I came across the story of Captain Noel Chavasse completely by accident late last year, when I was doing some research for a novel I was writing at the time. I’d never heard of him before but I was immediately intrigued by him, particularly as I could see accidental parallels between him and the main character of my novel. So when I needed to write a portrait based on research for university, I saw this it as the perfect excuse to do some research on Captain Chavasse. My first stop was to pick up a copy of the biography by Ann Clayton which left me completely in awe of Chavasse, and crying on the train like a fool two days in a row.
A doctor in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) during World War I, Chavasse was attached to a regiment known as the Liverpool Scottish, and saw some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The biography follows his life from birth (with a twin, Christopher, an extraordinary man in his own right), through to his education in Oxford and Liverpool, eventually following him into the trenches of France and Belgium. His actions during the war saw him twice awarded the Victoria Cross. In the history of the medal, which has been in existence for over a century and a half, Chavasse is one of only three men to be given the medal twice, and of the three he is the only one to have earned both of his in The Great War. The despatch for his first V.C. essentially sums up the war for Chavasse:
“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 found in front the enemy’s lines for four hours. Next day he took one stretcher-bearer to the advanced trenches, and, under heavy 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 trusty 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.” (p.165)
But while his exploits during the war are certainly admirable, there is much more than this to Noel Chavasse, and Ann Clayton shows it beautifully. With access to letters between Noel and his family – some of which have never been seen publicly prior to this book – Clayton paints a portrait of a man who recognises, even as a young man, that he has been given a life of greater privilege than many others and who attempts to do as much as he can for those who are worse off than he. Knowing this of his character, it is of no surprise that he performed the feats that he did in the war.
Further, the biography illustrates how truly tragic the loss of life was during the war. Clayton has brought together personal correspondence, newspaper clippings, and military despatches to create a lasting memorial to one man and in doing so voiced the sense of loss of an entire generation. Like millions of others, Noel Chavasse never made it home and today lies in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery in Belgium. By the end of the book I was a blubbering mess and wondering what he – or any of the other soldiers who didn’t make it home – might have achieved had they not gone to war and lost their lives.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – I did some hardcore fangirling over Captain Chavasse so it’s pretty hard for me to go past him (plus the whole book is sort of about him, so there’s that). But his whole family is pretty admirable – just a great big group of excellent people.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – Anyone who has an interest in WWI history would probably enjoy it, as well as people who have a preference for reading biographies. Ann Clayton has done a great job with it – it’s probably one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.
FAVOURITE QUOTE – “‘Everyone here is trying to grow a moustache so I am having a go too.’ The last photograph taken of the Liverpool Scottish officers before they embarked for France shows that the young men had indeed almost all grown moustaches. However, this adornment did not last long in Noel’s case; within weeks he had removed it. Like so many of the things he did, this was an experiment, simply to see if he could do it; once he found that he could, he lost interest and looked around for another challenge.”