Centenary commemoration for Captain Noel Chavasse, Royal Army Medical Corps, double VC – Part One

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We are on our way to Ypres for a ceremony to remember cousin Noel, 100 years after his death on 4 August 1917.

I mentioned the Centenary of the start of the Battle of Passchedaele in the July review newsletter, which we sent to everyone on our email list on 31 July, and that the medals of Captain Noel Chavasse VC and Bar, MC have just gone on display at the Museum of Liverpool until 5 January. The collection will then be returned to the Imperial War Museum in London.

Noel was a doctor and the only man to have been awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the First World War; the first was for saving ’some twenty badly wounded men’ from no man’s land at the battle of the Somme in 1916, the second for treating the wounded under heavy fire at Passchendaele.

Tragically, Noel, who served with the Liverpool Scottish regiment, was honoured with his second VC posthumously, as he died of the wounds he himself received while saving others, on 4 August 1917.

We have been invited to the Commemoration for Noel, who was my first cousin (twice removed), at the Chapel of Brandhoek, and for the laying of wreaths at Noel’s grave in the cemetery there. My sisters Rosanagh and Emily and their other halves and various children, my mum and stepmum, and Angela and I and our four are all going to pay our respects.

We will also look out for the name of Noel’s youngest brother, Aidan, who had been wounded and was missing at the time of Noel’s death. His body was never found and, like so many thousands of others, his name is inscribed on the Menin Gate.

Incidentally, there were some lovely replies to that email, including this extraordinary one from Nick Beardwoood. More on this amazing story later.

“Dear Gavin,
OMG what a small world we live in.
Noel Chavasse was the very man who pulled my Grandfather from the trenches having been left there for dead at the bottom of a pile of bodies after taking a mortar hit. He lived well into his 60s.
So without him I would not be buying your wine!
So big thanks to him and all those others!
Cheers
Nick.”

Background

There’s a fair amount of information about Noel, not surprisingly, on the internet. But I thought it was worth sharing a part of his story as it’s such an important one, especially at this time. In revisiting some of the background to this trip in the last few days, I’ve read again the excellent ’Chavasse Double VC’ by Ann Clayton – the lovely hardback is out of print, but it seems to be available on Amazon Kindle – and the more than readable ’Supreme Courage – Heroic Stories from 150 Years of the Victoria Cross’ by General Sir Peter de la Billière.

This is Part One. I’ve included below several long passages taken from Noel’s letters, mostly from these two books, which in turn were sourced from several members of the family. So forgive the length of these posts but there’s much of interest.

I’ve been once before to Noel’s grave and to Ypres, and that was with my father Jeremy in the summer of 2003. Or, to give him his full name, Jeremy Chavasse Alden Quinney. That was just before our Tom (Thomas Richard Chavasse Quinney) was born, and this will be the first visit for Angela and our four children, Georgie, Sophie, Amelia and Tom. (Amelia and I also have Chavasse as a middle name.)

Dad and I traced Noel’s movements back in 2003, including a trip to the Somme, and I’m grateful that we made the journey when we did, as, very sadly, cancer struck not long after that and my father died in January 2007. He would certainly have loved to have been able to go to Ypres for this Commemoration.

The connection is that my father’s mother, Esme (née Chavasse), was Noel’s first cousin. The families were very close, and Noel was in fact engaged to Esme’s sister, Gladys who was known as Gaggie. Esme and Gladys were both nurses during the war.

Indeed, the chosen fields for the Chavasse family centred around medicine, the Church and the Army. My great great grandfather and the grandfather of Noel was Thomas Chavasse, a surgeon from Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire. He was descended from a Frenchman, Claude Chavasse, who had settled in England in the early 1700s. My great grandfather Thomas Chavasse was also a surgeon (later Sir Thomas), while his younger brother Francis went into the Church. While Noel’s ’Uncle Tom’ and family lived not far away from their parents’ house, at Barnt Green near Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, Frank and his wife Edith spent many years in Oxford, where Noel and his twin brother Christopher were born in 1884. In 1900, Francis Chavasse was appointed Bishop of Liverpool and the family of four boys and three girls moved to the city.

The twins went to school at Liverpool College and, in 1904, were accepted into Trinity College, Oxford. Both were athletes and won Blues for running against Cambridge, with Chris winning the 440 yards and Noel second, and Noel dead-heated for first in the 100 yards. Remarkably both Noel and Christopher competed in the same event, the 400 metres, in the 1908 Olympic Games in London. Although they came second and third in their heats, they failed to progress through to the semi-finals.

Noel graduated with a First from Oxford, studied medicine and went on to become a doctor in 1912, while Christopher followed his father into the Church. Noel, although busy at a hospital in Liverpool, was drawn to the army and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1913; through the RAMC he was attached to the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, known as the Liverpool Scottish.

Off to the Western Front

His battalion arrived in France on 3 November 1914, almost exactly three months after the declaration of war with Germany, and crossed the border into Belgium on 21 November. Even by this early stage in the conflict, the dreadful stalemate of the Western Front had almost set in. Noel was to see action before the month was out, when he had to recover the body of his friend, Captain Arthur Twentyman, who was senior Company Commander and the first officer of the Liverpool Scottish to be killed. His letter home set the theme for what was to come.

“We heard the sad news by telephone from the trenches,” Noel wrote. “He had been overrash – he was screened by a hedge, but not sufficiently, and was shot through the heart.  I feel very sad about it because I like him the best of the whole lot, and he has always been invariably kind to me… and I miss him very much.  That evening the Colonel told me he wished me to take my stretcher-bearers up, and bring him down.

“At first the zip, zip of bullets hitting the sandbags close to one’s head was rather disconcerting, then it became just part of the general environment.

“At one point we had to get past a gate where a sniper lay in wait.  I went by doing the 100 well within 10 sec…  We had to rest 5 times while crossing a ploughed field as the Captain was very heavy on the improvised stretcher (2 poles and a greatcoat).  On the way I saw a group of 10 dead Frenchmen.

“Next evening, the men came out of the trenches.  The young chaps were haggard, white, and stooped like old men, but they had done gallantly…  2 men have lost their nerve….  Two days ago the King inspected us from a motor car, and now we are to go back to the trenches, tomorrow night.  We all hate the war worse than we thought we could.  Today, we are the supports.  We are on a hill and look over a plain towards the spires of Ypres, for all the world like Oxford from the Hinksey Hill.”

The Battle of Hooge and a Military Cross

By the Spring of 1915, all four Chavasse brothers – Noel, Christopher, Bernard and Aidan – were in the Army. Christopher was a Padre, also stationed near Ypres, and Bernard, like Noel, was in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving first in Egypt and then Gallipoli. He came to the Western Front in 1916, as another Captain Chavasse. Aidan was a Lieutenant in the 11th Batallion of the King’s regiment.

Noel was to be awarded the Military Cross for his actions at the Battle of Hooge, which began in the early hours on 16 June 1915. The Allied objective was to force the Germans back from a strategically important salient, or bulge, which extended into the British front line near Ypres. The carnage was terrible. Here are some extracts from Noel’s letter to his parents.

“When I got out it was getting dusk, so I went off with a trusty man and searched for the wounded (I knew where the charge had taken place).  We found most of them in a little coppice.  They lay behind trees, in dug-outs, and at the bottom of trenches.  They were so weak they could not call out.  Their joy and relief on being found was pitiful, and fairly spurred me on to look for more.  It was awful work getting some out of their trenches and dug-outs.  It was hard to find men enough to carry them away.  I had to appeal for volunteers – but they were dead beat.  Finally, at dawn, we got our last men away from a very advanced point, at four in the morning.  Altogether, we had collected fifteen men behind the trenches, and were certain (pretty well) that none were left.

“On getting back to the dump, we found that the RAMC had failed us, and had not carried any of our wounded back. I had about twenty-five on my hands, but fatigue parties took pity on the poor chaps, and carried all away one by one – except eleven.  Then I set to work to dress those we had carried in, got them arranged along the mud walls and then fell asleep sitting on a petrol tin.The Battalion had been relieved the night before, but I had, of course, to stay by the wounded.  My stretcher-bearers were terribly exhausted, and I sent them all away.

“Our brigade had to take a thousand yards of trenches.  Another battalion was to take the first line.  We were to rush over and take the second line, and then they were to come over us again, and take the third line. The artillery were to bombard each line before it was taken.  As a matter of fact our men made such a splendid rush that they carried all three trenches in fifteen minutes, and even penetrated the 4th line.  But the artillery continued to shell the advanced trenches, according to order – the smoke obscuring everything.  A great many of our own poor fellows were wiped out by our own shells.”

“Then for some reason the people on our right gave way, and the Germans also began to come round us on the left, our men were in the air at both ends, and had to retire to the first line we had taken, and at one place to our second line.  In this way a great many wounded fell into the German’s hands, among them three great friends of mine – Kenneth Gemmell, and Captain Ronald Dickenson (the latter I fear, dying), and Captain McKinnell, who went on leave with me.  The remnant of our battalion was relieved the same night.  130 men reached the camp out of 550 who had marched out the previous day; 2 Officers (both Lieutenants) were left out of 22.

“The trench is a great gain, as it commands a very extensive view of our part of Belgium.

“All the next day I had to look after my 11 wounded, and to try to shelter them from the sun under the mud wall.  I then made a tour of the trenches, to see if any wounded were lying out, and learnt that one had been heard to cry from a trench between the lines, and got a bullet through the shoulder for his pains. A brave Officer had slipped out and given him a drink.  I also found a great many wounded Germans and English – in ‘dug-outs’ in the trenches, but none of our men.  I reported them, so that they could be carried back at night.

“When it was dark I brought up a stretcher, and an Officer of the regiment holding the trenches crawled out to the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole where the poor Scottie was lying. When we crawled to the hole I found that it was an Officer, such a nice chap, with a broken thigh.  You may be sure he was glad to see us.  The other Officers went back to get the stretcher, and their wounded chap put his hands in mine, and we sat in the ‘Jack Johnson’ hole, holding hands like kids.  Then we got him into the stretcher, and ran him back to the trench, where many willing hands helped to lift him in.

“Just after, Germans were heard crawling in front, and we expected the trench to be attacked.  They gave me a spade.  But nothing happened, except that a Maxim of ours swept the ground where they were.  We got him back, and dressed him, and saw him carried off to hospital. And then I went to see another bit in front of another part of our trench.  The Engineers were there already, putting up barbed wire, and they had searched the ground thoroughly, but we found and carried back a poor chap from I another regiment.

“Then I was beaten for a bit, but a drop of brandy made me feel all right, so I did one more little crawl to search some ‘dug-outs’ in front of another part of our line, but only found dead Germans.

“Then I was assured again that the rest of no man’s land had been searched, and no Scotties found there, so I set off to join the battalion.  I arrived at the camp at 5am, and slept for 12 hours, and after a meal felt as fit as ever I did in my life, but dreadfully saddened. I am missing jolly faces everywhere and it was dreadful to see great big fellows strewn on the ground as cannon fodder.”

The official casualty figures for the Liverpool Scottish at the Battle of Hooge on 16 June stated that of 23 officers, 4 were killed, 6 were missing and 11 wounded, and of 519 other ranks, 75 were killed, 103 were missing and 201 wounded. Most of the wounded were subsequently found to have been killed. Only 140 out of 540 came through unscathed. Most of Noel’s friends had died and the rest wounded; as he wrote to a family from Liverpool that he kept in touch with: “In that photo you have of Scottish officers before we left for Belgium, I am the only one left now. All the rest are either killed or wounded or have gone home sick. But some of them I hope will come out again.”

Private Angus Glendinning wrote ’the day has passed and we have been victorious but wiped out’.

The official ’Special Order’ on 17 June, the day after the Battle, from Major-General Haldane put it slightly differently:

“The Major-General Commanding cannot adequately express his admiration for the gallant manner in which the attack was carried out yesterday.  The dash and determination of all ranks was beyond praise, and that some actually reached the objective in the first rush and remained there under most trying circumstances is a proof of their superiority over the German Infantry.  That the captured ground could not be held is disappointing, more especially as the losses incurred were heavy.  But these casualties have not been in vain.  The 3rd Division carried out a fine piece of work and fought splendidly, and their Commander is deeply proud of them.”

The regimental historian highlighted Noel’s actions:

“One section deserves special mention for its behaviour during and after the action – the Battalion stretchers-bearers…. An inspiring example was set them by the Medical Officer, Lieutenant N.G. Chavasse, to whose untiring efforts in personally searching the ground between our line and the enemy’s many of the wounded owe their lives.”

Noel was presented with the MC at Buckingham Palace, albeit much later. “The King shook hands,” wrote Noel, “and said in a gutteral voice, “We grant you our Military Cross”. I thought it was very nice of him. I then stepped back two paces, bowed again and turned away as the next man’s name was called.”

Part Two follows.

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