Following on from my previous article about the Royal Army Medical Corps I wanted to pay tribute to one of the heroes from the Corps who dedicated his life to helping those who had been wounded in battle, Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse.
Chavasse was born in Oxford on 9th November 1884, 20 minutes after his twin brother Christopher. The family moved to Liverpool when their father, Rev. Francis Chavasse, was made Bishop of Liverpool. Both boys did well at school where they excelled at sports, before going to Trinity College, Oxford. After graduating with a First-class honours degree Noel continued to study medicine at Oxford, and during that time both he and Christopher represented Great Britain in the 400 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games. In 1909 Noel joined the Officers Training Corps Medical Unit at Oxford University, later being promoted to Lance-Sergeant. He passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and was awarded the Oxford University’s premier medical prize, the Derby Exhibition. In 1913 Chavasse joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Territorial 10th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment.
When war broke out in 1914 Chavasse, like many other young men, was eager to serve and was happy to be in France by the end of the year. He initially wrote home to say that as he was not particularly heroic he was pleased that doctors were not allowed in the trenches so he would run little risk. Yet the young doctor soon saw the horrors of trench warfare as men were rotated back from the frontline in terrible condition, and he wrote home to say that they all came to hate the war worse than they had thought they could. Yet, despite everything, Chavasse continued to work hard, being amongst the first doctors to use the new anti-tetanus serum to help the wounded, and when the troops in nearby trenches were terrified by the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans he arranged for his father to send a gramophone to help raise their spirits.
For a man who did not feel heroic Noel Chavasse was to become the most highly decorated officer of the First World War. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Bellewaarde near Ypers on 16th June 1915 where he spent 12 hours helping to treat and rescue casualties in no man’s land (more than 1,000 men died during that offensive). Chavasse was promoted to Captain in 1915, and was also mentioned in despatches later that year.
In 1916 Chavasse was awarded the first of two Victoria Crosses. His unit suffered heavy casualties at Guillemont on 9th August with 230 out of 600 men killed, wounded or missing. Chavasse worked for more than 24 hours, disregarding sniper, machine gun and mortar fire to tend the wounded, bury fellow officers and collect ID from the dead. Although wounded in the back by two shell splinters, he refused to retire behind the lines and worked on, rescuing men from as close as 25 yards to the German line. His VC citation read:
Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, M.C., M.B., Royal Army Medical Corps.
For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.
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 shell 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 twenty 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.
In a letter to his parents Chavasse described his work at the front line: “We found a man 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 it 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.”
Chavasse’s second Victoria Cross was awarded for his actions during the period of the 31st July to 2nd August 1917, at Wieltje in Belgium. On 31st July Chavasse’s unit were trying to recapture Passchendaele Ridge at Ypres, and whilst tending the wounded he was hit in the head but refused to be sent from the line. The weather was terrible and he was under constant heavy fire, but time and again Chavasse went into no man’s land to help the wounded. Early on 2nd August he was resting in his first-aid post when it was hit by a shell. Everyone in the post was killed or wounded; Chavasse himself had at least six injuries but crawled for half a mile to get help for his colleagues. He was taken to a casualty station suffering from a serious stomach wound and died there at 1pm on 4th August 1917, aged 32. The citation for his medal read:
War Office, September, 1917.
His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of a Bar to the Victoria Cross to Capt. Noel Godfrey Chavasse, V.C., M.C., late R.A.M.C., attd. L’pool R.
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, Capt. 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.
One soldier who witnessed Chavasse’s actions said “Gee! He did work! I was beginning to think he was not human, because nothing made him flinch or duck…The first wound that he received was in the head, and all he did was to take his tin hat off, put a bandage around his head, and carry on…This he did all day and all night until the next wound he got, in the side, did for him…a VC is too small a reward for such a man”.
Chavasse is buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, Vlamertinge. His military headstone is unique as it depicts two Victoria Crosses, underneath is an inscription chosen by his father: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Chavasse’s heroism is still remembered by the people of Liverpool where he came third in a BBC poll in 2003 to find the 100 Greatest Merseysiders, above Bill Shankly, George Harrison and William Gladstone, and behind only Ken Dodd and Lennon and McCartney.
Chavasse has had at least 16 memorials dedicated to him, more than any other VC holder, including one at Liverpool Cathedral. He is the only VC and Bar of World War I and one of only three since the honour was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1857.
In this video athlete Sally Gunnell talks about Noel Chavasse.