Stand Strong Girls

Archive for the tag “WWI”

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.



Adventurous Women: Gertrude Bell

It’s been a while since I’ve done an Adventurous Women post so today we have a highly versatile woman called Gertrude Bell. Bell was a writer, traveller, archaeologist, political officer and spy.

Bell was born on 14 July 1868 in England, into a wealthy family. She was energetic and intelligent, and was curious about the world. Bell attended Queen’s College and later Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. She studied history and received a first class honours degree in two years.

Her first trip to Asia was in May 1892, with her uncle who worked for the British government. For the next decade, she travelled a great deal in the east and also mountaineered in Switzerland. She began to develop an interest in languages and archaeology. She wrote several books about her travels, including Syria: The Desert and the Sown. In March 1907 she worked with Sir William M. Ramsey, an archaeologist and scholar, on an excavation in Syria. In later years, she mapped and described various ruins.

When WWI broke out, Bell requested a Middle Eastern posting, but was refused. Instead, she volunteered with the Red Cross. Later, she worked for British Intelligence, directing soldiers across the deserts. Because of her unusual contacts, Gertrude Bell was of great use to the British government.

After the war, Bell was given different diplomatic roles and was involved in negotiations with Arab tribes. She became the only female political officer in the British forces and was invaluable for travelling and political manoeuvring. She helped several tribal leaders in the area, as well as King Faisal of Iraq and was known by the Persians as al-Khatun (the Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State). I think it sounds better in Persian!

Gertrude Bell died on 12 July 1926, of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. It is not known whether it was deliberate suicide, or an accident. She was buried in Baghdad. One wing of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, which she helped to set up, was named after her.

Gertrude Bell was a pioneer, an adventurer and a very intelligent woman who broke down boundaries to pursue her interests, while adding not inconsiderably to humankind’s stock of knowledge. She was a true Adventurous Woman.

If you know of any women you think should be featured on the blog, drop me a line in the comment box below…

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