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Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC and Bar, MC, RAMC. (1884-1917)

Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC and Bar, MC, RAMC

Noel Chavasse was a distant cousin of members of the Chavasse family who lived in Brierley Hill, Staffs. Members of the Brierley Hill branch of the family married into the Pearson and Parrish families.

Captain Noel Chavasse was Medical Officer of the 10th (Liverpool Scottish) Battalion, the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment, during the first three years of the First World War. He was the only man to win the British Military's highest award for valour, the Victoria Cross, twice during the Great War. Only two other men have achieved this honour, Captain Arthur Martin-Leake who won his first VC during the Anglo-Boer War in 1901 and his second in 1915 during the First World War, both men were in the Royal Army Medical Corp . The second of these men was Captain Charles Upham, a New Zealander serving with 20th Bn, 2nd NZEF (The Canterbury Regiment) who won his first VC as a Second Lieutenant in Crete between 22 and 30 May 1941 and his Bar on 14/15 July 1942 at El Ruweisat Ridge, Western Desert as a Captain. during the Second World War. There is a further connection between these three men that I will explain later.

Noel Godfrey Chavasse was the second of two identical twin boys born to the Rev. Francis James Chavasse and Edith Jane Chavasse (nee Maude) on Sunday 9th November, 1884 at 36 New Inn Hall Street, Oxford. Christopher Maude was born 20 minutes before his brother. In all there were seven children born to the Chavasse Family, these were (oldest first) Dorothea, Christopher, Noel, Edith, Mary, Francis and Aidan. The twins were very small and weak at birth that their baptism was delayed until 29th December, 1884 and both were very ill with typhoid in their first year of life.

The family grew up in Oxford until on 3rd March, 1900, Rev. Chavasse was offered the the Anglican Bishopric of Liverpool. The move was not without regrets as Liverpool during this time was one of the busiest seaports in the Empire and also had a great deal of religious turmoil in progress. The family moved to the Bishop's Palace at 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool. Noel and Christopher went to school at Liverpool College where they excelled at sports from the start. Their academic progress was (to start with) rather slower but as they grew older, both boys did well until in 1904, both young men returned to Oxford, having been admitted to Trinity College. 1904 was a significant year in another way as Bishop Chavasse's long held dream of building a Cathedral fit for a city of the stature of Liverpool, finally came to fruition when on Tuesday, 19th July, 1904, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra laid the foundation stone.

In 1907, Noel graduated with First Class Honours but Christopher failed and this lead him to a nervous breakdown. Both of them stayed at Oxford, Noel to study medicine and Christopher to retake his exams. During their time at Trinity, both men had not neglected their sports, Rugby being a favourite of theirs. It wasn't in Rugby that their highest achievement came, that came in 1908 when they were asked to represent Great Britain in the Olympic Games in the 400 metres. Noel finished second in his heat while Christopher finished third, neither time was fast enough to progress further.

In January 1909, Noel joined the Oxford University Officer Training Corps Medical Unit. He must have been a natural as by the following May, he was promoted to lance-sergeant. It must have been difficult for him as he felt he had been promoted over the heads of some senior corporals and additionally his unit was inspected by General John French, on June 5th, 1909, who in 1912 became Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Noel finished his studies at Oxford in July 1909 and returned to Liverpool to continue his studies under such eminent teachers as Robert Jones who went on to become a leading authority in orthopaedic surgery

Now Noel was back home, he resumed his connection with Grafton Street Industrial School, an institution for homeless boys in Liverpool. In the autumn, Noel went to London to sit his examination for Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, he failed but it appears that he was ill at this time and when he sat it again in May, 1910, he passed it with ease. Christopher, in the mean time was well into his studies for the Ministry under his father's guiding hand. Noel progressed through his studies having studied pathology and bacteriology. As part of his course, he was obliged to undertake a hospital 'placement', he found a position at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin. Whilst Noel liked Dublin, his first experience of living in a Roman Catholic community disturbed him. He took a dislike to the local priesthood whom he considered lazy and avaricious.

January, 1912 saw Noel pass his final medical examination, he did very well. In fact in March, the University awarded him their premier prize, the Derby Exhibition.. On 22nd July, 1912, Noel registered with the General Medical Council, he was now a doctor. His first placement was at the Royal Southern Hospital in Liverpool, initially until 31st March 1913, it was renewed for a further six months at the end of which time Noel was delighted to accept the position of house surgeon to Robert Jones himself. It was in early 1913 that after discussions with some of his fellow doctors that Noel applied for and was accepted by the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.) and thanks to one of his mentors, a Dr McAlistair, who was then Surgeon-Captain of the 10th Batallion of the Kings (Liverpool Regiment), the Liverpool Scottish, he was attached to the battalion as surgeon-lieutenant. The 10th Kings had been a Territorial Battalion since the Haldane Reforms in 1909. Noel joined the battalion on 2nd June, 1913 and was welcomed by Lieutenant-Colonel W. Nicholl, the Commanding Officer. Noel now was a very busy man, he still had his medical career to attend to as well as his Territorial duties.

The Great War

Only twelve months had passed when the storm clouds of war appeared on the horizon. On 28th June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip. Noel was preparing for a two week summer camp with the battalion and signed the leave book at the Southern Hospital from 2nd to 16th August, he was never to return to his position, on 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. Being a Territorial Battalion, the 10th Kings were not obliged to serve overseas but on 10th August, whilst Noel was examining recruits at Chester, he heard that his C.O. had offered to serve in France. There is evidence that Noel was prepared to use the friendship between Bishop Chavasse and Lord Derby, who was the Director General of Recruiting, for his own purposes, however it was Christopher who was the first member of the family to make it to France, he became Chaplain to Number 10 General Hospital at St Nazaire. Noel did not have long to wait, on 9th October, 1914, orders were received for the battalion to move to Tonbridge Wells in Kent, prior to moving overseas. Much training and equipping went on until on 1st November, 1914, the battalion climbed on board a train destined for Southampton Docks and France. Appropriately, the ship that carried them was a Liverpool ship, the Maidan, captained by a Birkenhead man. It arrived at Le Havre at 7am on 2nd November.

Moving forward, Noel was determined to save everyone from the effects of the oncoming winter and the dangers of living in the open. Tetanus was on ongoing worry for him as there was no vaccine (the vaccine for it wasn't developed until the 1930's). He obtained and was one of the first doctors to use anti-tetanus serum on wounded men. This serum was a great success, over eleven million doses were administered during the war and very few men developed tetanus as a result. The battalion moved into the front line for the first time on Friday 27th November near Kemmel. Noel's first patient was Captain Arthur Twentyman who was hit in the chest by a bullet only twenty four hours after arriving, he died of his wound. Noel soon became aware that his expectations of being safe behind the lines was fallacious, his speed as exhibited in 1908, saved him from snipers in dashes across open areas more than once. Trench foot appeared early as the trenches around Ypres were notorious for the wet conditions. His charges had been standing in mud and water for 72 hours and more casualties were caused by this than by enemy action (The Liverpool Scottish had started with 829 men and 26 officers but by the first week in January, 1915 there were only 370 fit men, only 32 had been killed). The filth bothered Noel a lot as there was no way he could treat his wounded men with clean hands. By the time he had cut through the muddy uniform, he would be as filthy as his patients.

March 1915 brought change to the battalion as they were transferred into the Ypres Salient (near Hill 60) just in time for the Second Battle of Ypres when poison gas was used for the first time in April 1915, Noel managed to get his father to send out a gramophone for the battalion which went down very well. The battalion were not directly affected by the chlorine release by the Germans but it had caused much alarm. At this time Christopher had to act at the execution of a soldier (I'm not sure who it was but watch this space) which affected him deeply and he spent long hours (when he could) meeting Noel and talking about it. June 1915 brought the death of the first member of the Chavasse family. Captain Francis Chavasse of the 1/3rd Sikh Pioneers was Noel's cousin and he was killed in Aden.

The 10th June, 1915 brought the battalion into the Battle of Hooge, by the time it finished, only 140 men and two officers were fit, Noel had lost most of his friends and Noel was recommended by his Commanding Officer for a Military Cross for his work during the battle but unfortunately, the recommendations were lost at Division level and not one of the battalion received any recognition for their actions ( Noel finally was awarded The Military Cross on 14 January, 1916, there was no citation in the London Gazette due to the lost recommendation and the length of the list). The battalion were granted leave after the battle and Noel was one of the lucky recipients.


Noel was promoted to Captain in August 1915 and the next six months were spent in the gruelling tasks of trench warfare. Further promotions were denied him, primarily I think, because he was an outspoken critic of certain branches of the R.A.M.C. also because he was sympathetic to men who's nerves had gone. In February 1916, Noel again had some leave granted, he returned to his unit shortly before another cousin, Lt. Arthur Chavasse, also a doctor, died of pneumonia on 12th March. Early in April, Noel learned he was being granted three days leave to return to London to receive his Military Cross personally from King George V. Unfortunately his award was postponed and after many delays, he finally went to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday 7th June, 1916, almost a year since the Battle of Hooge. The Battle of the Somme started on 1st July 1916 another of his cousins, Louis Maude was killed near Ovilliers. This greatly added to the fears of the older members of his family back home.


On 30th July 1916, The battalion was moved into the Somme battlefield near Mametz. The plan was for the battalion to be in reserve for an attack on Guillemont on 31st, but they were never used. The next week for the men was spent digging communication trenches. On 7th August, the battalion received orders to take part in an assault on Guillemont at 4:20am on the 8th. The battalion was part of 166th brigade and was again in reserve. The attack by 164th and 165th brigades was successful on the right but in the middle and left, it was held up. The Liverpool Irish in 164th Brigade appeared to be cut off near the railway station. The 166th were ordered to attack at 4:20am the following morning. The preparation for the attack didn't go well. The guides failed to turn up, and while waiting for fresh guides, they were caught in German shelling which caused casualties. Eventually the guides arrived but they only had the vaguest idea of the route. The battalion reached the jumping off trenches with only minutes to spare.

The attack was to be made past Trones Wood and Arrowhead Copse to capture the German front line trench and on into Guillemont. The attack started under a German bombardment of the trenches and no-mans-land. Heavy machine gun fire swept Death Valley and pinned down the attackers. In all four attempts were made by the battalion but all without success. The failed attack cost the Liverpool Scottish dear, out of a starting complement of twenty officers and about 600 men, five officers were killed, five were missing and seven wounded. Of the men, sixty nine were killed, twenty seven missing and 167 wounded. This attack was made over the same ground that 30th Division which incorporated 89th Brigade attacked on 30th July, 1916 with enormous casualties. 89th Brigade was manned with three Battalions of the Liverpool Pals. The Scottish must have known the men who lay so thickly on the ground over the ground they were attacking. What this did to their morale does not need any explaining.

During the action, Noel was wounded by two small shell splinters in his back, despite this, he performed the deeds that were to gain him his first VC. The evening of the attack saw Noel and a party of volunteers in no-mans-land helping bring in wounded men. He got as close 25 yards (23 metres) to the German front line where he found three men. This went on all night and throughout all this, a constant rain of snipers bullets and occasional bombing swept no-mans-land.

The battalion went back to a rest area at Valines west of Abbeville, Noel was granted sick leave to recover from his wound. He rejoined his battalion on 7th September near Delville Wood. Back in the thick of the fighting, he was again out rescuing men and treating those brought in to his Casualty Clearing Station. In early October Bishop Chavasse received a letter from Lord Derby which despite being "absolutely forbidden by War Office Rules" he informed the Bishop that "one of your sons in the RAMC attached to the Liverpool Territorials" had been forwarded to him and he "had the honour of forwarding his name to His Majesty for the bestowal of this magnificent Order (the V.C.) and I cannot tell you how pleased I was to do so". The Bishop wrote immediately to Noel who replied (with some scepticism) ".. till I see it in print I will not believe". He told no one else in the battalion.

The battalion moved from the Somme back to the Ypres Salient in the Weiltje sector, it was even more battered and grim than he remembered it. By this time, news started to reach the battalion of awards following the action at Guillemont. Two of Noel's stretcher bearers had been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and two more the Military Medal then on 26th October, 1916 the London Gazette announced that Noel Godfrey Chavasse MC, RAMC had indeed been awarded the Victoria Cross. The Scottish received the news on 28th October and a celebration ensued, the officers held a dinner for Noel in a chateau at Elverdinghe. The citation in the London Gazette read:


    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 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 trusty 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.

The reaction in Liverpool was ecstatic, the Bishop was feted and Noel was even included in a cigarette card series 'Victoria Cross Heroes' by Gallaghers. Noel was inundated by letters from all sorts of people and true to his character, he found time to reply to them all. Even Noel's sister May, a VAD at a hospital at Etaples found herself very much in demand.

Noel was transfered further back to a small hospital because he had got himself in trouble by criticising two spheres of the RAMC. His letters concerning the Field Ambulance and the treatment of venereal disease amongst the troops aroused a lot of ill feeling, even up to his Major General, but Noel insisted that what he had written was the truth and he refused to back down. Eventually the furore died down and by Christmas 1916, Noel was back with his beloved Scottish.

In February, 1917 Noel was granted 14 days leave, he went on 5th February to Buckingham Palace where he was one of seven men being invested. It is perhaps a sign of the times to note that he was only accompanied by four female relatives, all the male members of the family were in France. The medal was brought back to Liverpool by his cousin Marjorie for safe keeping in the Bishop's Palace. It was during this leave, he became engaged to his longtime sweetheart Gladys.

Noel returned to the Scottish and immediately found himself having to treat a condition, peculiar to kilted battalions in icy weather, frostbitten knees. The next few months were relatively quiet. On 9th April, Noel learned that his sister May, had been mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig's despatches for her services at Etaples. Noel was delighted. On 20th June, The Scottish moved to Zudausques, a village west of St Omer where they had a long stay training for the forthcoming offensive. The youngest Chavasse brother Aidan was transfered to the 17th Kings, a "Pals" battalion where another brother Bernard was Medical Officer.

The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele)

On 7th June, 1917, 19 mines were exploded under the German front line on the Messines ridge. This Battle of Messines was a necessary prelude to the offensive that was to become the Third Battle of Ypres as it cleared the southern edge of the salient. None of the family were involved although they undoubtly would have heard the explosions, however, the Chavasse family luck was now fast running out.

On the 1st July, at Observatory Ridge, about 5 miles from Ypres and a mile from Hooge, the 17th Kings were in the front line. Lieutenant Aidan Chavasse and 8 men were out on a raiding party when they met a German patrol, in the fighting Aidan was wounded. When the party returned, Aidan was missing. Bernard and some others went out to try and bring him back but he was never found. Aidan's name is among 55000 other names of men missing in the Ypres Salient on the Menin Gate at Ieper. Noel's twin Christopher was in the meantime awarded a MC, the Bishop wrote on 24th July to Noel to tell him the news, but Noel never received it and it is probable that he never knew of Christopher's achievement.

The offensive was scheduled to start on 25th July but due to several factors, it was delayed until 31st July. On 20th July, The Scottish moved away from their training camp and back to the familiar ground at Weiltje. The preliminary bombardment for the offensive had already started and the Germans replied by shelling the roads and communication trenches which caused 9 deaths in the battalion as they moved up to the front line. Mustard Gas and high explosive shelling caused a further 145 casualties in the next few days. On the 24th July, the battalion were relieved and they moved back to make good their losses. On the 29th July, they battalion moved forward to its assembly positions, ominously, the fine weather now broke and the rain, which was to turn the battlefield into the infamous quagmire, started. Noel, moved into the dugout at Weiltje. This was no simple scrape but an excavation large enough to hold several hundred men and deep enough to be safe from artillery. It even had its own generator to supply power for lighting and more importantly, water pumps.

The attack started at 3:50 am on 31st July. The Scottish were by this time already in open ground and made good progress towards their first objective and they pushed on towards the Steenbeek, a stream that crossed their route. As they crossed it, they were held up by uncut wire in front of them and by heavy machine gun fire from Capricorn Trench. One of the two tanks detailed to aid in the assault came up at 7am and despite being put out of action very quickly by three direct hits from a German field gun, it managed to break through the wire and by 7:45am all the battalion's objectives had been taken. Noel had moved his aid post forward with the attack and set it up in a captured German dug out at Setques Farm. The area was subjected to intensive German fire but he stayed put. The dugout was small and it served only as a patching up station before the wounded were sent further back Noel had been injured in the head by a shell splinter as he stood up and waved to indicate the position of his aid post. It is possible he suffered a fractured skull in this incident. After being dressed at the Weiltje dug out, Noel returned, despite advice to stay put, to his aid post. His stretcher bearers had been busy and Noel was very busy until sundown. As night fell Noel picked up his torch and went searching the wrecked landscape for survivors, it was raining again by this time.

Early the following day, Noel found himself a German captive who was a medic and the two of them worked hard to treat wounded men in the impossible conditions of mud, blood and water. Noel went to the door of the dugout to call in the next man when a shell flew past him and down the stairs, killing the man who was waiting to be carried away by the Field Ambulance. Details get very confused at this point, Noel may have received another wound but he carried on. The official history of the Liverpool Scottish has it that Noel was wounded twice more in the head. One stretcher bearer had been sent to the aid post to tell Noel to return. Despite intense pain, "The Doc refused to go and told us to take another man instead". There is no doubt that at about 3am in the morning of Thursday 2nd August, 1917, another shell entered the aid post, Noel was sitting in a chair trying to get some sleep. Everyone in the aid post was either killed or seriously wounded. Noel had received four or five wounds, the worst being a gaping abdominal wound from which he bled profusely. He managed to crawl up the stairs and out of the dug out and crawled along the (flooded, muddy) "road" until he stumbled across a dugout occupied by Lt. Charles Wray of the Loyal North Lancs Regiment who sent for help and later sent an account to his local paper.

Noel was sent to Casualty Clearing Station No. 32 at Brandhoek, which specialised in abdominal wounds. He was operated on immediately and after all the shell splinters had been removed he was patched up. He regained consciousness and he spoke to a Colonel Davidson who reported "He seems very weak but spoke cheerfully". It was not to be a happy ending however as Noel died peacefully at 1pm on Saturday 4th August, 1917. Three years to the day since the outbreak of the war. Bishop and Mrs Chavasse received the telegram informing them of the sad news on the morning of 9th August, the day after they had been informed that Bernard had been wounded in his knee.

This Devoted and Gallant Officer...

The Bishop wrote to Bernard informing him of Noel's death:

Bernard had indeed heard of Noel's death. He had been only a mile south of the Liverpool Scottish on the fateful day and had been trying to find out as much as he could about the circumstances. Bernard managed to get to CCS 32 on 6th August, the day he heard, but sadly Noel had already been buried. Coincidences abound for this event. Sister Ida Leedam who nursed Noel in his final hours had worked with Noel at the Southern Hospital in Liverpool. She wrote to the Bishop, filling in some more gaps in the story.

Noel was buried on the 5th August. No special arrangements were made but despite this, the whole battalion paraded and every Medical Officer at the hospital attended the funeral. The news was released in the press on Friday 10th August. Many messages and letters were sent to the Bishop, including one from King George V. Obituaries appeared in all the local press, the British Medical Journal and the national press. The Daily Mail had a picture of Noel. Christopher, being Noel's twin was deeply affected. He knew Noel had gone, even though he was 80 miles away at the time. Gladys, Noel's fiancee was distraught. Back in Liverpool, a memorial service, ostensibly for the local men who had died at Passchendaele was held on 29th August at 3pm at St Nicholas' Church on the Mersey waterfront. The partly built cathedral wasn't big enough to hold everyone. The singing was accompanied by the sounds of a violent storm outside.

The war still went on. Bernard had been told he was to get an MC, this was gazetted on 29th September. Early in September a letter arrived at the Bishop's Palace from Lord Derby that made the Bishop break down in tears. It read:

The award was announced in the London Gazette on 14th September, 1917. It read:

Virtually any establishment that had a connection with Noel made haste to commemorate him, as the son of a Lord Bishop, he is entered on the House of Lords memorial. You can see his name in many places in the City of Liverpool if you only have eyes to see. So what happened to some of the other people in this tale? Bishop Chavasse retired in 1923 and took his wife back to Garsington Rectory in Oxford. Mrs Chavasse died in 1927 aged 76, the Bishop in 1928 aged 81. Christopher rose through the Church of England to, in 1942, become the Bishop of Rochester in Kent, he died in 1962. Christopher's eldest son, called Noel after his uncle served with Field Marshal Montgomery in World War 2 and also won a Military Cross. Bernard became a renowned ophthalmic surgeon in Liverpool after the war, he died in a car accident in 1941. May Chavasse lived until February 1989 when she was 103, so she too received a telegram from the Queen, this one for her 100th Birthday. Gladys met and married the Reverend James Colquhoun in 1919, Christopher was one of the officiating clergy. She lived until 1962 by which time she was profoundly deaf. She died when she was hit, crossing a road in France, by a car she never heard.

Noel is buried in Brandhoek's New Military Cemetery. His grave (Plot 3, Grave B15) has had several memorials over the years, the current headstone was erected on 28th April 1981. It is the only headstone in the world to have two Victoria Crosses engraved on it. The inscription "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" was selected by his father. This cemetary is looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commisson who do such a wonderful job in many countries of the world. Noel's medals were given on permanent loan to the Imperial War Museum in February 1990 in the presence of HM the Queen Mother, and they can be seen there in the Victoria and George Cross gallery.

      The medals of both Noel and Christopher Chavasse on display in the Victoria and George Cross Gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London. Noel's medals are in the top row with Christopher's underneath. The medals are:


      Victoria Cross and Bar; Military Cross; 1914 Star with clasp; British War Medal 1914-20; Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mention in Despatches.


      Order of the British Empire (OBE - Military Division); Military Cross; 1914 Star with clasp; British War Medal 1914-20; Victory Medal 1914-19; King George VI Coronation Medal 1937; Territorial Efficiency Decoration; Croix de Guerre 1914-18 France

Even today Noel Chavasse is remembered and honoured here in Liverpool. The Merseyside Branch of the Western Front Association in collaboration with the King's (Liverpool) Regiment published a limited edition first day cover on the 80th Anniversary of Noel's first V.C. Liverpool College has memorials to both Noel nd Aiden in the school. There is bronze bust of Noel in the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, on the opposite side of the Cathedral, a memorial to his father is placed in a wall. Noel's entry in the Book of Remembrance covers more than half a page and includes his VC. citations. Thirteen thousand Liverpool men gave their lives in the Great War. I for one hope to keep some of their memories alive and fresh. In July, 2000, a party of people from all over the country went to Bellewarde Ridge near Ieper to unveil a new memorial to commemorate the men of the Liverpool Scottish who fell there in 1917.

Finally the connection between all three men who won a Bar to the VC.Lt - Col Arthur Martin-Leake,VC and Bar, RAMC was with 46th Field Ambulance, based at Brandhoek Crossroads who brought Noel to Casualty Clearing Station No. 32. Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham VC and Bar, was (distantly) related by marriage to Noel Chavasse.


Further information can be found in Ann Clayton's book "Chavasse - Double VC"

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