At 1pm 100 years ago in a field hospital in Belgium Captain Noel Chavasse died of his wounds. He was one of many who died that day – the early days of the horrific battle of Passchendaele. To me looking back 100 years into the past from a time when modern day heroes seem to be buffoons trying to grab their 15 minutes of fame through reality TV or the over-paid prima donna footballers who will grace our screens again as the football season begins, Noel Chavasse embodies everything the dictionary definition of hero means. Just over a month after his death in Belgium, on 14th of September, Noel Chavasse was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for the actions that led to his death on the 4th August. What made this extra special is that it was the 2nd Victoria Cross Captain Chavasse had been awarded – the only man to win 2 VCs in the Great War and one of only 3 men ever to have won 2.
Noel Chavasse was born on 9th November 1884 in Oxford, the slightly younger twin of Christopher and sons to Rev Francis Chavasse – who later became the Bishop of Liverpool and founded St Peter’s college at Oxford and Edith. The twins were 2nd and 3rd of seven children – Christopher being 20 minutes older than Noel. In 1900 when their father became Bishop of Liverpool, the family moved to Liverpool. In 1904 Noel and Christopher were admitted to Trinity College Oxford. He graduated in 1907 and went on to study medicine.
Both Noel and Christopher were very sporting and loved rugby union and both represented Great Britain in the 1908 London Olympic Games in the 400m – neither managing to get through their heats.
In 1912 Noel passed his final medical examination and was registered as a Doctor with the GMC. In 1913 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and was attached to the 10th Battalion of the King’s Regiment – the Liverpool Scottish.
As War was declared, Noel went with his regiment to serve on the Western Front. In 1915 he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery whilst with his battalion at Hooge in the Ypres Salient and later that year was mentioned in despatches.
1916 saw him at Guillemont in the southern part of the Somme Battlefield. His regiment was ordered to attack enemy positions here on 9th August despite not being able to reconnoitre the enemy positions. At 4.20am the attack started with tragic casualties. About a third of the regiment became casualties. Noel spent the day attending to the wounded, often in sight of the enemy in no-mans land. This continued into the next day and it is thought he saved the lives of at least 20 seriously wounded casualties. For his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross – the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
A year later saw Noel’s regiment at Ypres for the battle to take Passchendaele ridge – what was to become the 3rd Battle of Ypres. The attack commenced on 31st July 1917 and the Liverpool Scottish – and Noel Chavasse – were heavily involved near Wieltje. Over the next 3 days Noel tended to the wounded and rescued countless seriously injured soldiers from no-mans land. He was seriously injured yet despite his injuries and great pain he continued. On 2nd August he was resting at his first aid post with his team of stretcher bearers. The post was hit by a shell. All there were killed or seriously injured. Noel suffered further serious injuries. He managed to crawl for half a mile to get help for the wounded. By chance he was treated here by the first person to win the VC twice – Arthur Martin-Leake.
Noel Chavasse died of his wounds on 4th August 1917. For his actions over these days he was awarded posthumously a bar to his VC – a second VC.
I had the honour to visit his grave in March this year as part of a school trip where I was able to tell the students the story of my hero, Captain Noel Chavasse VC & Bar, MC whilst we were on the bus outside Brandhoek Cemetery. His stone is unique in the world as the only one with 2 VCs carved on it – the epitaph his father had carved on the foot of his gravestone is, fittingly,
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends
His medals – the VC with Bar, his Military Cross as well as his service medals from the Great War were bought by Lord Ashcroft in 2009 and are part of the Lord Ashcroft Medal Collection on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum.
Arthur Martin-Leake won his first VC in the Boer War and the second at Zonebekke in 1914. He survived the war dying in 1953 aged 79.
The third person to win the VC twice was New Zealander Charles Upham. His first was during the retreat from Crete in 1941 and the 2nd at El Alamein in 1942. Charles Upham died in 1994 aged 86.