The Baroness de T'Serclaes (Elsie Knocker)

Part 2 - Elsie At War

Elsie Knocker (left) and Mairi Chisholm (right).
Elsie Knocker (left) and Mairi Chisholm (right).
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Pre-embarkation

At the start of World War I Elsie was called up to London for nursing service and swiftly accepted by an ambulance corps that was imminently going to Belgium. This corps, founded and led by Dr Hector Munro, had been rejected by the more mainstream medical organisations, but the Belgian Red Cross supported it. Alongside her were 18 year old Mairi Chisholm, Lady Dorothie ('Dot') Feilding5, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh, Helen Gleason, wife of an American diplomat, and novelist May Sinclair (who returned home after three weeks, unable to cope).

ChisholmFielding
GleasonSinclair
(1)Chisholm, (2) Feilding, (3) Gleason and (4) Sinclair.
Image sources: (1), (2) and (4) Wikimedia Commons ;(3) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25836/25836-h/images/hilda.jpg

Elsie already knew Mairi, as they were fellow motorcycle enthusiasts and had been despatch riders together in the Women's Emergency Corps.

Arrival in Belgium

This story is not about World War I as such, but some background information is necessary, to provide a context for the work that was done by Elsie Knocker and all the others involved in helping the casualties.

Germany had invaded neutral Belgium on 4 August 1914, the purpose being to avoid the fortifications along the Franco-German border and attack France by a relatively more practical route. The major Belgian cities fell swiftly and terrible atrocities were perpetrated on the civilian population. By the time Elsie arrived at Ostend, Ghent and Antwerp were still in Belgian hands, but that situation was to change within days.

As she said, Belgium was a 'baptism of fire'. Whilst there was at first little sign of war in Ghent, her initial foray out of the city with an ambulance to collect wounded soldiers told a story of shelling, advancing desolation and columns of refugees. There followed a short period of frustration and relative inactivity for Elsie, but early October quickly brought home the realities of unremitting rain, constant shelling, fields of mud and stretchering the wounded from the front line under rifle fire. Ghent was soon abandoned to the invaders.

Today we are sadly familiar with atrocities being visited upon civilian populations, but in 1914 the behaviour of a supposedly civilised country in relation to a neutral neighbour was truly shocking. Belgian civilians were massacred indiscriminately and Elsie saw with her own eyes children with their hands and feet cut off and, on one occasion, a baby nailed to a door. She was deeply affected and resolved to seek out danger and acquit herself well in it. There followed a frenetic period of rescuing the wounded from the front line.

The timeframe of what was happening is astonishing. In normal life a period of two to three months is relatively short and uneventful, but in the few weeks between August and October 1914 almost all of Belgium fell to the Germans, with terrible loss of life and destruction.

Antwerp was formally surrendered to Germany on 10 October and Ostend became a frenzied scene of evacuation, with people being ferried out of Belgium on any vessel that would float. At that moment it seemed as if Belgium's war was already over and Elsie's contingent was sent to rest at Malo-les-Bains6 in France.

The next major development was the establishment of an allied line along the River Yser, which runs from Northern France, through Dixmude in Belgium and out into the North Sea at Nieuport, between Dunkirk and Ostend.

Map showing the course of the
Map showing the course of the "Race to the Sea" during 1914 following the Battle of the Aisne. Allied front line and movement is shown in red, German front line and movement shown in blue. Three of the battles that occurred during or after the "race" are shown boxed.
Click image to enlarge
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Elsie's party was posted to Furnes, near Dixmude, which by now was virtually deserted, most of the civilians having fled. She had to drive whichever ambulance she was given and became used to the heavy shelling, corpses and wreckage in the area. The reality of Dixmude is encapsulated in her book7, where she spoke of fragmented bodies blown into trees, amputated limbs being swept outside, the stench of rotting, gangrenous flesh and piling the bodies in fields on a 'burial-dump'.

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm in their Wolseley Ambulance, Pervyse, Belgium 1916
Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm in their Wolseley Ambulance, Pervyse, Belgium 1916
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Elsie was becoming increasingly frustrated by the fractured organisation of the medical services (understandable chaos, given the cataclysmic events which were taking place so rapidly) and it was her opinion that more of the wounded would survive if they were allowed to rest before being transported over the rutted roads to the inadequate hospital. Even those who were quite lightly wounded were dying of shock before getting treatment. She wanted to set up a first-aid station near to the front line, where the men could be stabilised before being transported for treatment. Her boss, Dr Munro, did not approve and she spent a long time trying unsuccessfully to persuade senior officials of the benefits of her idea. But she persevered and, by chance, met a Belgian Army doctor who suggested a place called Pervyse, a village outside Dixmude, which had been wrecked and flooded but was now fortified and in the hands of the Belgian Army. And so, she and the young Mairi Chisholm set about turning a house at Pervyse into a first-aid station.

The Cellar House at Pervyse

The house at Pervyse, front (top) and back (bottom).
The house at Pervyse, front (top) and back (bottom).
Image source: http://www.archive.org/details/cellarhouseofper00mittuoft

The house was a hovel - unstable, virtually uninhabitable and, more to the point, close to the German shells which screamed across the river: it was mere yards from the Belgian trenches. For safety's sake (in terms of both the unstable structure and the enemy fire), it was decided that the sleeping, cooking and nursing would need to take place in the cellar - a room measuring about ten feet by twelve. Elsie said that she could not wait to move in.

Helped by a pair of Belgian soldiers, Alphonse and Désiré, who had been sleeping in the cellar, Elsie and Mairi did what they could to make it habitable and serviceable for treatment of the wounded. The winter of 1914 was bitterly cold - the women slept in their clothes, washing water was scarce, lice were rife and the lavatory was a shell-hole. Later, Alphonse and Désiré found a commode, which they screened with sheets for privacy. Food consisted mainly of vegetables from the abandoned village gardens and meat from horses killed in the line of duty. Cats and dogs were also probably eaten, but Elsie did not want to think about that.

The casualties whom the girls treated were not just victims of enemy fire: it was such an awful winter that the inadequately clothed soldiers suffered frostbite, pneumonia and bronchitis. At one point the renowned double Nobel Prize winner, Marie Curie, who was running an X-ray unit in Furnes, visited the Cellar House to discuss treatments.

Marie Curie in a mobile X-ray unit during World War 1.
Marie Curie in a mobile X-ray unit during World War 1.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned earlier, Elsie's activities at Pervyse had not been sanctioned and it was imperative to have authority to stay there, not only because she ran the substantial risk of being closed down but also to be able to obtain supplies from official sources. Up until then most of their food had been acquired from scavenging and gifts from visitors. The eminent physician, Sir Bertrand Dawson8, visited the house several times and eventually obtained the necessary permission for the girls to remain: this enabled them to get supplies from the British Red Cross.

As if she did not have enough to do, Elsie also became a plane spotter for the Royal Flying Corps, logging the arrivals and departures of the British aircraft. This too was a harrowing duty, since many of the planes never returned. Sometimes she saw one of Baron von Richthofen's red aircraft from his 'Flying Circus' in the clouds, preparing to pounce on an unsuspecting victim, and could do nothing about it.

In December 1914 Elsie made a brief trip to England to see her son and had only just returned to Pervyse when she was asked to escort six wounded soldiers for recuperation at the home of Dorothie Feilding's family near Rugby. This was not as easy as it might sound and, in fact, was so difficult and exhausting that she said Pervyse seemed a 'positive haven of sanity and even rest'. The men were so wounded that they were not ready for any kind of recuperation and needed to be hospitalised in England.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Elsie had arrived in Ostend at the end of September 1914 and, incredibly, at this point in the story it is still only January 1915. On 27 January she received an official visit from a Belgian General, who informed her and Mairi that King Albert I of the Belgians had created them Chevaliers of the Order of Leopold II.

King Albert deserves a mention, since he was an old-fashioned kind of monarch who led his army; indeed, he headed his troops in the final battle which liberated Belgium. His wife, Queen Elisabeth, who was from Bavaria, was a nurse at the front and their teenage son, Prince Leopold9, an ordinary private in the Army.

King Albert IQueen Elisabeth of the Belgians
King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Mairi and Elsie wearing their medals.
Mairi and Elsie wearing their medals.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Soon afterwards one of Elsie and Mairi's two houses at Pervyse (by then the cellar of the original house was flooded and unusable and they had taken over another building) suffered several direct hits and they went to the seaside area of La Panne10 to consider what to do next. It was a brief period of respite, which Elsie partly spent riding over the dunes. The Belgian Royal Family was based in La Panne and Elsie saw the Queen walking on the beach several times.

Elsie and horse on the dunes.
Elsie and horse on the dunes.
Image source: The Baroness de T'Serclaes, better known as Elsie Knocker

It was decided that the new first-aid/dressing station would be a prefabricated log cabin with an external motorised kitchen, all of which was the brainchild of a Mr Costa from Harrods who was carrying out hospital construction work at La Panne. A few days after the hut became operational it was peppered with shells and Mr Costa was summoned to move it further back from the lines: this was not satisfactory, since the wounded men were now having to travel a distance in ambulances, which was what the location of the original cellar house had been designed to avoid . In July 1915 Elsie visited Pervyse itself and realised how much the post was still needed there. A house was found, Mr Costa and some engineers made it stable and had it concreted and before long the girls were back in business, close to the trenches.

Marriage

Some months earlier Elsie had met the Baron Harold de T'Serclaes de Rattendael, who was a pilot in the Belgian Flying Corps: he appealed to her and she felt that it would be good for Kenneth to have a father.


Baron de T'Serclaes
Image source: The Baroness de T'Serclaes, better known as Elsie Knocker

Elsie and Harold were married at the Royal Chapel at La Panne in January 1916 and, after a brief honeymoon in England, she returned to Pervyse.

Elsie and Harold on their wedding day.
Elsie and Harold on their wedding day.
Image source: The Baroness de T'Serclaes, better known as Elsie Knocker

Accounts differ as to how the marriage went. Elsie barely mentions it, but Diane Atkinson reveals that they did see each other several times, when Harold's flying duties allowed. Whatever the reasons for the marriage's failure it was certainly over when Harold found out that she was a divorcée, which was critically important, since he was a Roman Catholic. Elsie had converted to Catholicism in preparation for her marriage but there is no evidence in her memoirs that she was a religious person. She and Harold went their separate ways and Diane Atkinson's researches show that he made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain an annulment. We will return to the Baron in Part 4 because his later activities were shocking and almost unbelievable and suggest that Elsie had a lucky escape.

Back at Pervyse

The work at Pervyse continued, punctuated by visits from various dignitaries, including King Albert, Queen Elisabeth and Prince Alexander of Teck, Earl of Athlone (Head of the British Military Mission and brother of the then Queen Mary, consort of King George V). Elsie and Mairi made many trips back to the UK to raise support and funds and meanwhile the line along the River Yser held.

Prince Alexander of Teck
Prince Alexander of Teck, Earl of Athlone, in 1910.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1917, just before the third Battle of Ypres, the British took over the Pervyse sector, which caused friction, since the women were in the way of the big British guns and the Commander did not want to kill them: therefore, he said, they had to leave. It was a stand-off at first, but the situation was eventually resolved - basically, Elsie dug her heels in, enlisted the support of her titled and influential friends, such as Prince Alexander, and carried on regardless.

The women were soon to earn themselves more 'gongs'. According to Elsie's account, she saw a British plane crash near the German trenches and told the Squadron that she was going out with her stretcher bearers to collect the pilot, who had crawled out of the wreckage. As they dealt with him, the German Command appeared, but she managed to talk her way out of the situation (she spoke German) and leave safely with the pilot. She implies that this was why she and Mairi received both the Military Medal and the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Other accounts say that the medals were not for this one act, but for their consistent bravery in rescuing the wounded. Elsie underplays the incident and says that she had been in many more difficult and dangerous situations on other occasions. Additionally, she was on reasonably good terms with the Germans, who would generally allow her to pick up the wounded on being pre-warned by Elsie's little terrier, Shot, who carried notes across.

It is worthy of note that, although Elsie's memoirs make little mention of Lady Dorothie Feilding's work in Belgium, Dorothie was in fact awarded the Military Medal for bravery before the others and was the first woman to receive this honour.

The Order of St John of Jerusalem.
The Order of St John of Jerusalem.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

An example of the Military Medal.
An example of the Military Medal.

In February 1918 the girls went to London for a gala matinee in their honour and then returned to Pervyse, but the end was very near. On 17 March there was a huge explosion and arsenic gas poured into their dug-out; one of their assistants and the terrier, Shot, died. Elsie and Mairi were overcome and taken to hospital in La Panne; they were both transferred to London. Mairi recovered more quickly than Elsie and returned to Pervyse, but three weeks later she was gassed again and that was the end of the first-aid post. Although both women were subsequently colleagues in the Women's Royal Air Force, their friendship ended soon after the war when Mairi found out about Elsie's divorce. This may be why Elsie says so little about Mairi in her memoirs - she would undoubtedly have been very hurt at her rejection by someone with whom she had worked so closely under such difficult conditions. The lie was perfectly understandable in the context of the times, but Mairi was strongly anti-divorce.

Elsie and Mairi outside their dressing station in Pervyse
Elsie and Mairi outside their dressing station in Pervyse, 1917.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Mairi suffered permanent after-effects from being gassed and had damaged her heart with the heavy lifting in Belgium, but she still lived until the age of 85, becoming a very successful and prize-winning poultry breeder. She died of lung cancer on 22 August 1981.

Linda Jackson © January 2012




BBC radio clip about Elsie.

Links to previous and next parts.

Footnotes

5. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothie_Feilding

6. This is the seaside area of Dunkirk from which British troops were evacuated in 1940.

7. Flanders And Other Fields' © Baroness de T'Serclaes 1964

8. Dawson, later Viscount Dawson of Penn, became a Royal Physician and was the man who administered a lethal injection to hasten the end of the dying King George V in 1936.

9. Later King Leopold III who surrendered Belgium to the Germans in May 1940 - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_III_of_Belgium

10. Between Nieuport and Dunkirk


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