Elsie and Mairi go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front

Christina Hardyment enjoys a book on women ambulance drivers of the First World War

Author: Diane Atkinson
Publisher: Random House
Reviewed by: Christina Hardyment
Price (RRP): £20

For sheer dash and gumption, it would be hard to beat the war careers of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Gooden-Chisholm.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, they were already keen motor cyclists, and met each other roaring around Hampshire and Dorset lanes competing in races and reliability trials. Having signed up as London despatch riders, they were invited to join the mobile ambulance corps which was being set up on the Belgian front line by Dr Hector Munro, a socialist vegetarian who supported both the suffragettes and nudism.

The story of their extraordinary perseverance and resource under fire close to the Belgian front line on the banks of the flooded Iser is both enthralling and, from history’s perspective, heartbreaking. Soon the only women to be allowed so close to the action, they became both ministering angels and inspirational mascots for the thousands of soldiers who passed through their care, and were treated with touching respect by the Germans themselves. The women drove ambulances out into no-man’s land and dragged wounded soldiers into them, saving countless lives. On leave, they toured Britain raising funds to pay for more ambulances and comforts for soldiers.

Diane Atkinson has used their own wartime diaries and photographs, the book that Elsie later wrote and an impressive range of other sources to map a vivid and accurate record of
their valour. She also explores the aftermath of their lives; somewhat tragic for the restless and flirtatious Elsie; friend-filled and fulfilling for the steadier Mairi. 

Christina Hardyment is a regular reviewer for BBC History Magazine

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