I might need my tin hat for this blog as it relates to an icon of the Great War. I have been mulling writing this blog for a while, but as my Twitter feed has recently contained posts about double Victoria Cross winners, and also Gordon Corrigan’s Mud, Blood and Poppycock, I decided to let my small world of blog readers know that I am a bit sceptical about the award of the Bar to the Victoria Cross for the medical officer Captain Noel Chavasse.
*** Disclaimer – I don’t doubt for one moment that Noel Chavasse was an outstandingly brave and extraordinarily dedicated man.***
On the off-chance that anyone does not know about Noel Chavasse, here is one of many links available from an internet search.
I have often seen in battalion war diaries “wounded at duty”. For those who do not know, it refers to a wound that is not so severe that it prevents carrying on with one’s duties. It appears that early on 31st July 1917 Captain Noel Chavasse was wounded at duty. Then, in the wee small hours of 2nd August he sustained a fatal wound and died on 4th August 1917.
I have pondered for while about the circumstances that gave rise to his tragic death and the award of the bar to his Victoria Cross, announced in the London Gazette on 14th September 1917. The citation says:-
“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 those 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 otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the bad weather conditions.
This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds.”
However, first hand testimony conflicts with that description on two levels. Does it matter?
Let’s first deal with the conflicts. The citation for the Bar to the VC is at odds with testimony Ann Clayton gathered for her biography Chavasse Double VC. Amongst her sources are family letters, the diary of Private Edmund Herd who, from April 1916, had acted as Chavasse’s orderly as well as a stretcher-bearer and other first hand accounts.
Ann Clayton describes Noel setting up an Aid Post at Bossaert Farm in an advanced position from the Dressing Station at Wieltje.
She writes: “Early in the attack on 31 July, while standing up and waving to soldiers to indicate the location of the aid post, Noel was hit by a shell splinter”. Writing on 8th August 1917, four days after the death of Noel, his brother Bernard referred to the wound as a scalp wound. By 1935 another brother, Christopher, referred to it as a fractured scalp. Ann Clayton says that: “He was, however, well enough to return to the dressing-station at Wieltje dug-out, where the wound was dressed.” The dressing station was about 1,000 yards away from the aid post, across several lines of trenches. Contrary to medical advice, after his head was bandaged, Noel returned to the aid post to carry on working.
So, here we have the first conflict: the citation says he was severely wounded early in the action while carrying a wounded soldier, whereas Ann Clayton’s biography indicates that early in the action he was wounded at duty, whilst waving directions to soldiers, and that he took time out to have the wound dressed at Wieltje. Both versions agree that Captain Chavasse refused to leave his post for two days and continued to perform his duties.
Note that although the citation refers to the wounded medical officer carrying on with his duties, it says nothing about the subsequent fatal wound. In fact, there is a degree of uncertainty, according to accounts cited by Clayton, as to how many wounds Noel Chavasse suffered; there may have been more between the first scalp wound on 31st July 1917 and the fatal body wound on 2nd August. However, what is clear is that Noel continued working.
The second conflict is that the citation says Noel, over a period of two days, “went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out”. There is a first hand account from Captain Thomas Owtram of 1/5 King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment testifying to Captain Chavasse directing stretcher bearers to wounded lying out in exposed positions on the night of 31st July 1917. The Clayton biography says that at nightfall on the 31st Noel assisted stretcher bearers to comb an area of the former battle zone, now in possession of Allied forces but under bombardment, for casualties. This implies that prior to nightfall Noel had been elsewhere i.e. for a period of time at Wieltje and then at the aid post. She also makes it clear that the following day Noel was hard at work inside the aid post. By this time there was a queue of wounded outside and he had the assistance of a captured German Medical Officer. The war diary for Noel’s battalion 1/10 (Scottish) King’s Liverpool Regiment recorded 180 men wounded as a result of the opening engagements of the Battles of Third Ypres on 31st July 1917 and men of other battalions were also fighting, and sustaining wounds, in the same vicinity as them.
I decided to read the Ann Clayton biography some years ago after being intrigued by Gordon Corrigan’s assessment of Noel Chavasse in Mud, Blood and Poppycock. Corrigan’s stance was that Medical Officers should remain in the Regimental Aid Post and that: “Without in any way attempting to detract from Chavasse’s personal heroism and self sacrifice, this author, cynical old soldier that he may be, cannot help but reflect that if he had been Chavasse’s commanding officer, then he might have awarded a rocket rather than the Victoria Cross”.
Had Noel Chavasse died at Guillemont in August 1916 during the actions for which he received his first VC (and was wounded in the side) then Gordon Corrigan might have a point. The first citation referred to multiple actions of Noel leading stretcher bearers to ground in front of the enemy’s lines i.e. in the face of the enemy, to recover and treat men. It refers to timing, distance, numbers of men. Should we read anything into such detailed omissions from the second citation, in addition to it being factually incorrect and obviously having been written without reference to the eye witness testimony of other ranks, such as Private Herd.
The Clayton biography, subsequent to Corrigan’s book, indicates a degree of exaggeration in the second VC citation about how much time Noel was working outside of his aid post. Indeed, it seems that he remained, largely, “at duty” and and that the wounds he received (whether it be 2,3 or 4) were sustained at duty at the aid post by shellfire.
Do the conflicts matter? Is it important that there are a number of erroneous implications/claims in the second VC citation i.e. that a severe wound was sustained on 31st July and it was, apparently, that from which Noel Chavasse eventually died after carrying on working beyond the call of duty; that he was carrying a wounded soldier at the time of that wound; that he split his time over two days between retrieving wounded from the battlefield as well as treating others at the aid post?
I have pondered for a while whether the Bar to Captain Noel Chavasse’s Victoria Cross was awarded as an act of morale raising expediency? I wonder, from whom did the recommendation originate and who provided the witness testimony for the citation? Army Form W3121 was used for the recommendations of all gallantry awards during the Great War and the basis for the entry to the London Gazette. It recorded the unit, regimental number, rank and name, date, place and details of action for which the individual is commended. It was annotated to indicate the levels it had reached and the outcome of the recommendation. Any award that was made then had to be listed on a schedule and the schedule number entered on AF W3121. I have searched without success; I have no idea where to locate these documents and I suspect they may form part of the burnt records from the Blitz.
Captain Chavasse’s commanding officer at the time of both VCs was Lieutenant Colonel J.R. Davidson, yet the format of the citations are very different (see first citation at end). Lieutenant Colonel Davidson visited Noel in hospital and wrote home to Captain Chavasse’s father, but no mention was made of a recommendation for a gallantry award. Neither was there anything in the battalion war diary, despite a whole string of other gallantry awards. However, neither of those is an unusual circumstance. What is unusual, though, is that, for the second time, Lord Derby, Secretary of State for War and Chairman of the Liverpool Cathedral Building Committee, contravened War Office rules, to write to Noel Chavasse’s father, the Bishop of Liverpool, to advise him of the granting of the Victoria Cross before it was officially approved. He had previously done so (whilst Under Secretary) for the first VC in 1916.
On 5th September 1917 (a month after Noel’s death) Lord Derby wrote to advise the bishop that a Bar was to be granted to Noel’s VC: “I signed something last night which gave me the most mixed feelings of deep regret and great pleasure and that was the submission to His Majesty that a Bar be granted to the Victoria Cross gained by your son. There is no doubt whatsoever that this will be approved …I do not think there is one that will appeal to the British public more than the record for which this Bar is to be given, and as I said at the beginning of my letter, it was a great pleasure to think that this recognition of his services is thus recorded”.
Ten days previously, Lord Stamfordham (Principal Private Secretary to King George V) had written to General Sir W.R. Robertson (Chief of the Imperial General Staff) on 26th August 1917, part of which states:-
“The King has read Lord Milner’s Minute of the 23rd in the War Cabinet papers, G.T. 1823. It confirms what His Majesty has heard for some time of the harm done by the repeated Press utterances in praise of the Dominion troops, while there is almost silence as to the British achievements and losses … His Majesty asks whether you do not think that more information should be given as to the doings of the British units and their efforts and successes … It certainly would be popular in the country and and at the same time help to dissipate the erroneous ideas formed by our Allies as to the share we are taking in the war”.
What better person to award a Victoria Cross to, and advertise the doings of a British unit, than the Medical Officer of the Liverpool Scottish. And a Bar to the VC at that! Stamfordham also conveyed the King’s condolences to Noel’s father.
In 2013, whilst researching someone recommended for the Victoria Cross, but not awarded (a not unusual circumstance), I came across an interesting file in the National Archives. It was thought provoking because I wondered whether one of the documents was there randomly, misfiled, or whether there was a connection with the other contents that was more than coincidence.
The file contains an annotated transcript of the original royal warrant for the Victoria Cross of 29th January 1856, an exchange of correspondence in March 1917 between F.E.G. Ponsonby of the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace and Lieutenant General J.S. Cowans at the War Office, plus the citation for the Bar to Noel Chavasse’s VC typed on War Office embossed paper.
The Ponsonby/Cowans correspondence references Lord Derby’s opinion with regard to the protocol around wearing the VC ribbon and possible Bar to VC.
One wonders why this had not been established in 1914 following the award of the Bar to the VC to Lieutenant Arthur Martin-Leake? (As an aside, a quirk of fate saw Captain Chavasse, VC, en-route to Casualty Clearing Station Number 32 at Brandhoek in which he died, pass through the 46th Field Ambulance whose Commanding Officer was, by now, Lieutenant Colonel Martin-Leake, VC and Bar.)
The typed document setting out the Royal Warrant has hand-written annotations, one of which highlights the fifth clause that the Cross: “shall only be awarded to those officers or men who have served Us in the presence of the enemy”. It bears repeating that the citation for Noel’s second VC erroneously implies that he: “went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out” over a period of two days.
Looking at the citation for the first VC it just says “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” whereas the second citation adds the words “when in action.” There is no doubt in my mind that Noel displayed outstanding devotion to duty and bravery. What bothers me are the conflicts in the second citation as explained, as if something had to be engineered, given the lack of detail compared to the first VC citation. If he had lived, a Bar to his Military Cross could have been awarded, which possibly may have been more in keeping? Nevertheless, if the powers-that-be thought a Bar to the VC was correct, then why not let the facts speak for themselves instead of embellishing them? I don’t think Noel Chavasse was served well by his contemporaries on this issue. I suppose it never occurred to them that a century later anyone would be researching the subject (not that I exactly have a big audience!)
Although Stephen Snelling, in his entry for a VC series of books, flags up a discrepancy between the 1930 History of the Liverpool Scottish (which echoes the VC citation) and Clayton’s findings, he leaves it at that. It also bothers me that, having set out her narrative, Ann Clayton leaves it to the reader to ponder on the discrepancy between the facts and the citation, as she makes no mention of it herself. Nevertheless, it is a biography worth reading and is still available from Pen & Sword.
All food for thought as I retreat back to my bunker!
Clayton, Ann Chavasse Double VC, Pen & Sword Military, 2006
Corrigan, Gordon Mud, Blood and Poppycock, Cassell, 2003
Snelling, Stephen VCs of the First World War Passchendaele 1917, Sutton Publishing, 1998
National Archives files:-
WO 256/21 Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of British Forces Western Front, diary
T331/1 Victoria Cross including warrants
WO 95/2929 1/10 King’s Liverpool Regiment war diary
Citation for First Victoria Cross 24th October 1916
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.