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High time to honour Elsie Knocker, a true heroine for the South West

Posted on December 17, 2015 at 10:50 AM

A little while ago I wrote about the scarcity of statues in and around Exeter and proposed that new ones and replacements were in order. Some readers chastised me for my all male list of possible candidates. And I have to confess; I was indeed unable to think of a single Exeter woman worthy of a pedestal. But following a recent visit to Flanders fields, I stumbled on the story of Elsie Knocker, a largely forgotten heroine of the First World War. Born Elizabeth Shapter in Exeter in 1884, she was orphaned as an infant and raised by adoptive parents. Although well provided for by her inheritance, the relationship with her new family was not a warm one. She was tormented by her school friends and adopted siblings for being ‘a charity child’. She trained as a midwife and in 1906 a marriage was arranged with Leslie Knocker. One year later she gave birth to her only child, Kenneth. But the loveless marriage to her violent husband disintegrated shortly afterwards. Divorce was rare in the Edwardian era and for women a shameful act, so Elsie maintained that her husband had died in the Far East, leaving her a widow.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, she and her close friend Mairi Chisholm (who shared her obsession with motorcycling) volunteered for service. After a spell in London as dispatch riders, Dr Hector Munro took them on as ambulance drivers in Belgium and in September 1914 they set sail for Flanders. Elsie soon became frustrated in her role, realising that the majority of the injured that she picked up at the front, even those with fairly minor injuries, died in transit to the medical station. The pair decided to establish a field hospital as close as possible to the trenches to offer immediate treatment for the casualties. She said; “It takes a woman to know these things. Men are so blind, and often insensitive to suffering”. Her request for support was rejected by her superiors (“too dangerous for ladies”;) so she and Mairi left the Flying Ambulance Corps to set up a dressing station in the cellar of a ruined house in Pervyse, close to Ypres and only a few paces from the allied trenches. Elsie spoke fluent German and French and was able to communicate with the German troops. An agreement was made that if she appeared in no-man’s land to tend to casualties wearing a headscarf they would not shoot at her, but if she wore a tin hat they probably would, being unable to distinguish her from enemy soldiers. Elsie patched up the wounded (including civilians and German soldiers) while Mairi transported them to the base hospital 15 miles away. Starved of funding, they raised their own money to finance the enterprise, reinforcing the bunker with concrete and even persuading Harrods to donate a steel door.

Elsie thrived in the war environment “I was happier than ever before in my life, happy, perhaps, for the first time in my life”. They became known as ‘The Madonnas of Pervyse’ and enjoyed celebrity status on the front and back home. They were decorated by Royalty, visited by military top brass and VIP’s including Marie Curie who had set up a mobile X-ray unit nearby. Even the future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald visited them. Inevitably, after five months of enthusiastic approbation the military authorities were forced to recognise their work. They were without doubt the most photographed women of the war, which ended prematurely for Elsie after she was gassed in March 1918 and evacuated home to recover.

In 1916 Elsie met and married a Belgian airman and became Baroness de T'Serclaes, but the marriage fell apart after the war when it was discovered that she had lied about her widowhood to cover up the ignominy of being a divorcee. Mairi never spoke to her again.

Although Elsie served with distinction during and after the Second World War, it is clear that she never again experienced the fulfilment of her work in the cellar-house in Pervyse. She died in 1978 at the age of 93.

Bullied as a child, battered as a wife, shunned by the church and her closest friend and now, largely forgotten in death. Although a statue of Elsie and Mairi was unveiled in Ypres last year, I am not aware of a single memorial to Elsie in this country. Surely it is time to put that to right? In 1916 Elsie spoke to a packed Barnfield Hall (now the Barnfield Theatre) in Exeter during a period of respite from the war, raising £184 4s (equivalent to over £14,000 in today’s money). If we could match that sum today (why not become a friend of Elsie Knocker Memorial on Facebook), we could commemorate the centenary of that event next year with an appropriate monument.

In the present day where the title of ‘hero’ is devalued by overuse, there is no doubt in my mind that Elsie was a true Exeter hero and as such deserves our recognition. Her pioneering approach to the battlefield treatment of war casualties is now firmly established as good medical practice. There seems little doubt that her work saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. She was a woman ahead of her time, outstandingly courageous and confident in speaking truth to power. There is definitely a place for her on my vacant plinth.

Western Morning News 17th December 2015

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