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