Written by Richard Hughes
For nearly half a century, between 1930 and 1978, there lived in Ashtead, Surrey Elsie Shapter, Baroness de T’Serclaes, whose heroics on the Western Front during the First World War made her at the time a near-legendary figure. With her colleague, Mairi Chisolm, she ran her own first aid post from the village of Pervyse, near Ypres, for much of the war. She also made frequent visits back to Britain to attend patriotic rallies and raise funds for the war effort. So admired were the two nurses that they were termed the ‘Madonnas of Pervyse’. Some years after the war friends of Elsie, somewhat concerned about her unsettled status at the time, secured for her a Haig home in Ashtead – these were properties made available for veterans of the war – and there she lived happily for the rest of her long life; she died at the age of 94 in 1978. During the war she met and married an aristocratic Belgian airman, the Baron Harold de T’Serclaes and hence she became the Baroness de T’Serclaes. The marriage was short-lived but there was no divorce so Elsie carried her title with pride for the rest of her life.
The Baroness was born into a middle-class family in 1884 but when still a very young child she was orphaned and then adopted by the Upcott family from Marlborough, Wiltshire; her adoptive father, Lewis, was a schoolmaster at Marlborough College. Her adoptive parents were loving and Elsie grew up in an affectionate home. But unlike her parents she was no academic and later pursued a career in midwifery and nursing; she also became one of the first female pioneers of motor-cycling. In 1906 she married Leslie Knocker and a year later gave birth to a son, Kenneth. The marriage was not a success and there was a divorce; so Elsie became a single mother.
Elsie volunteered for nursing duties when war broke out in August 1914. But she did not follow a traditional route. She joined a small, rather eccentric group termed the Flying Ambulance Corps which had been established by a London doctor and social activist, Dr. Hector Munro. The doctor was a pacifist but nevertheless anxious to assist in the war effort in a non-combatant way. He saw the need for a small specialist group who could swiftly move about the battlefield dealing with medical emergencies. There would be ambulances – but also motor-cycles, a particular attraction to Elsie. The unit was based at Ostend and so Elsie moved there in the early stages of the conflict. She soon met Mairi Chisolm, ten years younger than her, and they became close colleagues. Elsie soon became frustrated with the Flying Ambulance Corps for it seemed poorly administered and was lacking funds and equipment. It was, though, getting plenty of attention. The war correspondent, Philip Gibbs [who was knighted after the war and settled in Dorking] wrote: ‘They did not seem to me at first the type of women to be useful on the battlefield. I expected them to faint at the sight of blood and swoon at the bursting of a shell. Some of them were too pretty to play about on the field of war.’ This rather patronising view was soon shown to be inaccurate. But both Elsie and Mairi became frustrated. When a local doctor, Dr. van der Ghist, suggested that they might prefer to establish their own independent unit they jumped at the chance. So in October 1914 in a cellar in a modest property on the edge of the small village of Pervyse near Ypres the two nurses, with the help of the doctor, established their own medical centre; they soon became legends.
By the time Elsie and Mairi moved to Pervyse there had been considerable developments in the course of the war in Belgium. Germany had invaded Belgium as part of its Schlieffen Plan to remove France swiftly from the war so that forces could concentrate on the threat of Russia. Under the leadership of King Albert the Belgians had offered tougher resistance than expected, and the British had arrived to support them in their struggle. In due course the number and strength of the German invaders meant the Belgians had been forced back to the coast and the significant city of Ypres, briefly captured by the Germans but soon retaken, was an isolated British-controlled centre with Germans occupying large stretches of the surrounding terrain. Pervyse, close to Ypres and on the road to the crucial coast, found itself at the centre of military activity. In November 1914 King Albert made the decision to open the sluice gates of the Yser canal at Nieuwpoort and so flood much of the terrain between the town of Dikksemuide and the coast. This halted the German advance but it did mean that the warring factions were locked into a smaller terrain and much activity became based on the need to take control of the Belgian coast.
Each day from the base in Pervyse Elsie and Mairi went out onto the battlefield to deal with the injured. If possible these would be brought back to Pervyse for treatment; if injuries were serious the casualties would be transported back to the coast and where necessary returned to Britain. Sometimes the ‘Madonnas of Pervyse’ would take care of Germans found on the field of battle and serve them hot drinks. Elsie mentioned in her memoirs that from time to time there was an extraordinary camaraderie on the battlefield. “At all big holiday times like Christmas and Easter,” she wrote, “we would shout across greetings; friendly, facetious insults to the Germans, and they would reply in kind. To add to the fun the Germans would sometimes hoist placards on long poles with such phrases as ‘The British are bloody fools’. These would be riddled with bullets. Next might appear ‘the Germans are idiots’ and, of course, this sentiment would be heartily applauded and then would appear ‘Let’s all go home’ and there would of course be great applause and laughter and a general feeling of mateyness.” But these incidents did not hide the fact that Pervyse was a living hell on earth. Sometimes the village was evacuated and reluctantly Elsie and Mairi would retreat to the relative security of the coast. These occasions increased when the Germans introduced gas warfare into the conflict.
Elsie would regularly return to England to tell the story of her life at Pervyse or address large rallies to encourage support for the war effort. She sometimes took with her battlefield debris which would be sold to raise funds. Elsie rather relished these opportunities to appear in public – Mairi did not; because of this Elsie became a much more recognisable ‘Madonna of Pervyse’ than her more reclusive partner. It has to be said that Elsie did have a tendency to play down the importance of Mairi and it is noticeable how few references there are to her partner in her autobiography ‘Flanders and Other Fields’ published in 1964.
In November 1914 Elsie met the Baron Harold de T’Serclaes. He was an airman with the Belgian Aviation Unit who flew missions over the battlefield to obtain photographic evidence of German troop movements. He was a member of one of the most senior aristocratic families in Belgium. There was an immediate mutual attraction between he and Elsie and the courtship was swift. They married in January 1915. Elsie was 30 years of age and the Baron was 26. The significance of the Baron and the fame of Elsie is indicated by the fact that the King and Queen of the Belgians attended the wedding ceremony at La Panne, as did the commanding officer of the Belgian army, General Jacques. Clouds, though, were on the horizon; while the royal family might have attended the wedding the immediate family of the Baron did not; in addition, Elsie stated on the marriage certificate that she was a widow; she was not – she was a divorcee. The de T’Serclaes was a strictly Roman Catholic family; there was an immediate problem with the marriage.
As time went by the reputation of the medical unit at Pervyse grew and famous visitors were attracted to the village. The King and Queen of the Belgians were visitors; so too was Marie Curie; and the British Leader of the Opposition, Ramsay Macdonald, called in. In 1916 was published a book by Geraldine Mitton entitled ‘The Cellar House of Pervyse’ which sold in large numbers. Elsie was delighted with this positive publicity. She was less pleased with ‘Young Hilda At the War’ by Arthur Gleason. He was an American journalist who spent some time at Pervyse where his wife helped with chores around the medical unit. In his book he managed to place his wife at the centre of affairs and Elsie and Mairi were little more than secondary characters. Elsie’s view of this book can be imagined.
In 1917 there were huge developments in the war around Ypres. Field Marshal Douglas Haig proposed a new offensive to break the German line. The focus of this offensive would be a village close to Pervyse, Passchendaele. Elsie and Mairi were informed by the infantry commander, Sir Henry Rawlinson, they would need to leave Pervyse while preparations for the advance took place. Elsie strongly objected, making the obvious point that in a new offensive the services of the unit would be more needed than ever. Rawlinson then agreed that the withdrawal would be temporary and that once the offensive was underway the nurses could return to Pervyse.
Passchendaele, of course, became another military disaster and it was eventually impossible to maintain the unit at Pervyse. In March 1918 Elsie was seriously injured in a gas attack; she was sent at first to Boulogne and then back home to England. Her war was over. Mairi continued for a little longer but the unit was closed down in April 1918 and she too returned to England. There was a particularly poignant fatality as a consequence of Passchendaele. Elsie had a pet Airedale terrier called Shot who had remained close to her throughout the time at Pervyse. Shot too was gassed by the Germans. She wrote: ‘My little dog Shot who has been with us for three years came up and looked at me with wandering eyes. He licked my hand and then died. I don’t think I have ever felt I hated the enemy but ever since my dog was gassed I’ve wanted to, I’ve longed to, kill a German.’ [There are memorial statues of Elsie and Mairi together with Shot in the garden of the Ariane hotel in Ypres].
At the time of the Armistice in November 1918 Elsie, by now fully recovered, was keen to remain involved in matters connected with the military; Mairi was not so inclined and returned to Scotland where she led a quiet life until her death in 1981 at the age of 85. Elsie joined the new Women’s Royal Air Force and became an officer. She tired of this and made an imaginative and brave career change. She set up a company, the British Warriors Film Company, whose purpose was to make films about the war which would feature veterans of the conflict. The idea was to both keep in peoples’ memory the sacrifice made by so many and also, more practically, provide employment for discharged veterans. Despite the honourable intentions the idea met with firm opposition particularly from the influential Horatio Bottomley, politician and owner of the John Bull magazine. For no clear reason Bottomley took against Elsie and her project. He claimed she had no business experience and there was every likelihood investors would lose their money. It is true that a number of initiatives were established after the war to help war veterans re-establish themselves and many were ill thought-out and poorly managed. But Bottomley was hardly the man to take action here. It soon transpired that he had funded a lavish lifestyle through fraud, mainly the mis-use of funds raised through the War Bonds he had promoted during the war; he was jailed and spent his final years in penury and disgrace.
Elsie pursued a number of less than satisfactory projects after the failure of the film project; she was a commercial traveller, a hotel manager, a housekeeper for a wealthy businessman; in 1926 there was a brief return to the limelight when she opened a medical unit in Poplar during the General Strike. In 1930 a group of her friends, somewhat concerned by the restless nature of her life, lobbied for her to be provided with a Haig home; these were properties funded in memory of Earl Haig which were made available to veterans of the war. Elsie was thus provided with a cottage in Park Road, Ashtead, just off the High Street, which she named ‘Pervyse Cottage’. She lived there happily for the rest of her long life, dying in 1978 at the age of 94. She became fully involved in the community of Ashtead. During the Second World War she trained female ambulance drivers and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
Elsie knew that in her busy life she had not paid enough attention to her son, Kenneth, who had been brought up by his adoptive grandparents while Elsie had been in Belgium. But Kenneth grew into a young man she could be proud of; he pursued a career in the RAF and at the outbreak of the Second World War was a Wing Commander. Sadly he was killed in 1941 when he was shot down over France while returning from a bombing mission. Elsie’s wartime marriage to the Baron de T’Serclaes was short-lived. After a brief period together in London they went their separate ways but there was no divorce. As a prominent Roman Catholic the Baron did not contemplate this. So Elsie proudly carried her title with her throughout her life. The politics of Baron de T’Serclaes took an ominous turn. He had a number of business interests in Germany which led him into supporting Belgian-German co-operation. When hostility between the two countries broke out again in the late 1930s the Baron became involved in collaboration activities against Belgian resistance. Indeed he performed services for the Gestapo. After the war he was sentenced to death for treason but the sentence was reduced to twenty years imprisonment. He never served the sentence for he escaped to Italy where he lived in secrecy for the rest of his life, dying sometime in the middle of the 1950s. Elsie rarely mentioned him and when asked would say he had died during the First World War. Elsie’s autobiography, ‘Flanders And Other Fields’ was published in 1964. At the end of her long life she admitted ‘Only in time of war have I found any real sense of purpose and happiness.’
Flanders and Other Fields, The Baroness de T’Serclaes, Harrap 1964
Elsie and Marie Go To War, Diane Atkinson, Random House 2000