ALL the recipients of the Victoria Cross during the First World War are being honoured in a programme launched by the Government four years ago. Commemorative stones have been dedicated around the country for these men, who showed conspicuous bravery in battle. Their stories have been heard again in the communities where they lived. Every account tells of valour and, usually, complete disregard for personal safety: a mixture of courage and recklessness which invariably saved the lives of others.
Last week, we remembered the only man celebrated by two memorial stones: Captain Noel Chavasse, VC and bar, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, attached to the Liverpool Scottish regiment. A prizewinning academic as well as a doctor, Chavasse had represented Great Britain in the 400 yards in the 1908 Olympics, running alongside his twin brother, Christopher (who served as an army chaplain, and later became Bishop of Rochester).
CHAVASSE’s first experience in uniform was in the Medical Unit of the Officer Training Corps at Oxford. Quoting Kipling, he wrote to his mother in 1909: “I feel very virtuous being a Territorial. as I feel that at last I am really doing my duty and am not a mere ‘flannelled fool’ or ‘muddied oaf’.”
His letters show that he enjoyed his connection with the army, and, although it lapsed when he left Oxford, by 1913 he was in uniform again. When war broke out, Chavasse distinguished himself not with a gun, but by his untiring and unselfish care of the wounded and dying, often under enemy fire. Despite being a non-combatant, he had already been awarded the Military Cross before his first VC in 1916; in October that year, the London Gazette said, “His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.”
He was held in high regard by all those who served with him: apart from his skill and experience, he saw those around him not just as soldiers, but as individuals. The letters that he sent to the families of the dead and wounded were not short and perfunctory, but showed great compassion.
He wrote to the mother of a stretcher-bearer: “I am afraid that the wound is a serious one and it will keep [him] lying up for a long while. You will no doubt hear from the hospital telling you more about it. I shall make enquiries myself and will try and keep you posted”; but the letter went on for another 400 words, describing what had happened to her son.
His second VC was awarded posthumously, in the opening days of Passchendaele, in August 1917. Despite having been severely wounded while rescuing an injured man, he “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”, before eventually succumbing to his injuries.
Not only was he the only man to have been awarded a VC and bar during the First World War: he is one of only three ever to achieve that distinction.
THE service at Liverpool Parish Church on Tuesday was 100 years to the day since the first commemoration on 29 August 1917. Although that was a memorial service for all the fallen of the Liverpool Scottish regiment, no one could have been in any doubt that Chavasse was the focal point.
He was the son of the Bishop of Liverpool, Francis Chavasse, who had told him after his first VC: ”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.” But it was right to include the entire regiment in the service: in the first month of Passchendaele (from 31 July), 241 men from the Liverpool Scottish were killed or wounded. The press reports told of the widows and grieving parents who packed the church.
The horror of Passchendaele is unimaginable. In his diary, Private Edmund Herd, of the Liverpool Scottish, recorded: “Bandaging and stretcher-bearing was a terrible business and utterly beyond description. The continual cry of stretcher-bearers would have been heart-rending had we not become partly numbed by the ghastly sights.”
Herd’s diary shows a great devotion to Chavasse: on 4 August, he wrote: “Our beloved Doctor dies in hospital at Brandhoek. . . The loss is terrible; a more unselfish man it would be impossible to find. There was no need for him, in fact he was not expected, to go out in the open as he did, not only to help his own battalion but others too.”
LIKE so many other families, Bishop Francis Chavasse and his wife had other sons at the front, as well as three daughters at home. Aidan had gone missing in action a month before Noel’s death, and Bernard (also with the Medical Corps) had written to his father with as many details of Noel’s death as he could discover. As Noel’s identical twin, Christopher was undoubtedly the one who knew him best.
Gathering together the entire family for the memorial in Liverpool proved impossible, but the service reflected the faith that they all shared. The Chavasse family were Evangelical in temperament and, in the context of the age, both sacramental and pious. Noel’s letters to his father often noted when he had received communion (though such devotional details are generally reserved for the Bishop rather than others).
On 16 October 1916, he wrote: “At midday I rushed off and attended Holy Communion in a ruined Church. There were a lot of men and officers there and it was really a very impressive sight to see them kneeling so reverently and expectantly to receive the sacrament. Really I think I have never seen men look more manly.”
At the memorial service in Liverpool in 1917, and repeated in the service last week, his favourite hymns were sung: “Just as I am” and “Praise to the Holiest”. As much as the first leans towards sentimentalism, so the latter is laced with theology; they both show a profound acceptance of salvation through Jesus Christ. Francis wrote of Noel: “He was a man of valour because he was a man of God.”
Since his death, many have claimed Noel Chavasse as their own — from his schools to his regiment, and from universities to the City of Liverpool — but in fact it is only his faith that draws together all the elements of his life.
Preaching at the 1917 service, Canon J. L. Lancelot, who had been his headmaster at Liverpool College, said of him: “He might have been a great surgeon; he might have been a really great clergyman and medical missionary, such was the vision that floated before his mind from boyhood; but he was already a great Christian.”
The Revd Dr Crispin Pailing is the Rector of Our Lady and St Nicholas, Liverpool.