Diane Atkinson's 'Elsie & Mairi Go to War,' about two women on the Western front

(Courtesy Of Pegasus Books - Courtesy Of Pegasus Books)
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By Carolyn See
Friday, June 11, 2010


Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front

by Diane Atkinson

Pegasus. 280 pp. $26

"It's a wonderful feeling knowing that one is leaving England, the Island of Peace, and going straight into the most awful horror. . . . I wonder what my fate will be in these next few months," wrote Mairi Chisholm, an 18-year-old upper-class Scottish motorcyclist as she rushed to cross the English Channel in late September 1914, with a hastily organized, privately managed ambulance corps. She was one of just a few members, headed up by an idealistic nudist. Like almost everyone else in England at that time, Mairi was champing at the bit, desperately eager to do her part for her country, but also totally clueless about what these years of war might bring, or even what "war" was, exactly.

At the same time, another woman, Elsie Knocker, was also packing to go along on the expedition. "It seems funny to think," she writes, that at "this time tomorrow night I shall be in Belgium -- in the midst of all the terrors of war."

So, it was a "wonderful" and "funny" thing to think about. In truth, it seems to have been such a long time since England had been involved in a full-on war that it appeared to many just a larky adventure. Then followed four years of horror and a staggering death rate, until the Armistice, when both sides retreated to their corners and began to prepare for World War II.

At first, the Great War resembled a pageant of improvisation. Besides the actual armed services, many individuals barged in, craving novelty, anything new. Mairi was -- or seemed to be -- merely a scatterbrain who dearly loved to ride in off-road races. Elsie was a divorcee who had married a dubious guy and lived in Singapore for a while, abused by her then-husband and finally locked out of the house. Now, as a single mother with a son to raise, Elsie found herself at loose ends. It was a time when 30 really was 30. Depending on how you looked at it, she was already an old maid or a divorcee (socially unacceptable) or a widow. She edited her life story and decided on the third option.

This turns out to be an interesting book, partly because it deals with logistics we usually don't think about. When that self-appointed ambulance corps landed, they checked into a good hotel and ordered up dinner. When Mairi's dad came out to visit the front (and also to bring his errant daughter back to the safety of England), he "caught a boat to Ostend, hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him to the front." Then, after a day or two, he "checked out of the Flandria Hotel and went back to England. As he was leaving he told Mairi, 'If it weren't for your mother I'd stay out here with you; you're having the most wonderful time, I wouldn't take you back for anything.' "

Indeed, none of this seems to square with the way we've been brought up to think of war. The Belgian setting -- dotted with Flanders Field and Ypres and Dunkirk, places that now carry such horrific connotations -- seemed to these ladies, at least, something of a playground. When Mairi and Elsie went out on a cold morning, bringing hot chocolate and vegetable soup to Belgian soldiers in the trenches, "sometimes German sentries called out, asking Elsie and Mairi who they were and what they were doing. Cheekily, Elsie would reply, 'Do you want a cup of hot chocolate? There's one going spare.' . . . There we were, with the Belgian sentry, and the German sentry imbibing chocolate, right out in No Man's Land. I mean it was just too silly for words."

The women set up camp in a deserted basement. They drove around the countryside looking for wounded. Elsie had some training as a midwife, but neither of them was a nurse. They were girls on a lark. They seem to have spent most of their time "handing out such patent medicines as they had and mugs of soup and cheering hot chocolate, in the belief that if the troops were looked after properly 'one could save big illnesses.' . . . The cases they treated were mostly ailments such as cuts, coughs, constipation and burns." They wrote home, asking for "woollen underclothing, scarves, socks, mufflers, chocolate, tobacco." They asked for, and got, tents in which off-duty soldiers could "play cards, dominoes and draughts, read and smoke."

In other words, they were like a mini-mini USO. Officers were forever dropping in for tea. The girls put together lovely suppers with flowers, chocolate and champagne. They returned home on frequent fundraising jaunts. Official photographers came out to the front and took pictures of them lounging against ruins. The divorced Elsie snagged a baron for a husband who turned out to be a pretty tricky character, but then so was she. Soon Elsie and Mairi were celebrities, collecting medals from the Belgian and English governments. The only real conflicts came when two other ladies in their tiny group got decorated or had a morale-rising book written about them.

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