sign up [for war work] had never been farther than the boundary of their village, or town, and had known few people outside their neighbors and, later, those they worked with. Going to war was to be the big adventure, which brings me to two women who immediately saw the opportunity to blend adventure with service: Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, who, arguably, became the most famous women of the Great War, as news of their courage reached Britain and, indeed, the rest of the world. They became known as the "Angels of Pervyse" after the village north of Ypres where they cared for the wounded for almost four years. 

"Elsie wanted to get away from the dreary post-Victorian life she was leading," says Flemish historian Patrick Vanleene, "and young Mairi thought Elsie could lead her to an adventurous life". In a letter to her aunt shortly after arriving in Belgium, Mairi wrote: "Fancy […] lolling about doing nothing when there is such a tremendous lot to do here. It's too rotten to think of."

An early turning point came when the women realized how many soldiers were dying because they were not treated soon enough, as the front lines were far from the base hospitals. Elsie and Mairi decided to do something about it. They left Munro's team, broke out on their own, and moved to the heart of the battle zone in Pervyse.  Here the two women set up their first aid post in autumn 1914. Their run-down cellar house, Le Poste de Secours Anglais, as it became known, was just meters away from the Belgian front line. At first, they had help from former colleagues, but by the beginning of 1915, it was just Mairi and Elsie, risking their own lives to help save those of the Belgian soldiers.

As well as their medical work, Mairi and Elsie were a constant presence on the front line, often handing out hot cocoa and soup to the grateful Belgian soldiers. They were regularly mentioned in soldiers' diaries, poems, and songs and were given presents too. Before long, the women were known as the Madonnas or Angels of Pervyse.

As their reputation soared, so too did the publicity that surrounded the Angels of Pervyse. "People really wanted to meet them and to see the conditions they were living in, and in many ways just to be able to say they'd met them," says their biographer Diane Atkins.

Elsie and Mairi became celebrities of their day—British visitors to the Flanders Front would go to meet them; they were lauded in the press and treated like stars on their visits back to British soil. Their work continued throughout the war years, but in 1918 both were seriously injured in a gas attack and returned to the UK for treatment. The momentum behind their work was lost and neither was in Pervyse when the Armistice came.

From Jackie Winspear's blog, Tony Langley, and the BBC


  1. I would never have known about these two truly admirable women had it not been for this blog. Thank you so much! DBeer

  2. Never heard of them.
    Do we know what happened to them after 1918?
    Wonderful human beings.

  3. If you would like to know more about Mairi and Elsie, Diane Atkinson has written a marvelous book entitled "Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front" published in 2009 by Preface Publishing.

  4. Wikipedia tells me Elsie died in 1978 at age 93, Marie in 1981 at 85. Lives worth reading about. Marie returned to Scotland after the war, took up auto racing (!) and when older led a quieter life raising poultry. Elsie was an avid motorcyclist, along with Marie, as a young woman. She was trained as a nurse and was also a skilled mechanic and chauffeur, and spoke both French and German. In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, she joined up again and became a senior officer in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) working with RAF Fighter Command[13] and was twice Mentioned in Despatches. Her second husband was a Baron but that marriage ended when he learned she had been divorced. Her son Wing Commander Kenneth Duke Knocker died in 1942 when his plane was shot down over Groningen.