Adventurous Women: Madonnas of Pervyse
Elsie Knocker (1884-1978) and Mairi Chisholm (1896-1981) are well known names from World War I. Nicknamed the Madonnas of Pervyse, these two women worked on the front lines in France, nursing soldiers. They believed that the hospitals where women were allowed to work, which were set back from the front lines, were far less effective than a nursing post closer to the action would be. They decided to establish their own first-aid post in a cellar in Pervyse, which was very close to the trenches. The women worked from this position as ambulance drivers and nurses. A gas attack in 1918 forced them to return Britain for the remainder of the war.
The friendship between Mairi and Elsie had begun years before the war when a mutual love of motorbikes brought the 18-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elsie together. The two became close friends and remained so until after the war. At this point their friendship dissolved because Mairi learnt that Elsie had been divorced from her first husband. Elsie had been married to Leslie Duke Knocker before she met Mairi, after the marriage ended in a divorce, she went to train as a midwife. To avoid being frowned upon, she said that her husband, with whom she had had one son, had died in Java.
The secret only came out after Elsie had married for the second time, to a pilot in the Belgian Air Corps. However, in 1919 he discovered her previous marriage and they separated. As a result of the way that Mairi felt about being deceived, their friendship broke up.
The two women barely spoke again. Elsie’s son had died during the war and afterwards she developed an interest in animal welfare, although she briefly served in the WAAF during WWII. Mairi competed in car races and later became a poultry breeder.
My main interest in these two women in the break-up of their friendship because of Elsie’s divorce. I assume that Mairi was not upset by the divorce itself so much as by Elsie’s cover-up story. However, all women at the time would have known how socially unacceptable divorce was. I think it very strange that Mairi didn’t remain Elsie’s friend out of sympathy for what she had been through, if for no other reason. Perhaps Mairi found the need for deception difficult to understand because she had seen the emancipation of women in WWI at a younger age than her companion and didn’t see the need for secrecy. On the other hand, maybe Elsie should have trusted her long-time friend more and told her about the divorce.
It seems very sad to me that this famously gritty partnership broke up this way. But it’s easy to be wise in hindsight and now that divorce is more common and widely accepted, it’s almost impossible to comprehend Elsie’s predicament or Mairi’s response almost a century ago.