Guest blog: ‘Duty called and called me to obey’ – Remembering Noel Chavasse

In 1917 British forces were engaged on many fronts, in an increasingly global conflict. On the Western Front the war became industrialised and remain deadlocked. The life of a soldier in the trenches was threatened by artillery, machine, guns, gas and disease. Despite the lack of breakthrough on the ground, the war proved to be a catalyst for innovation. Advancements in areas from equipment to medicine were vital to ending the war the following year, while many of the innovations, such as blood banks and plastic surgery benefit public healthcare to this day.

In 2014, we began a five year programme of commemoration to mark the centenary of the First World War, a six-coin set began a story in coins, ‘from Outbreak to Armistice’. This year, our First World War Centenary series continues with the 2017 First World War six-coin set. ‘Social and cultural impact’, ‘Armed Forces and Support Services’, ‘technology’, ‘conflict and battles’ and ‘heroes and famous figures’ are all subjects that have been captured on coins, each coin presenting a visual reminder of the innovation and fortitude that arose throughout the war.

Noel Godfrey Chavasse VC and BAR was a medical officer in the British Army and one of only three people to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice. 100 years after his death, his story remains truly inspirational, – Charlotte Czyzyk, from Imperial War Museum tells us more.

Noel was born on 9 November 1884 in Oxford. He was one of seven children; he had an identical twin brother, Christopher, along with another two brothers and three sisters. Noel’s father, Francis was appointed Bishop and they later moved to Liverpool.

Noel studied at the University of Oxford and Liverpool College, where he excelled both academically and in the sporting arena – in 1908 the Chavasse twins took part in trials for the London Olympic Games. In 1912, Noel qualified as a doctor, and the following year became a Medical Officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, attached to the 10th (Scottish) Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment.

© IWM (Q 67309)

After the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Chavasse siblings all served their country in different ways. You can discover the experiences of other members of Noel’s family here, including his brother Aidan who was killed in July 1917.

In 1914. Noel embarked for France and was respected by his unit as a skilled and compassionate doctor. He not only treated battle wounds but also gave advice on basic hygiene and helped to care for men suffering from war trauma, known as shell shock. He also endeavoured to lift men’s spirits by shipping over socks, magazines and even a gramophone to help make trench life more bearable.

Noel put himself in danger to help injured comrades, earning the Military Cross in June 1915 at Hooge near Ypres. The following year, he took part in the Battle of the Somme in which thousands of men were killed and injured. Over a period of two days and nights in August 1916, Noel tended the wounded under heavy fire, saving the lives of more than 20 men. He continuously went into No Man’s Land to retrieve the wounded, despite the risk of attack from German snipers. For his actions, Noel was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour for British service personnel. His family and fiancée Gladys were extremely proud of his achievements, and Noel accepted his medal from the King in February 1917.

Noel’s extraordinary bravery was matched by his modesty and devotion to duty. In June 1917, Noel turned down a safer position at a base hospital so that he could continue working where he was needed most, at the front lines. Just two months later, Noel made the ultimate sacrifice whilst serving during the Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele.

He set up a Regimental Aid Post close to the front lines, in order to treat the wounded quickly and efficiently. Like on the Somme the year before, he went out to search for injured men and himself sustained wounds in the process. When he finally stopped for a rest, Noel was tragically hit in the stomach by a shell and died at a Casualty Clearing Station at Brandhoek on 4 August 1917. His final message for Gladys, which he passed on through a nurse, was ‘Tell her duty called and called me to obey’ – of which feature in the coin’s edge inscription.

Noel was buried in a nearby cemetery the following day, and his funeral was attended by many of his fellow medics and patients. The following month Noel was awarded a posthumous second Victoria Cross, becoming the only person in the First World War to receive this double accolade.

100 years after his death we honour the memory of the only person to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the First World War, Noel Chavasse by depicting his portrait on a precious metal £5 coin. The coin features alongside a selection of themes, technology and events in the 2017 First World War six-coin set that continues our Outbreak to Armistice story in coins.

To find out more about our First World War Centenary series, click here.

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