Noel Chavasse, 1884-1917: Olympic ath­lete, killed in Brand­hoek, Bel­gium

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Boxing -

In the last hours be­fore his death on Aug 4, 1917, Noel Chavasse found the strength to dic­tate one fi­nal mes­sage to his fi­ancee, Gla­dys. “Duty called and called me to obey,” he said.

More than a cen­tury later and the words “duty called” form part of a tat­too on an arm of his great, great niece, Anna Sin­field, who last year hon­oured the an­niver­sary of his death by vis­it­ing what is a unique grave at the Brand­hoek New Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery in Bel­gium.

Capt Chavasse was the only man to be awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross twice in the First World War and, as such, his head­stone has two crosses on it, to­gether with an in­scrip­tion: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Chavasse’s courage was one of many qual­i­ties that would con­verge to make him ca­pa­ble of such hero­ism. He was also an Ox­ford blue in ath­let­ics and lacrosse and, with his twin brother Christo­pher, com­peted in the 400me­tres for Great Bri­tain at the 1908 Lon­don Olympics.

Sin­field be­lieves that this sport­ing prow­ess con­trib­uted di­rectly to his in­cred­i­ble feats as a doc­tor in some of the blood­i­est bat­tles ever fought.

“The im­por­tant thing in re­la­tion to the war was the level of fit­ness and that pas­sion for be­ing in a team,” she says. “He would run to peo­ple’s aid and was us­ing those skills he had from the Olympics. In his let­ters home, all he talked about was his duty to his men.”

He is de­scribed by Mary Lau­rie, whose own grand­fa­ther was Noel’s iden­ti­cal twin, as “ex­traor­di­nar­ily coura­geous” and “the most won­der­fully car­ing per­son to­wards his men”.

His first Vic­to­ria Cross fol­lowed his ex­ploits at the Somme, where he spent day and night tend­ing to in­jured men, all the time un­der heavy fire. He saved nu­mer­ous lives and also buried sev­eral of­fi­cers whilst wounded him­self. The ci­ta­tion de­scribed his ac­tions as “be­yond praise”.

At the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, he was then wounded in the head, but in­sisted on again go­ing out into no-man’s-land to at­tend the in­jured. His first-aid post was hit by a shell. He suf­fered mul­ti­ple in­juries – his face was said to be un­recog­nis­able – but he crawled half a mile through the soak­ing mud to get help for oth­ers be­fore dy­ing two days later.

“He was one of the bed-time sto­ries that I was told grow­ing up and he be­came like a su­per­hero to me,” says Sin­field.

“I thought, ‘This guy shares my blood and I want to know more’. There are many sto­ries, but the one I love most is of him in no-man’sland while there were shells rain­ing in. You are not sup­posed to go in no-man’s-land, but he stood up, shone a torch and shouted, ‘Here’s the doc­tor’. He was so mul­ti­fac­eted but, above all, there was this sense of duty and of ser­vice to God and coun­try.”

Self­less: Capt Noel Chavasse was twice awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross

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