History of the only two women permitted on the military front during World War I.
Women’s-labor historian Atkinson (Love and Dirt: The Marriage of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, 2004, etc.) tells the impressive life stories of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Gooden-Chisholm. Elsie was a 30-year-old divorcee in 1914 when she left her seven-year-old son with her parents and convinced her motorcycling companion Mairi to join the war effort. Mairi was an 18-year-old tomboy from a good Scottish family that moved in royal circles. Her mother was horrified when Mairi followed Elsie to the Women’s Emergency Corps headquarters in London, where they were recruited by the liberal Dr. Hector Munro for his Flying Ambulance Corps. What began as a post shuttling wounded Belgian soldiers from the battlefield soon became a legacy of work for which they received numerous medals and international fame. The mercurial Elsie liked to be in charge, so she and Mairi, whose more even-keel temperament was a necessary complement, set up their own first-aid post at Pervyse, in northern Belgium. In addition to providing food and friendship, they treated wounded Belgian soldiers on or near the battlefield before carting them to hospitals miles away. This approach, now standard in EMT practice, combined with their perseverance and fundraising savvy, allowed them to become wartime media darlings, the “Angels of Pervyse.” Visits from King Albert and Marie Curie and Elsie’s second marriage to a Belgian Baron added to the element of glamour that marked their lives in Pervyse. Still, they endured the less-exciting experiences of treating venereal boils, bandaging mangled faces and making due without plentiful supplies of food and water. Their foreign service ended in 1918, when the Germans gassed their post twice, to devastating effect, and both women returned to Britain.
Not a page-turner, but Atkinson’s balanced account justly gives its heroines their due and captures the jolly spirit with which they carried out their work.