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Experiences of the Great War

Miss Mairi Chisholm of Chisholm

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914 there sprang up many voluntary women's organisations to help sick and wounded Allied servicemen.

Among those keen to join in this work was an eighteen-year-old girl from a Scottish family, Mairi Gooden Chisholm. So keen was she to find war work that she travelled to London on her own motor cycle.

Once in London, she became a dispatch rider for the Women's Emergency Corps, which was staffed largely by suffragette-type women who had put themselves at the Government's disposal.

Flying Ambulance Corps

Mairi's proficiency in negotiating the London traffic on her racing motor bike attracted the attention of a certain Dr Hector Munro, who was founding a Flying Ambulance Corps to be sent to Belgium. She gladly accepted his invitation to join his team and travel to Belgium.

There were three other women apart from herself: Elizabeth ('Elsie') Knocker, Helen Gleason (an American), and Lady Dorothy Fielding. There were four male doctors and two male drivers in the group.

Front-line medical post in Belgium

Not long after their arrival in Belgium, Elsie Knocker realised that many soldiers were dying while being transported back from the Front to where they could receive medical attention.

This led to Elsie and Mairi Chisholm setting up their own medical post right on the front line, at a village called Pervyse, and eventually severing their links with the Flying Ambulance Corps.

Transporting and treating the wounded

At Pervyse, right until almost the end of the war, these two women would treat wounded soldiers on the spot, sometimes carrying the wounded in from No Man's Land over their shoulders. They also ferried the wounded away from the Front in ambulances, often on pitch-dark nights.

Mairi had no nursing training, but learned the necessary procedures by copying her companion.

The extraordinary thing was that Mairi and Elsie were acting completely as free agents, and were not even affiliated to the Red Cross. They had to support their activities by raising their own funds.

Gassed in 1918

Both Mairi and Elsie — now the Baroness de T'Serclaes following her marriage to a Belgian officer — were gassed during the major German offensive of March 1918. Elsie had to be sent back to Britain, but Mairi returned alone to Pervyse for a few weeks before eventually having to abandon the post just months before the end of the war.

A quieter life

After the war, Mairi briefly joined the Air Force and, among other things, raced cars at Brooklands. But her health remained fragile, and she was advised to lead a quieter life in the country.

Mairi Chisholm died in Nairn in 1981, aged 85.

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