We’re not allowed to vote in the UK referendum on the EU, having moved to France over 15 years ago. Enough has been said about the economy, immigration and self-interest, so I wanted to share an unusual and poignant tale about working together.
Captain Noel Chavasse was a doctor, and the only man to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the First World War. He won the first at Guillemont during the Battle of the Somme a hundred years ago this summer, rescuing ‘some twenty badly-wounded men’ from no-man’s land under fire, and a second VC at Passchendaele the following August in 1917.
’Noel Chavasse never killed anyone, nor did he even fire a shot in anger. He was never aggressive or vindictive; never for a moment did he lose his essential decency and restraint. Yet he is one of only three men who have won the VC twice and in some ways the most remarkable of all.’
From ’Supreme Courage – Heroic stories from 150 years of the Victoria Cross’, by General Sir Peter de la Billière.
Noel was the first cousin of my granny, Esme Quinney, née Chavasse (hence he was my ‘first cousin twice removed’). They and their families were descendants of a Frenchman who had settled in England early in the eighteenth century. Chavasse is the middle name of my late father, myself and my children, so you can imagine that Noel’s story has always been close to our hearts.
Tragically, Noel was mortally wounded at Passchendaele and he was awarded the second VC posthumously. His twin brother Christopher, who also served in the army, went on to become the Bishop of Rochester (their father Frank was the Bishop of Liverpool) and Christopher officiated at the wedding of my parents some 40 years after the Somme.
One detail of Noel’s short but extraordinary life has always fascinated me. When he was treating the wounded in a dug-out aid post at Passchendaele – in appalling conditions – he was assisted by German prisoners-of-war.
’Early in the morning of the second day of the attack, Wednesday 1 August 1917, a queue of wounded had formed outside the aid post, having made their way to it as soon as there was enough light to see by. This was a miserably grey scene; the men were standing in inches of muddy water already – indeed, a small torrent of water was pouring down the dug-out steps and collecting in the little room at the bottom. There was no more room inside, so the injured stood patiently in the rain, while Noel and his assistants tried desperately to clean and dress wounds, before pointing out to those who could walk the safest way back to the dressing station at Wieltje. No time now for Noel’s famous hot drinks and dry clothing routine.
Helping him were some captured Germans, one of whom was a qualified Medical Officer. A witness reported:
‘Chavasse carried on indomitably. He was particularly pleased with his German M.O. assistant, and the way the latter buckled to his job. ’Good fellow, fine fellow’, he kept saying.’
(From ’Chavasse – Double VC’ by Ann Clayton.)
Noel died from several shrapnel wounds on 4 August 1917, the third anniversary of the start of the war. His medals are included in the Victoria Cross exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London.
I do wonder what Noel would have thought about the prospect of breaking up a European Union which has contributed to us living in peace for so many years. And even during the most awful of conflicts, he showed it’s better to work together.
(I’ve also posted this on Facebook here.)