Two Victoria Crosses . . . Without Firing a Shot
Remembrance Day is on 11 November
by Guy Donegan-Cross (revised, originally published in 2011)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider Noel Chavasse, the only man to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the First World War.
Preparation and materials
- Have available the YouTube video ‘Noel Chavasse images.mov’ and the means to show it during the assembly. It is 1.08 minutes long and is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dl8Dx-ofgUE
The video images can be looped as background to the story.
- You may wish to play background music for the video. Examples of suitable music are available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zROSAakJ7tc&t=4557s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M720ICH_Ne0
- This year, we celebrate the centenary of the end of the First World War. It is a time to remember those who have fought bravely for freedom.
- Many people fought in the war. All deserve to be remembered and their contributions valued. However, some people were given special awards for bravery during the war, with the highest award being the Victoria Cross. The first Victoria Cross was presented by Queen Victoria in 1857 and today, more than 160 years later, it is still the highest honour for bravery awarded to members of the British armed forces.
- Only three men have ever been awarded the Victoria Cross twice. One of them, Noel Chavasse, was the only man to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the First World War. He was also awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in despatches.
- Noel was the son of the bishop of Liverpool and studied medicine at Trinity College, Oxford, before going on to pass the examination to be a surgeon. In 1913, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Noel was also an athlete. In the 1908 Olympic Games, he and his twin brother represented Britain in the 400-metre race.
In 1914, when the First World War started, Noel offered to serve in France and was attached to the Liverpool Scottish regiment as Surgeon-Lieutenant. This meant that as well as being a surgeon, he was also an officer, carrying out military duties. In November 1914, his regiment was sent to the Western Front (the front line of battle in Belgium and France).
Noel Chavasse’s family still have several of his letters home. These letters show how he cared and campaigned for his men, fighting for access to washing and delousing facilities, and pioneering the use of a tetanus jab to reduce the risk of infection from cuts and wounds. Noel was also outspoken about the importance of providing hospital and convalescent care for any soldier who showed signs of what we would now call a nervous breakdown or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In this, he was far ahead of his time. In those days, soldiers suffering from what was then termed ‘shell shock’ were treated as cowards and weaklings. It is likely that this attitude held back Noel’s promotion.
- In March 1915, his regiment took part in the offensive at Ypres in France, where poison gas was used for the first time. Three months later, only 142 of the 829 men who had arrived with Chavasse remained on active duty. The rest had been killed or badly wounded. Noel asked for a gramophone (you may need to explain what this is) to play to the men.
In June 1915, his regiment took part in the Battle of Hooge, in Belgium. Although it was the job of medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers to search for the wounded in no man’s land (the area between the German and Allied front lines), Noel would regularly head there at night, to search for wounded soldiers. It was for these acts of courage, carried out in addition to his daily medical work, that he was awarded the Military Cross.
In July 1916, his regiment was moved to the Somme, in France. In August 1916, the regiment received orders to advance against the town of Guillemont. They suffered heavy losses, losing one sixth of their force in four assaults. Out of 600 men,167 were wounded, and 17 officers were killed or wounded during this action alone.
On the first day, Noel looked after the wounded all day, in the open, under heavy fire, frequently in view of the enemy. That night, he spent four hours searching for the wounded on the ground in front of the enemy’s lines. He himself was wounded when shell splinters were blown into his back. In spite of that, the next day, he continued with his medical work, and also went to the advanced trenches and carried an urgent stretcher case 500 metres to safety. That night, he took a party of 20 volunteers and again ventured into no man’s land, passing within 20 metres of the German front line, to rescue three wounded men. In addition, and while fired on by machine guns, he buried the bodies of two officers, and collected many identity discs. For this, Noel was awarded his first Victoria Cross. The official citation concludes, ‘His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.’
- Because of his wounds, Noel was transferred to hospital, but when he recovered, he insisted on returning to his unit at the front. Almost a year later, on 31 July 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, there was a British advance. While working in the casualty clearing station, Noel was hit in the head by shell splinters, which caused blood loss. There was the possibility of a fractured skull. The wound was dressed, but he refused to be evacuated.
For nearly two days, he went out repeatedly into the battlefield, rescuing and treating wounded soldiers, working under heavy fire, without rest or food and faint from his own severe wounds. He rescued many who otherwise would have died. For this, he was awarded a Bar to the Victoria Cross, effectively a second Victoria Cross.
- At 3 a.m. on 2 August, while Noel was trying to get some rest, a shell landed in the aid post. Everyone there was either killed or seriously wounded. Noel received four or five wounds, the worst being a gaping stomach wound. He somehow managed to crawl out of the dugout and get to another one. Medical help was sent for, and doctors operated on his wounds. But two days later, at 1 p.m. on Saturday 4 August 1917, Noel died peacefully.
Time for reflection
On Noel Chavasse’s gravestone are the words of Jesus: ‘Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends.’ There could be no more fitting epitaph for Noel, who was a Christian, and demonstrated by his actions his commitment to God and his love for others.
There are many similarities between the story of Noel Chavasse and the story of the life of Jesus.
– Noel cared about his fellow soldiers, both by treating them medically and by fighting for improvements to their living conditions.
– Noel fought for the underdogs, such as those shell-shocked soldiers who were accused of being cowards.
– Noel condemned religious people who talked, but did not act.
– Noel put the lives of others before his own, but not in a kamikaze way, seeking self-destruction. He had just got engaged and didn’t want to die. However, when the need arose, he was courageous.
Christians believe that these qualities are important for their own lives.
In silence, let us remember those who have died in war.
Pause to allow time for reflection.
We thank you for all those who have fought in wars with the aim of bringing freedom and peace.
We thank you for brave men and women who continue to serve in the armed forces.
We pray for protection and safety.
We thank you for the life of Noel Chavasse. Thank you for his bravery and his love and care for others.
We thank you for the way you love us and for the bravery of the cross.
Please help us to have the courage to care and to stand up for the needs of other people.
Popular songs from the First World War. Examples are available in the YouTube video, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary/Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag’, which is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsynSgeo_Uo (3.16 minutes long)
The YouTube video ‘Elgar – Nimrod (from Enigma Variations)’, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUgoBb8m1eE (4.20 minutes long)