The double Victoria Cross awarded to Captain Noel Chavasse during WW1 has been sold privately to Lord Ashcroft for a reported £1.5million.
The VC and Bar was sold by St. Peter’s College, Oxford which was founded in 1929 by Captain Chavasse’s father, the Reverend Francis Chavasse, and had been gifted the medals decades before by the Chavasse family.
These medals will no doubt be the star exhibits at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum which will house Lord Ashcroft’s VC collection, as well as 50 other VC’s from the Museum’s own collection.
Captain Noel Chavasee was the medical officer attached to the 10th (Liverpool Scottish) Battalion, The King’s (Liverpool)Regiment during the First World War and was the only man to be awarded 2 VC’s in this conflict.
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:
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, during the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchedaele).
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.
The Citation for the second award read:
The award was announced in the London Gazette on 14th September, 1917. It read:
Though severely wounded early in the action whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the dressing station, 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. During these searches, although practically without food during this period, worn with fatigue and faint with his wound, he assisted to carry an number of badly wounded men over heavy and difficult ground. By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example 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.
Captain Chavasse 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 Commission who do such a wonderful job in many countries of the world.