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Statue at Ypres of Scots nurse who was one of two women on the frontline

A STATUE to honour a Scottish nurse who was one of only two women to serve on the frontline during the First World War is due to be unveiled in Belgium later this year.

Mairi Chisholm and the Baroness de T'Serclares in Pervyse
Mairi Chisholm and the Baroness de T'Serclares in Pervyse

Mairi Chisholm, from Nairn, was just 18 when she volunteered for the war effort and spent four gruelling years running a first-aid post with her friend Elsie Knocker in a village near Ypres.

The two became known as the "Madonnas of Pervyse" for their efforts in helping save the lives of hundreds of Belgian soldiers and earned numerous decorations for gallantry.

A fundraising campaign to enable a life-size bronze sculpture of the women in the village of Pervyse is on its way to reaching its target and the statue is expected to be unveiled in November.

Last year, the Sunday Herald revealed concerns over a lack of statues commemorating great Scotswomen, after a survey which found just 20 existed across Scotland.

Historian and author Dr Diane Atkinson said she was inspired to start the project after writing the book Elsie And Mairi Go To War about the women's lives. She said around 83,000 euros (£65,000) of the 100,000 euro (£79,000) target had been raised in 15 months of fundraising efforts in both the UK and Belgium.

"I always wanted there to be a statue of them in Belgium as they were so important, they did such great work and were very celebrated and highly honoured in their lifetime," she said.

"I just thought it was time to bring their story to everyone's attention."

She added: "Mairi is such a Scottish heroine in a very unsung way. She was a very modest person and she did what she did in the war and then came back, worked in Scotland for the rest of her life and she just got on with it.

"She didn't really want any praise, it was just something she was moved to do - she just did it and then got on with the rest of her life."

Nurses and medical volunteers were swept miles behind the frontline after 1915, but a special exception was made for Chisholm and Knocker because the "authorities knew they wouldn't budge", Atkinson said.

In 1918, they were forced to return to Britain to recover after being gassed. Knocker was too ill to return, but Chisholm subsequently went back to set up the post again.

She was gassed once again before the Belgian army shut the post down because it was too dangerous.

Atkinson said the conditions the women had endured in Belgium were "horrendous".

"Apart from the gruesome wounds and the casualties and all of that horror, there was the fact they were in this waterlogged landscape, there were rats everywhere, there were decomposing bodies and decomposing farm animals," she said.

"It was extremely dangerous, there were no running water supplies and they were having to forage for food.

"The women were self-funded - they were paying for it out of their own pockets as they wanted to stay independent and didn't want to be involved in any kind of red tape."

When they arrived back in Britain, the women became poster girls for the Women's Royal Air Force and used as examples of inspirational characters for recruitment.

In later life, Chisholm lived at Balcardine, near Oban and became a champion poultry breeder. She died in 1981 at the age of 85. Obituaries noted that she seldom spoke of her war service, but said it had been a "privilege" to have taken part.

Atkinson said that all of the money raised for the statue had come from private donations.

She added: "When we hand the statue over in Belgium it will be something that lots of people have played a part in. It is going to be a gift of ordinary people."

l If you want to donate please go to www.dianeatkinson.co.uk

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