Centenary commemoration for Captain Noel Chavasse, double VC – Part Three, The Somme

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The Somme is infamous for the carnage on the first day of the battle: the 1st of July 1916 was the worst day in the history of the British Army in terms of casualties, with over 57,000 dead or wounded. Yet it was a battle that dragged on until November, with staggering loss of life on both sides. (The picture is a view from the Thiepval Memorial.)

Noel’s Liverpool Scottish regiment, to which he was attached as a doctor from the Royal Army Medical Corps, wasn’t involved until the end of July. Sadly, following on from (my great uncle) Arthur’s death in March, news came through that another of his cousins had been lost: 2nd Lieutenant Louis Maude, Noel’s first cousin on his mother’s side, had been missing and then reported killed on that first day of the battle.

As Noel was being moved nearer the front, he wrote:

“I expect the next few days will be busy ones. I pray God I do my duty. I have not got such a gay feeling in these sort of do’s as I had 18 months ago. I am rather sick at heart of seeing so many men and especially my men go under.”

He was soon in constant pain from toothache, after going to “an officer of a neighbouring battalion who used to be a dentist and he smashed it trying to get it out and now I find he has left one fang in.”

The assault on the German lines at Guillemont began at 4.20am on 8 August, with Noel’s Brigade attacking at 4.20am the following morning. The artillery barrages by both sides were both deafening and deadly, and machine gun fire pinned down the attacking troops.

The Commander-in-chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, gave the action pretty short shrift when writing the following despatch on the battle:

“In a subsequent local attack on the 8th August our troops again entered Guillemont, but were again compelled to fall back owing to the failure of a simultaneous effort against the enemy’s trenches on the flanks of the village.”

The Liverpool Scottish, just one of the regiments involved, lost 67 killed, 27 missing and 167 wounded out of 600. That excluded the 20 officers, five of whom were killed, five missing and seven wounded.

Afterwards, Noel wrote to his parents “Don’t be upset if you hear that I am wounded. It is absolutely nothing.”

Noel played down his role in the rescue of the wounded.

Private Frederick Jackson was one witness: “That night, Dr Chavasse went out into No Man’s Land with his devoted stretcher-bearers, looking for wounded men and bringing them in. The amazing thing about this rescue exploit was that he carried and used his electric torch as he walked about between the trenches, whistling and calling out to wounded men to indicate their whereabouts, and so be brought in. Ignoring the snipers’ bullets and any sporadic fusillade, he carried on with his work of succour throughout the hours of darkness.”

A letter of Noel’s in early September demonstrates the ghastly horror of his work on the Somme.

“My S.B. (Stretcher-Bearer) Corporal bent over him and found him bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut if off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood…
The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud. We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.”

On 26 October 1916, the London Gazette announced that Noel Godfrey Chavasse MC had been awarded the Victoria Cross ’for the most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’. The official citation read:

’During an attack he tended the wounded in the open all day, under heavy fire, frequently in view of the enemy. During the ensuing night he searched for wounded on the ground in front of the enemy’s lines for four hours.

’Next day he took one stretcher-bearer to the advanced trenches, and under heavy fire carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey. The same night he took up a party of trusty volunteers, rescued three wounded men from a shell-hole twenty-five yards from the enemy’s trench, buried the bodies of two officers, and collected many identity discs, although fired on by bombs and machine guns.

Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men, besides the ordinary cases which passed through his hands. His courage and self-sacrifice, were beyond praise.’

As Ann Clayton wrote in ’Chavasse, Double VC’, the ’reaction in Liverpool was ecstatic. The Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury reported:

“Few men have inspired such wonderful affection for themselves amongst the ranks of their colleagues. Letters from the Front have constantly told how eager he was, how ready to expose himself to dangers beyond those called for in the discharge of his duties, and how many a wounded soldier has brightened under the radiance of his cheery disposition…. His battalion almost regard him as their mascot.”

The newspaper went on to record the description of the action given by a young Canadian machine-gunner, who was by now back in hospital in England:

“I was up in the line that day, and the men were talking a lot about the fine courage of Captain Chavasse. it was absolute hell all day….Hell would have been heaven compared to the place he was in, but he never troubled about it. It’s men like him that make one feel that the spirit of old is still alive in our midst.”

An anonymous stretcher-bearer was also quoted:

“At times it was absolutely impossible to stand up without being hit…The Captain took no more notice of the enemy’s fire than he would of a few raindrops, and even when bullets were whistling all round he didn’t get in the least bit flurried in his work. He made us all feel that it was an honour to work with him.”

(Of 16 stretcher-bearers with Noel that night, two had received the Distinguished Conduct Medal and two the Military Medal.)

Meanwhile, his fiancé Gladys had been tipped off by Noel’s sister, Marjorie:

“Marjorie, you Brick! I am nearly off my head! I knew he’d get the V.C sometime but I never thought he’d get it until he was blown in bits (sic) which seems to be the fasionable (sic) manner!! Marjorie, isn’t it absolutely it!
I can’t write,
Yrs
GLADYS”

Letters of congratulations poured in, both to Noel and to his parents. “I have hundreds to deal with” his father said. He remarked a little while later to Noel “you have been known so far as the son of the Bishop of Liverpool; I shall be known henceforth as the father of Captain Chavasse.”

Noel replied to Margaret Twemlow of Liverpool, aged 16:

“Thank you very much for your nice and kind letter. You must excuse me for being so rude and not having answered it before, but really I have been rather swamped and I am still struggling to get through them all. I knock off about ten a day. People have really been kinder to me than I could have thought possible, and I sometimes feel quite ashamed of myself. I hope to be getting a little leave somewhere about Christmas and I shall certainly come and see you all…
Please give my love to Cecily (if she is not too grown up; if she is, please give her my felicitations), and to George, and my warmest regards to Mr. and Mrs. Twemlow. I am going to answer the other letters as soon as I can. Please thank Mr. Twemlow very much for his very kind letter which I value very much.”

As a postscript, I’m grateful to Nigel Luckett for sending me the link to this letter in The Telegraph from 2nd August.

SIR – It is great to read that Noel Chavasse, the only man to win the Victoria Cross twice during the First World War, is to be commemorated on a new coin (report, July 31). General Eric Barnsley, the late curator of the RAMC museum, told the story that as assistant director of medical services he was asked to take news to RMO Chavasse of his first VC. After trudging through the mud during a lull in shelling, he was surprised to find the regimental aid post seemingly deserted. He eventually located Noel Chavasse behind the tent, sitting at the edge of a flooded shell-hole, washing his stretcher-bearers’ socks for them.

J S Wright
Lytham St Annes, Lancashire

Passchendaele follows in part four.

Footnote: As I wrote in the ‘Background’ in Part One of these posts, in researching this trip to Ypres for the commemoration, I reread Ann Clayton’s excellent Chavasse Double VC and Sir Peter de la Billière’s Supreme Courage. Most of the quotes are taken from Ann’s book, which is out of print but available on Amazon Kindle.

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