Mairi Lambert Gooden-Chisholm of Chisholm
(26 February 1896 – 22 August 1981)
Mairi Chisholm will feature in the March of Women on 7th March 2015, a procession of women from Glasgow and beyond spilling out of Glasgow Women’s Library onto the streets of Bridgeton to celebrate the achievements of women past and present.
Mairi Chisholm was a Scottish nurse and ambulance driver in the First World War. She, together with her friend Elsie Knocker, won numerous medals for bravery and for saving the lives of thousands of soldiers on the Western Front in Belgium. Dubbed "The Madonnas of Pervyse" by the press the two became the most photographed women of the war, achieving recognition not only as women but for working on the front lines against official British regulations.
Chisholm was born on 26 February 1896 in Nairn, Scotland to Captain Roderick Gooden-Chisholm and Margaret Fraser. Her family was independently wealthy and even owned a plantation in Trinidad. When Chisholm was a child, the family moved from Scotland to Dorset. As a teen, she witnessed her older brother, Uailean, who owned a Royal Enfield 425cc, competing at rallies and at the Bournemouth speed trials. Around this time, and against his wife's wishes, her father bought her a Douglas motorbike. Chisholm spent hours in the family stables stripping down the bikes and repairing them. She was just 18-years-old when, while roaring round the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, she met thirty-year-old Elsie Knocker, a divorcee and mother of a young son. They became fast friends and soon began competing in motorcycle and sidecar trials together.
When war was declared in 1914, Knocker wrote to Chisholm that there was "work to be done", and suggested they go to London to become dispatch riders for the Women's Emergency Corps. Chisholm rode her motorbike all the way from Dorset to the capital. It was while acting as a courier in this way that she was spotted making hairpin corners in the city by a Dr. Hector Munro. Munro was setting up a Flying Ambulance Corps to help the Belgians who had been caught unawares by the German invasion and invited her to join his team, as she describes in a June 1976 interview:
“[Munro] was deeply impressed with my ability to ride through the traffic. He traced me to the Women's Emergency Corps and... said, 'Would you like to go out to Flanders' and I said 'Yes, I'd love to'."
Both she and Knocker ended up in Belgium as part of the corps which included Dorothie Feilding and May Sinclair. Initially quartered at Ghent, the unit relocated to Furnes at the end of October where the women worked tirelessly picking up wounded soldiers mid-way from the front and transporting them back to their field hospital at the rear. After the beds ran out, the wounded were laid on the floor or propped up against the wall. As the dead piled up, the two nurses were told to remove them to the mortuary. Chisholm wrote in her diary:
“No one can understand...unless one has seen the rows of dead men laid out. One sees men with their jaws blown off, arms and legs mutilated.”
Chisholm and Knocker soon came to the conclusion that they could save more lives by treating the wounded directly on the front lines. In November, they decided to leave the corps and set up their own dressing station five miles east in a town named Pervyse, north of Ypres, just one hundred yards from the trenches. Here, in a vacant cellar which they named "Poste de Secours Anglais" ("British First Aid Post"), the two would spend the next three and a half years tending to the wounded. No longer affiliated with the Belgian Red Cross, they began acting completely as free agents and had to support their work by raising their own funds. Through sheer perseverance Knocker was able to arrange for the two of them to be officially seconded to the Belgian garrison stationed there. In January 1915, they were both decorated by King Albert I of Belgium with the Order of Léopold II, Knights Cross (with palm)for their courageous work on the front lines. They were also given the British Military Medal and both made Officers, Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. Chisholm was also decorated with the Order of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium and the 1914 Star. The two became instant celebrities earning the distinction of being the most photographed women of the war.
In 1916, Chisholm became engaged to a Royal Naval Air pilot named Jack Petrie, who died a year later during flying practice. In 1918, both women were badly affected by a massive bombing raid and gas attack on their makeshift field hospital. Chisholm recovered enough to return to the front, before being forced to abandon her post just months before the end of the war. She returned to Britain, where both she and Knocker saw out the rest of the war as members of the newly formed Women's Royal Air Force. Chisholm became engaged for the second time in August 1918 to Royal Flying Corps Second Lieutenant William Thomas James Hall whom she had met while training in the WRAF, but the engagement was subsequently called off.
Following the end of the war, the two nurses continued to be mobbed by the public and the press. Eventually they went their separate ways when Chisholm learned the truth about Knocker's divorce to her first husband. The two barely spoke again. The war had taken its toll on Chisholm's health. She had been poisoned, contracted septicaemia, and had a weak heart. She did, however, continue to live her life at a fast pace. After her brief stint in the WRAF, she took up auto racing. On one occasion, she was scheduled to take part in a race at Brooklands but had to withdraw because of a fainting episode the evening before.
Partly on doctors' advice, Chisholm returned to Nairn, where, it was hoped, she would lead a quieter life. There she became a successful poultry breeder with her childhood friend, May Davidson on the Davidson's family estate. In the 1930s they relocated their business to Jersey. In her later years she spent much time corresponding with The Clan Chisholm Society. Mairi Chilsholm died on 22 August 1981 of lung cancer aged 85 in the home she had shared with Davidson for almost 60 years.
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