This is the second part of my blog about Captain Noel Chavasse, the only serviceman to have won two Victoria Crosses during the First World War – and, as a doctor, he never fired a shot.
In between his heroic actions at the Battle of Hooge in June 1915 that earned him a Military Cross (see Part One) and his extraordinary bravery and a subsequent VC at the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, Noel was promoted to Captain and, far more importantly for him, he got engaged.
Noel was nine years older than his 22-year old cousin Gladys Chavasse, who was called Gaggy, yet he had always been close to her and to her sister Esme, who was called Sam. Both girls were doing their bit for the war too, as their mother, Lady Chavasse (whose late husband Sir Thomas, a surgeon, had been knighted in 1905), had opened a hospital for convalescing soldiers at Rednall, Worcestershire. Both Gladys and Esme worked as nurses there, along with Marjorie, one of Noel’s two unmarried sisters, with whom they were also very close.
The two photos are of Noel with his Aunt Frances, Lady Chavasse, and Esme (my great grandmother and grandmother). Noel’s terrier, interestingly enough for the Quinney side of the family, was called Jell or Jelly, according to Ann Clayton in ’Chavasse, Double VC’.
The other picture is of Lady Chavasse, seated, with nurses from her hospital. In the back row are Esme, Marjorie and Gladys. (In all, there were around 25 nurses working for the Commandant, Lady Chavasse, and she was awarded an MBE in the War Honours List of 1920.)
Early in February 1916, Noel spent time on leave at the cousins’ house in Barnt Green near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire and there the romance blossomed, with the apparent full support of his Aunt Frances, Lady Chavasse, and Gladys’s sister Esme/Sam (my grandmother). Afterwards, Noel wrote a somewhat agitated letter to his sister Marjorie, who was close to Gladys, asking for her opinion and support regarding the match:
“Do the parents object much… because the funny thing was that at Brom (Bromsgrove) Aunt F walked off with S and left me alone with G and left us alone whenever she could, I thought. Then, when I went, Sam darted looks at G to see if she was going to cry… so it all seems all pretty well public. What are G’s feelings, for I don’t want to hurt them… I might not get back, and if I do I may not be a whole man… if I do get back whole I shall have to settle down and get a living… I would like to tell the girl all this, but I don’t want to make her unsettled and if she only likes me in a cousinly sort of way I would let well alone. If there is more, then I think I ought to do something. So if you have got anything you’d like to tell me I’d very much like to know.”
Noel must have received the news he wanted to hear. “I have been and gone and done it now, and I feel ever so happy… She says she can wait and that I must be what I ought to be, if even a missionary… I don’t wonder I love her.”
“Then comes a letter from Aunt Frances, full of kindness, saying she is glad there will be someone she can trust to look after Gaggy…”
“Also, I hope Gladys really loves me, and is not merely sorry for a ’lonely soldier’… I expect Father will have his breath a bit taken away, but he will recover… I wonder what Chris will say.”
Just as Noel was writing to his parents – his father Francis was Bishop of Liverpool – on this delicate subject, there was some very bad news. Doctor Arthur Chavasse, who was Gladys’s and Esme’s brother and the only son of Lady Chavasse, was taken ill while serving as a Temporary Captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps in France, and was moved to a hospital at Le Havre. My grandmother, Esme, and great grandmother, Frances, set off to be with (my great uncle) Arthur, who had caught pneumonia, and arrived there on 11 March 1915. Arthur died the following day, with his mother and sister at his bedside. He was 28. “Lady Chavasse and her daughter attended the funeral at the Saint Marie Cemetery in the town, making him one of the few who died in the Great War whose family had the privilege of paying their respects in this way. The grieving women made their way homeward, sending letters containing the news to Gladys, to Noel, to the Bishop, and to May (Noel’s other sister who was, as yet, unmarried) at the Liverpool Merchants’ Hospital at Etaples.” (From ’Chavasse, Double VC’ by Ann Clayton.)
(As an aside, there are probably many things you can ask your granny about, but I never talked to her about great uncle Arthur, which is rather sad.)
“Noel now felt a double responsibility for Gladys, as she had no other male relative to safeguard her. (Her father, and my great grandfather, Sir Thomas Chavasse had died after falling from his horse in 1913.) He was, however, delighted to hear from his mother that she and the Bishop gave him their blessing without reservation.” (Ann Clayton, Chavasse Double VC.)
“I am very glad that you and father approve my choice” Noel wrote. “I thought it over very carefully, and of course Gladys is still free if ever she wants it. As things have turned out, I do thank God that I wrote before the terrible blow befell all of us. Poor Gladys, I think she was Uncle Tom’s special daughter and Arthur’s special sister, and she is dreadfully saddened.
“I feel very responsible and quite realise the gravity of the step… I hope God led me into the step I have taken, in the light of past sad events, it has seemed so opportune and so far everything has seemed to lead so easily from one thing to another, as if I was born for my part in the war.
“I can hardly believe my good fortune because I used to think I should never get Gladys, and I don’t know why she is going to have me even now because I am not much of a catch and she has been the prize of the neighbourhood… Anyway, I am going to take care that she never regrets it, and am trying in a blundering sort of way to make myself a proper husband and I hope some day a father. The danger is in making Gladys my religion, but I seem to love my poor men, and to feel for them more than ever. But at last I have a great longing to get through the war, before I never thought about it. I hope it will not tempt me to neglect my duty.
I expect you can see from this letter that I am in love, but then I have been for years, but not might say so.”
Noel wrote to his twin brother Christopher, who had been serving, as a padre, near the Somme valley but was now back in England. “I feel quite in the air with delight because I thought Gladys was a prize far beyond me. The parents have sent their blessing. Mother, I believe, is actually pleased, and I really believe Aunt Frances is pleased too. She has been wonderfully kind. You see, old cock, I have beaten you, in the matrimonial line, in spite of your 20 minutes’ start. At any rate I have got a flying start on you, so you will have to buck up if you don’t want to be an also-ran and best man.
“I hope you go over to Barnt Green soon; if you do, give Gladys my love and you may give her a brotherly kiss, but you must not kiss her too much.”
Sadly, no letters from Noel to Gladys, or from Gladys to Noel, have survived.
(Noel’s first Victoria Cross on the Somme will follow in Part Three.)