Centenary commemoration for Captain Noel Chavasse, double VC – Part Four. Passchendaele.

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We have just returned from a fascinating few days in Ypres and last Friday’s moving ceremony to remember Noel on the 100th anniversary of his death. There has been a tremendous amount of coverage about the Battle of Passchendaele, and Noel’s extraordinary achievement of winning his second Victoria Cross has also featured quite prominently: there’s a detailed tribute, for example, to ’the First World War’s bravest soldier’ by Lord Ashcroft in The Sunday Times Magazine (the online version is behind a paywall but you can read it here free for up to a week) and the Royal Mint have announced that there will be a five pound coin bearing a picture of Noel.

Even so, I wanted to complete these (very long) posts of Noel’s actions from a family perspective.

Planning for ’holy wedlock’

After being presented with the Victoria Cross for his gallantry on the Somme by the King at Buckingham Palace in February 1917 – with his sister Marjorie, his cousin and fiancé Gladys, her sister Esme (my granny) and their mother Frances all waiting outside – Noel had an eye on the future and settling down.

“The mornings are splendid just now” he wrote in the Spring on his return to the Ypres Salient, “and the birds are singing. ‘My heart leaps up’ whenever I hear a thrush, and there are blackbirds and larks here too, and I hope some nightingales later on. I cannot tell you how very much the singing of birds affects one out here. It is quite uplifting, in the rather mournful surroundings. It gives a feeling of hope. I suppose we must be nearing the end of the war now. I hope so, even if it will be a bloody business. It cannot be any worse than what, in God’s mercy, we have already been through. After the war I shall miss the social side very much, but hope to make up of it by holy wedlock.”

He was even tempted, in April, by a vacancy he’d been asked to apply for by a former colleague and mentor at his hospital in Liverpool, at a safe Base Hospital in Etaples. As he wrote to his father, the Bishop of Liverpool, and his mother:

“I could use all I have learnt at orthopaedic surgery and rub up my surgery again under Mr. Crawford, so that at the end of the war I shall be a skilled surgeon instead of having to learn it all again, and of course it would look well on further testimonials. But it is too comfortable. Such jobs are for the older men, young fellows like myself ought to be with the fighting men… And I don’t think I could leave the young lads here to fight it out while I luxuriated in a coast town.

“The infantry lad does not want to get hurt or killed any more than I do. In fact, one of their most popular choruses as they trudge up to the trenches is – ‘Oh my, I don’t want to die – I want to go ‘ome – yet he has to stick it out. And although, actually, medicine is nil, one has numberless chances for helping men, if one wants to. And really the wounded, the sick, and weary, slogging, anxious infantry soldier do make a tremendous appeal to all the best in a man.”

He turned down the offer. “I have written to the base hospital, and said that though I value the offer very much, I thought I had better stay with the lads, and so would not apply. I felt rather depressed about it for about a quarter of an hour.”

On 2 July, he wrote again to his parents about his plans for marriage, and for his pride in his VC. “If the war does not get on any quicker, I shall take time by the forelock and get married somewhere about Christmas. What is your candid opinion of it? Gladys wants it very badly, and I think Aunt Frances would like it. I shall like it for a lot of reasons but shall feel rather a fool after the war – a married man without a job.

“Still, it’s a bit pathetic to have to leave a bronze cross to a nephew or a cousin twice removed. I don’t think I really earned it as many have had to do, but deep in me I prize it more that I can say.”

Meanwhile, Gladys and Esme had decided to give up their roles as nurses at their mother’s hospital in Worcestershire and to travel to Paris to voluntary work.

’The family luck might go’

As we’ve seen – in my Part One post under ’the Battle of Hooge and a Military Cross’ – Noel and his three brothers had been in the army since the start of the war almost three years before. They were now, in the Summer of 1917, all on the Western Front. Added to which, his sister May had been ’mentioned in despatches’ by Field-Marshall Sir Douglas Haig on 9 April for her work in the Voluntary Aid Detachment at Etaples.

Noel’s twin, Christopher, a padre, had been commended for a medal at Bullecourt near the Somme “for collecting wounded”, as his sister Marjorie (and May’s twin) described in a letter to their brother Bernard. “After that, I think the family honours might as well cease, as after all it is a little dangerous getting them and the family luck might go at any time.”

Aidan, the youngest at 24, had recently transferred and was a Lieutenant in the 17th King’s (Liverpool Regiment), one of the so-called ’Pals’ battalions and the one for which Bernard was the medical officer. They were both a few miles from Noel near Ypres, and a short distance from Hooge where Noel had won his Military Cross in 1915. It was an extremely dangerous area following the explosion of 19 mines under German lines along the Messines ridge at 3am on 7 June 1917, in preparation for a major British assault.

While leading a front line patrol near Observatory Ridge late at night on 3 July, Aidan was wounded in the leg when an enemy patrol opened fire, and he was last seen in a shell hole a few yards from the German trenches. His brother Bernard – like Noel, a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps – joined a search party, during which another British officer was killed. Several attempts were made to reach him without success, and it was assumed that Aidan had been taken prisoner.

His mother was distraught. Aidan was the youngest of her seven children on whom she doted. “I pray God that his wound may not be serious and that the Germans may have carried him in” wrote the Bishop to Bernard. “Thank God you for all the love you have shown in trying to find your brother.”

Noel also wrote to Bernard. “Just a short letter to tell you how proud we all feel of you. Nobody could have done more to get poor old Aidan back. Your efforts seemed to me to have been almost superhuman. I am sorry you had to go through such a terrible experience. I never heard of such a chapter of horrors for a small fighting patrol. I am very sorry about the officer who lost his life trying to get a stretcher. I should like his people’s address.

“But everybody here thinks that you did magnificently, and hopes that you get your deserts. A D.S.O. at the least. You have, by all accounts, deserved something for a long time, and the way you kept on looking for Aidan is beyond mere praise.”

This is a doubly tragic note. It is the last known letter of Noel’s that exists, and Aidan was never seen again. The name of Lieutenant ’Chavasse A.’ can be seen in The King’s Liverpool Regiment column, high up on the Menin Gate in Ypres.

’Duty called and called me to obey’

Noel’s battalion of the Liverpool Scottish of 500 men was moved into position at Wieltje, just east of Ypres, on 29 July, during a five hour march in torrential rain. This was for the assault that would become known as the third battle of Ypres – or Passchendaele. The attack began at 3.50am on 31 July and despite heavy machine gun fire the initial objectives were taken by 7.45am. Noel set up his aid post in a captured German dugout, which had an opening facing up towards the Passchendaele ridge. While standing up to direct men to the aid post, Noel was hit by a shell splinter. He managed to walk back to the dressing station to have the wound dressed, but refused to be sent for proper treatment and, as there was no one to take his place, he returned to the dugout on the Passchendaele road.

Noel treated the wounded that were brought in by his stretcher-bearers throughout the day. At around 8 in the evening, heavy rain set in and continued through the night. When dark came, he went out with his torch looking for the wounded. The following day, the 1st August and the second day of the attack, a queue of injured men stood wretchedly in the rain and mud as Noel and his assistants cleaned and dressed wounds.

As Ann Clayton wrote in Chavasse Double VC:

“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.”

Noel was wounded again by shrapnel at least once, possibly three times, and was in severe pain, but he refused to leave his post and continued to treat the wounded. One witness later said that the men reckoned he’d won the Victoria Cross four times that day.

Then at around 3am on 2 August a shell exploded nearby, causing four or five more wounds, one of them a big gash to the abdomen which bled profusely. He managed to drag himself out of the dugout to the Wieltje dugout, and from there he was taken to the clearing station at Brandhoek.

The next morning he was operated on to remove the splinters and for a while he seemed to be doing well, sedated by morphia. Sister Ida Leedham, who had been at Royal Southern Hospital in Liverpool where Noel had worked shortly before the war, looked after him. Her letter, in pencil, was later printed by the Bishop and sent to members of the family:

“I asked him how he felt and what kind of day he had, he answered, very good, I feel very fit, when you have a little time write a letter for me to my girl, I will tell you what to say. So after I had fixed the other officers up I went and sat down by his bed. He changed his mind and said, ‘Wait, later, Sister’.

“At 11pm he became restless, pulse poor and asked me not to leave him…At 3am (4 August) pulse much worse, still more restless but cheerful. At 4am became worse. The MO coming in every hour.

“These are the last words he ever spoke to me. ‘Sister, write that letter for me,’ which I did and sent to Miss G. Chavasse. ‘Give her my love, tell her duty called and called me to obey. Take care of Aidan, Sister, if ever he comes to you, try and find him and let Father know all about him.’

“What about your father, I said. The Colonel will write to him (he said), but when you get leave go round and see him. Give him my love and tell him about everything. It will be better than writing and you live in the same town. Poor dear Father, he loves his boys, and we are causing him a great deal of pain, with all his hard work, but cheer him, Sister, tell him I am quite happy…

“At 4.30 am the Chaplain came in and your son asked me what he was doing. I told him, bringing Communion to a sick officer who had asked him. ‘Sister, it is up with me. I would like to have the same.’

“So I went up and brought Padre Hill to him and at 5am he made his last Communion on earth, and when it was all over he said, ‘Do not forget what I have told you.’ He became very quiet until 10.00am and then wandering and restless, his men always in his thoughts, and passed away 1pm the same day…

“He was much loved by his men, and he is mourned by the medical officer and the nursing staff as one of the finest comrades we have ever known.”

Noel was buried the following day, with a great many paying their respects. Unfortunately his brother Bernard, who had also been helping the wounded in action nearby, had been wounded himself in the knee and could not attend. He was later able to interview many of those who were at the funeral and wondered if “any such tribute was paid to any man before.”

The Bishop wrote to Bernard from Barnt Green, where he had and his wife had been comforting Gladys:

“You will have heard by this time that our dearest Noel has been called away… Our hearts are almost broken, for oh! how we loved him. Your dearest mother is pathetic in her grief, so brave and calm notwithstanding. But again and again, we keep praising and thanking God for having given us such a son. We know that he is with Christ, and that one day – perhaps soon – we shall see him again. What should we do in such a sorrow as this, if we could not rest on the character of God, on his love, and wisdom, and righteousness…. We spent last night at Linthurst, both trying to comfort dear Gladys. Our hearts ache for her.”

’This devoted and gallant officer’

Among the hundreds of letters that poured in, there was this from King George V at Windsor Castle, signed by the Lord-in-Waiting, Lord Stamfordham:

“The King is grieved to hear of the death from wounds of your son which is all the more pathetic when Captain Chavasse had, by his exceptional gallantry, self-sacrifice and ministering to his wounded comrades in the face of great danger gained the highest distinction of an outward character to which a soldier can aspire. His Majesty remembers with pleasure presenting the Victoria Cross to your son and that he had previously won the Military Cross.

“His Majesty sympathises truly with you in your sorrow and feels that the whole Army will mourn the loss of so brave and distinguished a brother.

“The King fears from the newspaper reports that you have a further anxiety as another of your sons is stated to be wounded and missing of whom, however, His Majesty earnestly trusts that you may receive reassuring news.”

On 14 September, the Bar to Noel’s Victoria Cross was announced in the London Gazette. The citation read:

“For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when in action.

“Though severely wounded early in the action whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the Dressing Station, Captain Chavasse refused to leave his post, and for two days not only continued to perform his duties, but in addition went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out.

“During these searches, although practically without food during this period, worn with fatigue and faint with his wound, he assisted to carry in a number of badly wounded men over heavy and difficult ground. By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example, he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would have otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the bad weather conditions.

This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds.”

At the time of Noel’s death, his twin brother Christopher was stationed at Bullecourt in France. On 25 August it had been announced that he had been awarded the Military Cross, with the following citation:

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. His fearlessness
and untiring efforts in attending to the wounded were magnificent. Although continually under fire, he volunteered on every possible occasion to search for and bring in the wounded. No danger appeared to be goo great for him to face, and he inspired others to greater effort by his splendid example.”

Bernard also won the Military Cross, which was gazetted on 29 September.

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During four days of heavy fighting he attended the wounded with untiring energy and exceptional gallantry at very great personal risk. On one occasion, while dressing the wounded in a shell crater under heavy shell fire, he was hit by bits of of shrapnel about the legs and face, but continued to dress each man in his turn and to encourage others who were waiting. On the following day, while dressing the wounded under very heavy shellfire, he was blown over by a shell but picked himself up and continued his work with the greatest pluck and devotion. He refused medical assistance in both cases and his indomitable courage was the cause of saving many casualties.”

The four brothers had remained virtually unscathed for almost all the first three years of the Great War, and in the space of a couple of months in the Summer of 1917, a second Victoria Cross had been won, along with two more Military Crosses to add to the one that Noel had already won – all for saving the wounded. Tragically at the same time, two of the four brothers, Noel and Aidan, had either been killed or were missing.

The inscription on Noel’s grave, as chosen by his father, reads:

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

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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.