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The ‘Angels of Pervyse’

27 October 2015 by Sam

poppies in a field in Flanders

© Lee Karen Stow

Photographer Lee Karen Stow shares the story of two brave women who she researched as part of her preparations for the exhibition Poppies: Women and War. You can see more of her photos and read about other women’s stories in the exhibition.

“This image of poppies growing in Flanders, marks the spot where Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, the only women known to nurse on the Western Front in the First World War, saved countless lives. These heroic women, their stories largely forgotten, became two of the most famous women of the war. 

Elsie was a British nurse, Mairi was a nurse from Scotland. The women began their war effort by driving ambulances of wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals. But they soon became frustrated by the number of men dying of shock in the back of their ambulances. So, raising their own funds, they set up their own Poste de Secours (British First Aid Post) – a dressing station – in a vacant cellar in the village Pervyse, north of Ypres in Belgium, a few yards from the trenches.

Dodging sniper attacks and shelling, the women spent almost four years on the front line retrieving the wounded, both Allied and German soldiers, from No Man’s Land. First they sent a signal to the Germans, a note carried by their dog, requesting them to hold their fire. Elsie and Mairi reached the injured soldiers and carried them on their backs to the dressing station.

In 2013 on a visit to Flanders I tried to find a trace of this dressing station. I had read that Harrods store had donated a door for use at the entrance to the cellar and was intrigued. I went round the village knocking on doors until I found a local historian. He knew all about the women and led me to the house that stands on the site of the cellar. Alas, no-one was home that day and so I couldn’t get to see if the cellar – and the famous door – was still there. So in tribute to the women I made this photograph of poppies growing on what was the front line.

Sign for Pervyse village

© Lee Karen Stow

Elsie and Mairi became the most photographed women of the war which did wonders for their fundraising. In 1915 they were decorated by King Albert I of Belgium with the Order of Leopold I Kings Cross, and also received the British Military Medal. In 1918, after almost four years on the front line, they were gassed by the Germans and had to return home.

Do look up the full story of Elsie and Mairi. It is extraordinary and I can’t fathom why it hasn’t been made for our cinema screens. You can read more about them and see photos of the British ‘angels’ who braved the First World War trenches on the BBC News website.”

Lee Karen Stow will be back at the Museum of Liverpool to give a free photography workshop and tour of the exhibition on Saturday 14 November, see the Poppies: Women and War events page for further details.

  1. Ann O'Raghailligh says:

    Absolutely fascinating story!
    I must try and get there on 14th!

    • Sam says:

      It’s an incredible story of bravery isn’t it? I hope you can make it on 14 November, Lee will be sharing more of these hidden stories that she has uncovered as part of her research for the exhibition.

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