In a few minutes’ time, I will read from a list of Old Bedfordians who lost their life in the First World War. It is a seemingly interminable list, started by my predecessor Mr Moule and read twice per year, in here and in the Chapel, for the last eight years – we have only reached letter “L”. It is almost too sad to contemplate.
This year I am going to focus on a single individual, though, to try to understand what it must have been like. Earlier this term, at the Founders and Benefactors service, I spotted on the list of benefactors to the school the name Chavasse. It turns out that Patrick Chavasse attended Bedford School in the late 1940s, as did his brother Christopher before him and in later days his two sons Richard and Peter. Further research by Mr Garrett, and a kind email from Patrick himself, revealed that he was indeed related to the man I wanted to tell you about, Noel Godfrey Chavasse. This year, 2017, sees the centenary of the death of Noel Chavasse, the only man to have won the Victoria Cross twice during the First World War. The Victoria Cross is the most important award in the UK honours system. It was first awarded by Queen Victoria in 1857 and since then it has been awarded for “gallantry in the face of the enemy” on only about 1000 occasions in 150 years – and only to three individuals more than once. Noel Chavasse was in rare company, therefore.
He was one of seven children to Francis Chavasse, and he grew up in Oxford with his six siblings. He was a twin to Christopher, from whom he became inseparable, and they ended up in the same college at Oxford together, Noel reading Natural Sciences and Christopher reading Humanities. Their father had become Bishop of Liverpool, where he founded Liverpool Cathedral, and their grandfather had been a surgeon; the twins, perhaps naturally therefore, became one of each – Noel a Doctor and Christopher a Vicar. Noel and his younger brother, also at Oxford, joined the OTC – or Officer Training Corps – which some of you may choose to do when you get to University. Both twins won Blues at Oxford for running and lacrosse, and then both ran together for Great Britain in the 1908 Olympics. He undoubtedly had the most lovely of childhoods, devoted as he was to his family and with a range of interests and talents in sporting and academic fields. Noel continued to love his school and apparently returned every year for the Old Boy sports days, once playing cricket with a man called Charles Maltby, relative of the Bedford School Maltby family, and later, whilst at War, he wrote back to his old school from the front line.
Like Rev Atkins’s father in law, whose life and 100th birthday we heard about last week in Chapel, Noel Chavasse went to War not to fight, but to tend to the wounded. His was a story of extraordinary service, duty and bravery. One of his duties during the War was to retrieve the bodies, both dead and injured, from no-man’s land, under heavy fire from the enemy. On occasions, he would do this within metres of the enemy trenches, when in danger not only from them, but also from his own artillery who were shelling the Germans. Many of these bodies were those of his own friends; indeed, the first time he ever did it, he went out at night into no-man’s land and came back with the dead body of one of his great friends, Captain Twentyman. This was to happen to him a lot in the coming three years.
In his three years in the trenches, he kept up with news of his brothers and cousins: his own twin, Christopher, the clergyman, rather wonderfully once came to take Holy Communion for Noel’s battalion at Ypres. Sometime later, he caught up with another brother, who had also been posted to Ypres. Many of his cousins, brothers and relatives, however, were killed; and he simply received the heartbreaking news via post at the Front. This was scarcely surprising, given the scale of the casualties; for instance, on the night be received his Military Cross, before he received both VCs, his battalion attacked Hooge, near Ypres. Noel worked for two days and two nights without sleep recovering bodies from no-man’s land – he did not stop until every single wounded man had been rescued. But the casualties were almost unimaginable – of the 23 officers and 519 men who attacked that day, only two officers and 140 men came through unscathed. It is impossible to imagine that. Maybe the most amazing thing was that Noel himself survived so long.
When Chavasse won his first VC for bravery at Guillemont, his old school celebrated a holiday in his honour, but they also got, amazingly, a letter from him from France, saying, amongst other things, thank you for honouring him and that he would (and I quote) “never forget it, and we shall always try to be worthy of the school we love so well”.
His second VC was won on the action which led to his death 100 years ago this year. He had set up a First Aid post in a captured German trench, whose entrance faced the back-up German trenches behind it. It started badly – he was hit by a shell splinter in the head whilst signalling his location to wounded soldiers. He went back to camp to have the wound dressed and was advised to stay to await evacuation for further treatment. He ignored this advice and went back to his duty, worked on the wounded all day, before going out into no-man’s land to collect bodies at night. The following day, having had no sleep, he was wounded three times, but still stayed with his troops. That night, a shell hit the First Aid post square on and killed all inside except for Noel Chavasse, who received four or five wounds, with a gaping hole in his abdomen. Even then, he managed to drag himself back to help; and even then, upon arriving at relative safety, he instructed the medical personnel there to leave him alone, and to go out and save others, whilst he inspected his own wounds. A few days later, very sadly, he died of his wounds in France and was buried locally, leaving his twin Christopher to survive the war.
Today, 100 years after his death, we remember him for several reasons; one is his family links to our school. Another is our own Memorial Hall, set up to remember the Old Bedfordians who died in the First World War, and with pride of place for the five Old Bedfordians who received the VC. I would like you ALL at some stage to go up there and to read the citations of those men – they all tell of similar stories to that of Chavasse. But most of all we remember him for who he was – a fun loving, young boy, growing up in a happy family, playing sport with his brothers and friends, enjoying childhood, and feeling proud of his experiences, a freedom for which he later died. There are a lot of boys in here who have a childhood not unlike Noel Chavasse, whose own life and the lives of many of his family and friends were so cruelly taken in conflict. When I read out the names of the young men who used to sit, like you, in the Great Hall of Bedford School for assemblies, please do dwell on that.