England,  Phoebe,  Western Europe

The Great War

Chavasse family home, (left) and Chavasse family (right)
Chavasse family home, (left) and Chavasse family (right)

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, in June 1914, ultimatums were issued by Austria to Serbia, in the form of a list of demands. Serbia was able to agree to all but one of these demands, and as a result, backed up by the ‘blank cheque’ offer of support from Germany, Austria declared war. Russia quickly joined the Serbian cause, and Germany looked west to France, declaring war on August 3rd. The following day, August 4th 1914, Britain, in support of France and the entente cordiale, declared war on Germany.

After more than four years of bloody fighting interspersed with periods of trench stalemate and involving fighting in several arenas, the Central Powers were forced to accept an armistice. The war had seen the deaths of over 18 million people, both military and civilian, from nations covering most of the globe. Examples of genocide were revealed and Russia, having sued Germany for peace in 1917 was in the grip of a revolution which had involved the execution of her monarchy, the Romanovs.

Instead of focussing on the war in general, I’m going to focus on how the war affected three people’s lives. They share a link, and that link involves the date in a peculiar way, secondary but intertwined with the war. Some of this information has been supplied by our admin, Paula, as a result of ongoing investigation into her family tree. Although a few of the details are yet to be confirmed, I think it still tells an interesting story and it starts with a doctor….
Noel Godfrey Chavasse was born in Oxford in November 1884, the younger of identical twin boys, by a few minutes. There were five other children, three daughters, one of which, Dorothea was older than Noel and his twin Christopher, and the other two, Marjorie and May, were also twins but not identical, and two more sons. Bernard and Aidan. Their father, the Rev. Francis Chavasse would later become Bishop of Liverpool and founded St Peter’s college, Oxford.

Both Noel and Christopher attended Trinity College, Oxford, Noel graduated with a first class honours degree, and stayed on to study medicine, graduating in 1909. Noel had earlier that year joined the University Officers Training Corps medical unit. In 1908 both Noel and Christopher, keen sportsmen, represented Britain in the Olympics 400m dash, although neither qualified past the heats. The final was eventually won by a controversial walkover, after an incident involving some interference in the final. It was re-run two days later in lanes, with the American offender disqualified. The other competitors, also American refused to run, leaving British Wyndham Halswelle to race alone.

In 1910 Noel Chavasse passed his examination to enter the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, at the second attempt. He failed the first time due to ill-health. By 1912 he passed his final exams, winning the Derby Exhibition Prize and was registered with the General Medical Council. He then joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1913 after working at the Royal Southern Hospital in Liverpool for a year. Commissioned as Lieutenant in June 1913, he was attached to 10th Battalion of the (Kings) Liverpool regiment, known as the Liverpool Scottish, as Surgeon-Lieutenant for the battalion, which at the time was a territorial unit.

Following the outbreak of the Great War, Noel was called up for duty as a Captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was decorated with the Military Cross for Gallantry in Hooge, Belgium in June 1915. The following year, on 9th August, he attended the wounded all day under heavy fire during battle at Guillemont, France often in direct view of the enemy. He took a stretcher bearer out and rescued a wounded man, carrying him under heavy fire for 500 yards to safety despite being injured himself. That night, he returned towards enemy lines to gather wounded from shell-holes under fire, collecting identity tags from the dead as he went, and buried two dead. For his conspicuous bravery, and devotion to duty saving the lives of some possible twenty men, as well as attending his other patients, Noel Chavasse was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Almost exactly a year later, between 31st July and 2nd August 1917, during the third Battle of Ypres, at his dressing station at Wieltje, Noel, despite being wounded quite seriously, when carrying an injured soldier to his dressing station, went out time and again to search for more casualties. For two days, he continued in his mission, despite being tired and injured, without food, under heavy fire and bad weather, refused to leave his post and assisted in the bringing in of many injured men. Captain Noel Chavasse, for his conspicuous bravery was awarded a bar to his Victoria Cross, essentially a second cross. He was only the second ever person to achieve such a feat, and the first to do it in a single conflict. Another RAMC doctor, Surgeon-Captain Arthur Martin-Leake was awarded a Victoria Cross in the Boer War and his bar in 1914 during the first battle of Ypres.

One of the injured of the battle at Wieltje on 31st July was Acting Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Best-Dunkley. Due to heavy enemy machine gun fire, his battalion, 2nd/5th Lancashire Fusiliers, had become disorganised. He re-ordered the unit and led them against the enemy on multiple occasions during the day, rounding up stragglers as he went. At the end of his advance, his unit had achieved all their objectives, and despite being wounded, Best-Dunkley managed to fight off counter attack until reinforcements arrived and the line held. Born on 3rd August 1890 in York, Best-Dunkley had become a father for the first time only two weeks before his action, to a son. He was by some accounts an unpopular man not well liked by his unit, however they rallied under his command and Best-Dunkley was to receive his Victoria Cross as a result of his conspicuous bravery. It is highly probable that Best-Dunkley was treated for his wounds by Captain Chavasse.

Another of the injured was Pioneer Amos Courts. Born in Foleshill, Warwickshire in 1888, to a family of silk workers, Amos joined the army in one of the ‘Special Companies’ set up to perform certain duties. Attached to chosen battalions, these men of the special companies were often picked for certain skills such as tunnelling, engineering, and in Amos’ case his knowledge of chemicals as a dyer in the silk industry. Often given alternative ranks to the usual structure, to separate them, Courts had married just days before joining, being placed in special ‘A’ company, who were tasked with working with and against chemical weapons such as gas.

On 31st of July, Amos Courts was in the advance at Wieltje, although there are no details, it is thought that he was attached to Bertram Best-Dunkley’s unit or one of the other three battalions of the regiment in the area that day. It may have been that he was one of the stragglers that joined Best-Dunkley’s unit after losing his own. Whatever happened, Amos was injured during the battle, and ended up alongside his temporary commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Bertram Best-Dunkley, (soon to be) VC being treated by Captain Noel Chavasse VC and (soon to be) Bar.

Sadly a shell hit the dressing station at some point on the 2nd August, some sources state that following the blast which killed a number of his patients, and injured both Chavasse and several other of the already wounded further, he crawled half a mile to get help for the others, despite having a serious wound to the stomach as well as other injuries. On August 4th 1917, Pioneer Amos Courts and Captain Noel Chavasse VC and Bar, MC died of their wounds. The following day, Lieutenant-Colonel Bertram Best-Dunkley VC also succumbed to his injuries, having never seen his son.

Chavasse was buried in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, his grave uniquely in deference to his two Victoria Crosses, contains an engraving as such. Courts and Best-Dunkley were buried close to each other in the nearby Mendinghem Military Cemetery, taking its name from one of three such dressing stations in the area, Dosinghem, Bandagehem and Mendinghem, a tongue in cheek reference to the Belgian spellings of many of their villages. The dead from all three were amalgamated into the one cemetery after the war.

Christopher Chavasse survived the war, working as a chaplain, and was also awarded the Military Cross, again for conspicuous bravery, continuously going out and helping to retrieve the wounded and administer religious rites to comfort them, under heavy fire. He later became Bishop of Rochester, his brother Bernard also survived the war, and became a leading dentist in London. Aidan sadly was also killed during third Ypres but has no known grave, and is named on the Menin Gate Memorial.

We shall remember them.