Exeter Civic Society

Exeter Civic Society

Knocker, Elsie, Baroness de T'Serclaes

Elsie Knocker, Baroness de T’Serclaes, 1884-1978, nurse on the front line in Pervyse, Belgium 1914-1918.

Location: 1 Barnfield Crescent, Exeter EX1 1QJ.

Unveiled by Paul Baker, the regional director of the Royal Air Forces Association, on 4 November 2017.

Inscription: Exeter Civic Society. Elsie Knocker, Baroness de T’Serclaes 1884-1978. Nurse and ambulance driver on the front line in Pervyse with Mairi Chisholm 1914-1918, born here 29 July 1885. exetercivicsociety.org.uk

Elsie Knocker photographed at Pervyse in late 1914.
Copyright: © IWM Q105864.

Elsie was the daughter of Dr Lewis Shapter, surgeon at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. She was orphaned at an early age and adopted by Lewis Edward Upcott, a teacher at Marlborough college. She trained and worked as a nurse and midwife and married Leslie Duke Knocker in 1906 but the marriage was dissolved after the birth of her son. She became an enthusiastic motor cyclist which is how she met Mairi Chisholm. On the outbreak of war in 1914 she volunteered with Mairi Chisholm to work as despatch riders on the western front but soon found that their nursing skills were more in demand. Working independently they set up a first aid post in the cellar of a bombed out building on the front line in Pervyse and from a series of locations in that town they worked for four years in atrocious conditions, during which time they cared for some 23,000 casualties. They had to raise funds to support their work and, when they visited the Barnfield Hall in 1916, Exeter citizens raised sufficient to run their dug-out, two ambulances and one lorry for three months. They were visited by King Albert of Belgium and other dignitaries and were awarded the British Military Medal in 1917 for rescuing a wounded pilot in no-man’s land. In 1918 they were invalided out following a gas attack. Elsie finished war as an officer in the Women’s Royal Air Force. In 1916 she had married a pilot, Baron Harold de T’Serclaes but they separated after the war when he learned of her divorce. In 1939 Elsie joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a senior officer working with RAF Fighter Command and was twice mentioned in despatches. On 3 July 1942 she lost her son, Wing Commander Kenneth Duke Knocker, who was killed when his plane was shot down over Groningen. She withdrew from the RAF after her son’s death but was active as a fundraiser for the Royal Air Forces Association during and after the war. In 1964 she published her memoirs, Flanders and Other Fields and died in 1978 aged 94.

As well as her autobiography there is a work on her life by Diane Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front (Cornerstone, 2009). The Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_Knocker also gives links to other sources, both printed and online and there are a large number of illustrations as well as her diaries and some moving images at the Imperial War Museum.