Captain Noel Chavasse is one of only three people to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice – and the only VC and Bar of the First World War.
His first honour came at the Somme. His second, at Passchendaele, cost him his life.
Olympian and war hero
Noel Chavasse was the archetypal upper-middle class gentleman – son of a bishop, a first class degree from Oxford and a place in the Great Britain Olympic team.
Born in Oxford in 1884, he grew up on Merseyside and ran the 400m for Britain at the 1908 London Olympics.
After joining the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1913 he went to France with 1/10th Battalion King’s Regiment, the Liverpool Scottish. Noel was not afraid to criticise his superiors – and got into trouble for complaining about the organisation of field ambulances, the rampant spread of venereal disease and the treatment of shell shock victims, who he believed should be helped, not shot for cowardice.
In June 1915 he won a Military Cross after 12 hours rescuing casualties at Ypres. In August 1916 he was awarded his first Victoria Cross for saving around 20 men while wounded at Guillemont on the Somme.
After two years in France with the Royal Army Medical Corps, his usually optimistic letters home had become more stark and reflective. In July 1917, he wrote to his parents about his wedding, his prospects and his VC:
“I shall get married about Christmas. Gladys wants it very badly. I shall feel rather a fool after the war, a married man without a job. Still, it’s a bit pathetic to have to leave a bronze cross to a cousin twice removed. I don't think I earned it as many men have had to do. I prize it more than I can say.”
He told how he had turned down the safety of a surgeon’s job to remain in the front line:
“I have written to the base hospital and said that though I valued the offer very much, I thought I had better stay with the lads. I felt rather depressed about it for a quarter of an hour. Always your loving Noel.”
Duty called and called me to obey.
Less than a month later, Noel was composing another letter, this time to his beloved Gladys. Mortally wounded at Casualty Clearing Station No 32 near Ypres, he dictated to a nurse: “Duty called and called me to obey.”
In the first attack of Passchendaele on 31 July 1917, Noel was hit in the head but refused to leave despite a fractured skull, venturing into no man’s land time and again to treat the wounded.
Early on 2 August, Noel’s first-aid post was hit by a shell. With his face unrecognisable and a serious stomach wound, he crawled half a mile for help. He died on 4 August aged 32.
Noel’s grave at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery is unique – the only headstone to have two Victoria Crosses on it. In 2009 his medals were bought by Lord Ashcroft for £1.5 million, the highest price paid for VCs. They are on display at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Passchendaele in 360
Watch our series of 360 videos bring the realities of Passchendaele to life.