The First World War has so many tales of heroism and bravery – each grave and each name on the vast memorials on the battlefields in northern France and Belgium tells a story of bravery, tragedy and loss. We often visit one particular grave of a remarkable man on our Ypres tours and Chapters From the Western Front tour.
Our guests from Oxford and Liverpool will no doubt already know the name Chavasse from the heritage of these two cities, and on our Ypres Remembered tour and Chapters from the Western Front tour we take a special interest in a certain Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC & Bar, MC, who was a British army doctor. He is one of only three people to have been awarded the Victoria Cross twice and the only person awarded two VCs during World War 1.
We thought it fitting to tell his story and explain why he received such high honours, not once, but twice.
One of seven children, Noel Chavasse was born in 1884 to Edith Maude and Francis Chavasse, who was later to become the Bishop of Liverpool. Noel and his twin brother Christopher (who was to become the Bishop of Rochester) were educated at Trinity College, Oxford and both boys represented Great Britain in the 1908 Olympic Games in the 400 metres.
Noel’s medical career continued after his sporting accolades, registering with the General Medical Council in 1912 and then being accepted by the Royal Army Medical Corps a year later. When the First World War broke out, Chavasse was a captain in the RAMC and attached to the 1/10th (Scottish) Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment).
His distinguished career began when he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry at Hooge, Belgium in June 1915, followed a year later by the award of the Victoria Cross for his actions on 9 August 1916, at Guillemont, France when he attended to the wounded all day under heavy fire. Hooge was one of the most feared places on the Western Front and Guillemont saw extremely heavy fighting during the Battle of the Somme. These are sites which we regularly visit on our Ypres and Somme tours. The full citation for Chavasse’s first VC was published on 24 October 1916:
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.
Chavasse’s second award was made during the period 31 July to 2 August 1917, at Wieltje, Belgium. The full citation was published on 14 September 1917 and 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.
Noel Chavasse died on 4 August 1917 and he is buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, Vlamertinge along with 530 other Commonwealth burials and 28 German graves. On our Ypres battlefield tours, we often visit his grave, remember his heroism and bravery and see the unique headstone of his grave which carries two Victoria Crosses.