Thoughts of the First World War often conjure up images of men in the trenches, fighting over no man’s land, and men travelling in ambulances, cars, or motorbikes. However, men were not the only people who utilized motorbike transport during WWI. The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) also used motorbike messengers. Another daring and inspirational woman who rod a motorbike was Mairi Chisholm (1896-1981), a nurse and worker at a first aid station behind enemy lines in Belgium. Mairi left for France in September 1914 at the age of 18, and set up a relief and first-aid station in the bombed-out town of Pervyse, just within the military exclusion zone in Belgium.
Mairi set up her first-aid station with fellow nurse Elsie Knocker, retrieving wounded soldiers from the front lines. Mairi and Elsie also provided much needed entertainment, food and respite for war-weary soldiers. According to Elsie, their headquarters were “a woeful sight […] with not a pane of glass left” and there was a constant “stream of shells which the Germans lobbed across the water.” Despite the dangerous situations the two nurses faced every day, they persevered to become some of the best known and most photographed women of the front. This was despite disapproval from the patriarchal system prevalent in the British Army.
Mairi and Elsie became so famous for their efforts as a two women team that they travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain in their motorbike and sidecar to raise funds. They “attracted headlines and news stories […] they were perhaps most photographed women of the war and were known as the ‘Angels of Pervyse’.” Mairi Chisholm was awarded numerous medals for her bravery in WWI including the French and Belgian Crosse de Guerre. After the war, Mairi continued to nurse both in Europe and in Great Britain. Eventually, Mairi returned to nursing in France on the outbreak of WWII in 1939 and trained new nurses in the rigours of battlefield nursing.
Both Mairi and Elsie were pioneers as they were some of the first women to nurse and dispense first aid behind battlefields. Mairi challenged preconceived notions of what was “proper” for women to do by riding a motorbike, wearing trousers and cutting her hair short before it was ever fashionable. A truly inspirational woman.
To watch some footage of Mairi and Elsie (starting at 1.54), including an interview with Mairi by her great-niece, visit Channel 4’s WWI on film: harsh realities on and off the battlefield. Some images might be disturbing for younger viewers.