Noel Chavasse letters, Jan 1915 - Mar 1915

Correspondence of Captain Noel Chavasse VC and Bar MC, Jan 1915 - Mar 1915

Introduction

These letters were sent by Noel Chavasse to his family from the beginning of January 1915 to the end of March 1915.

The letters are presented in the order assigned to them by the Imperial War Museum - some may be out of chronological order. Questions, corrections and enquiries about the use of images should be directed to archives@spc.ox.ac.uk

Letter from Noel Chavasse to Christopher Maude Chavasse              2 Jan 1915

Noel writes to his brother whom he believes to be in a nearby town. He expects to be back at Bailleul soon and asks that Christopher write to him. Mentions that he could easily ride to meet for lunch. Imagines Christopher is having a hard time of it and mentions that they will have plenty to talk about when they meet. Sent from Regimental Aid Station, Firing Line.

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Dorothy Chavasse                                12 Jan 1915

Noel writes to his sister to thank her and the ladies of the parish for all the items they have sent. He now estimates that there is not one man who does not have either a scarf or a pair of mittens. Mentions that the most greatly appreciated gifts are singlets, socks, woollen gloves and sleeping helmets [balaclavas]. Men are in special need of singlets as changing these helps fight vermin. Mentions that he is writing from a ruined village. Has managed to provide hot baths to about 100 men in the last two days. Describes mundane tasks that he often performs and then recounts the story told in the letter of 29 Dec concerning the men wounded while heading to the front. Mentions again how he struggled to get these men warm. Says he has not yet received his sister’s Christmas presents, but expects to receive them soon. Mentions that if Dot and her friends wish to send presents then candles and paperback books would be most welcome. Sent from Regimental Aid Station, Firing Line.

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                      13 Jan 1915

Noel writes to his father apologising for having not written sooner. When he last wrote his battalion was in reserve in a ruined village. Describes the men's activities, including how they collected wood to carry to the trenches. Says that the weather is currently miserable and recounts how he has been able to give about 150 men hot baths. Mentions that they are currently guarding thirteen prisoners from among their own men, two of whom had been sentenced to death for cowardice, although this has since been commuted to 10 years penal servitude. Also reports that someone seems to have tampered with the clock in the local church, which led to rumours that a spy was later caught and shot. Returned to the trenches after a rest of four days. Fighting strength has been reduced to around 350 men, but this is due to the poor conditions rather than casualties (only 14 killed and 30 wounded). Many men have been sent back to England and have yet to return.

Postscript dated 15 Jan: is now resting after another turn in the trenches, but must return tomorrow. Lost two men and one officer last time out. The German trenches had been under constant bombardment, but this did not stop all the snipers. Describes how he went to help retrieve the bodies of the two men, one of whom had fallen near where Captain [Arthur] Twentyman was killed. Came to within 125 yards of the German lines. Eventually managed to drag the body through the mud on an oil cloth sheet. The return journey was about 2.5 miles and the whole mission took from 11pm to 2am. The next day [Lt Fred] Turner was shot in the head and killed. Mentions how Turner was always calm and instilled his men with great confidence. He was killed inspecting barbed wire that he had laid out the previous night. His loss has been keenly felt by all. The stretcher bearers prepared his grave, which is marked by a wooden cross. Recounts how on leaving the trenches he walked with another officer, who had also been at Oxford and who said he was even more homesick than when he had been at Eton. Closes by saying that this letter has been written in snippets and it is now 18 Jan and he is back at the firing line, where he is well and happy. Sent from Rest Camp

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                      19 Jan 1915

Noel writes to his father saying that he had had to end his previous letter prematurely. He describes his last visit to the trenches and recounts how the Germans had zeroed in on their position and had shelled it constantly. Mentions how he went up to treat the casualties and describes their various wounds. He evacuated five in total, having to walk in darkness punctuated by bursts of shell fire. Mentions that his dressing station is a good one and describes how he treats the men. The wounds of the most recent casualties were dressed using the latest techniques learned from the B[ritish] M[edical] J[ournal]. Despite the Germans shelling all day, there were no casualties yesterday, so mentions how he held a small piano concert for his stretcher bearers. A man has been shot and killed today. He was hit in the head, but did not die right away. Mentions how he gave instructions over the phone as to how to treat the man. He loves getting the B[ritish] M[edical] J[ournal] every week and asks that his father continue to send it. Mentions that he has still not received his Christmas hamper. Says that candles are always welcome as gifts. Would like a hymn sheet for his stretcher bearers and tells his father that he has written to Dot [Chavasse] asking for candles and paperback books. Asks his father to thank those who have sent him letters. Sent from Firing Line

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                     28 Jan 1915

Noel writes to his father to tell him that he is leaving the trenches to return to a village behind the lines. Explains that he and his men now spend four days in the trenches and four days out. Days behind lines are called ‘rests’, but hardly any resting is done. Instead men are put to work fixing the roads, the sides of which are lined with logs. Other men are put to work making shelters or general cleaning duties. There are large sick parades that last all morning. Many men are suffering from flu but are not ill enough so that they don't get sent to the trenches. Describes a boxing match, adjudged by [the cricketer] Rev. Gillingham, and concert that helped boost morale. Mentions he was billeted in a large school and has received a number of parcels, containing a water bottle, socks, a shirt and an electric lamp. Is very pleased with lamp, which he offers to pay for. Has also received some candles and potted meat. Asks again for hymn sheets in case there is a service at the firing line. He continues to receive the B[ritish] M[edical] J[ournal]. This week there is a paper by R[obert] Jones [of Liverpool] (Br Med J 1915;1:101, 16 Jan 1915). Attended moving service on Sunday held by Presbyterian minister. Mentions that the men have held on to a good length of trenches about 200 yards from German lines. Trenches are well maintained, but it is cold. Reports that two men have been killed and three wounded. Lt [P.D. ‘Togge’] Kendall is among the dead. He was an old captain of the England rugby team and was among the best officers, who was always calm and looked for new ways to improve the trenches. Describes the manner of his death, via a ricocheted bullet, and his funeral. Mentions the death of another man who had the top of his head blown off. Reports that the Germans are dressing up as Belgians and passing through the lines. Sent from Dressing Station

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Dorothy Chavasse                                16 Feb 1915

Noel writes to his sister to thank her for the parcels he has received. He has already written to the children thanking them for the candles they sent. His men are currently billeted in rather poor quarters and it is cold. He has distributed the candles between them and has also handed out the books and magazines which he has received. Describes how these cheered the men up. Wishes his sister a happy birthday and apologises for not sending a gift. Explains that should he be killed he has instructed their sister Marjorie to give her something from his running prizes and a book of sacred poems. He hopes that Aylmer [Foster-Carter] is quite well and recommends that she give him cod liver oil three times a day for his bronchitis. He has had a restful few days but must return to the trenches tomorrow. Weather has been miserable, but today is bright. Asks his sister to thank all those who sent candles and books. Sent from Dressing Station, Liverpool Scottish, Belgium

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                     21 Feb 1915

Noel writes to his father to say that he has had a pretty easy time since returning from leave, but must now return to the trenches again tomorrow. Reports that the men have benefitted from their rest and are looking fitter than ever. Has not been to the trenches since his return due to a change of brigades. The Brigadier General of the old brigade spoke highly of Noel's battalion and Noel feels that the men have done a great deal to earn the affection of the men from the other battalions. Attended today a service with Captain Bingham to mark the first Sunday in Lent. The H[onourable] A[rtillery] C[ompany] had just come out of the trenches and about 100 of their men attended the service also. Describes how one of their number kissed the flyleaf of his prayer book. Mentions that Kenneth Powell, a HAC man and a famous Cambridge athlete who led the Olympic parade in 1908 with Christopher [Chavasse], has been killed. He was shot putting out barbed wire. Edith and Marjorie [Chavasse] once saw Powell run in the hurdles. Mentions that a great Oxford hurdler (Anderson) and France's best hurdler have also been killed. This afternoon he rode out to Ypres with the Transport Company. Describes the Cloth Hall and the cathedral, both of which are in ruins. Mentions that he found in the cathedral some bits of marble and stained glass, which he intends to send home to his father as a gift. Has otherwise had a good week and speaks of the competence of the men under his command. He is enclosing a cheque for £15 to pay for certain things. Asks that his father send him some more liquorice and menthol cough lozenges. Sent from Dressing Station, Liverpool Scottish

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                    1 Mar 1915

Noel writes to his father to tell him that his last spell in the trenches was under much better conditions. The men are learning to take care of themselves and guard against wet feet, and that reliefs are now better managed. Describes how the men return every 24 hours to their billets where they are able to dry their feet and put on fresh socks. As a result, there have been no more cases of 'frost-bite' [trench foot]. It is nevertheless rather cold back in the billets, due to a lack of fuel, so he has organised men unfit for the trenches to remain behind and collect wood for fires. Other officers noted this and are now doing the same. Describes his dressing station, which he has been furnishing. But if health is good, the casualties were high this time with five killed and four wounded. Mentions how distressing head wounds are and describes how one man [Private Basil Teague] had the whole side of his head blown away, only to survive for two days. Describes how another man, who at first seemed like he might survive, was taken by ambulance to the hospital only later to die. Recounts how he and his men removed the buried body of an unknown English corporal whose badly decomposed corpse was found when a trench was drained. He has been reburied further back and his grave marked with a cross. Mentions that he is now off to ‘the place where I got the broken glass’ [Ypres, see letter of 21 Feb]. Sent from Dressing Station, Belgium

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                    16 Mar 1915

Noel writes to his father in the style of a diary to illustrate his varied existence.

10 Mar: Arrived at Ypres after six mile march at around 6pm. Tea in barracks and then three mile march to firing line. Found the only dressing station occupied, so had to find another. Eventually located an outhouse with two rooms. Tried to tidy up but eventually fell asleep at 2am. Slept until 10am.

11 Mar: New billet is so near German lines that they cannot move for fear of being shot. Everything around them is destroyed and the smell of death takes some getting used to. Washed in a bucket from a 'Jack Johnson' hole [i.e. a crater caused by a German 15-cm artillery shell, black in colour]. They are to look after two companies who are back from the line. Noel must stay here for 12 days. Receives report at night of two men killed and one hit in forehead. Pass through ruined village, find dead men and bring them back. Describes task of bringing back wounded man. Guide is wounded during return (receives a 'Blighty wound'). The wounded man is eventually collected by ambulance at 9pm.

12 Mar: Rise at 5am to dig graves for the two dead men retrieved the previous day. Describes encounter with a Roman Catholic priest who offers to bury the dead. The bodies are carried through the town, which, despite the carnage, has a carnival-like atmosphere in which children play among the rows of guns. Mentions that civilians are killed on a daily basis. French cavalry scouts pass Noel's billet looking for spies. Reports that the tower of nearby building is being used by the Belgians as an artillery observation post. Describes visit by a captain from another regiment, which is in reserve. All seems peaceful at around 4pm, but half an hour later the Germans explode a huge mine. The regiment in the next trench suffered numerous casualties: 17 missing, six killed and 50 wounded. A German charge was expected, but never came. Another man is hit by a shell and cut in half. Noel is practically up all night.

13 Mar: Dig a large grave at 5.30am to bury the dead. Joined by a cousin of one of the victims, who seems very dejected. Several severe casualties are brought in that evening. Most will recover, but one died two days later. A doctor at the hospital tells Noel that in South Africa he never saw the horrific wounds one finds here.

14 Mar: Sunday. Rise late at 10am, wash and find something for breakfast. Noel reads a service, which the men seem to enjoy. Describes visit by another officer, who stays the whole day. He has been in France since the beginning and is just back from England, having been wounded in the leg. Talks of toil of trench warfare on men's psyche. Receive news in evening of two more killed and go to fetch bodies. Captain Rawlins pays a visit before heading out the trenches. Is in charge of 25 engineers who rebuild parapets and place barbed wire at night. Describes Rawlins' character, which is at once calm and somewhat reckless.

Mar 15: Receives news that Captain Rawlins has been shot. Describes circumstances in which this took place and nature of wounds. He is retrieved and taken to hospital but dies soon after arrival. Later that night buries two men.

Mar 16: Arose at dawn and walked three miles back to the city. Enjoyed meal, wash and shave and met with fellow officer [Lt Holland], whom he showed around the hospital. Walked back to trenches in thick fog and purchased four whistles during the return. Also rescued a piano from a smashed up house and installed it in his dressing station. Describes showing a man his brother's grave later in the day.

Mar 17: Spent most of this day in the trenches. Was initially summoned to tend to soldier shot through forehead, but he died within minutes. Stayed and chatted with the men and read a magazine. Later had to take cover as allies shelled the German line. Went down a mine shaft that went about 60 yards underground. Describes dressing station and a small musical party that was held that evening. Still has four more days up at front.

Concludes by thanking his father for this letter and reassures him that he never forgets the text he sent him. Speaks of impact of trench warfare on the nerves of officers. Feels well in himself and is content. The hymnbooks his father sent will arrive next Sunday and he hopes to have a good service round the piano. Sent from Dressing Station, Liverpool Scottish

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse     [Not dated, bef. 2 Apr 1915]

Noel writes to his father to apologise for not writing sooner. Has not much news to report since he has only been to the trenches once since they were together in February. The men have moved up to join their own brigade, as his father knows, about which he is glad. Is currently two miles from Headquarters and is lodging with some Company officers who are treating him well. Reports that the men are happy and well. Describes how they were sent to some excellent baths and generally cleaned and deloused. Is still keen to receive books and candles and gives advice of how best to send parcels. Is sending a cheque for £10 as he wants to buy a gramophone for the men. Asks that his father and relatives might send records for it. Apologises for the lack of news except that some people think the Germans here are really beat. He is also sending his dividend to be banked. Sent from Dressing Station, Liverpool Scottish, Belgium

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                27 Mar 1915

Noel writes to his father saying that he is only sending a short letter as things are quiet. Explains how splitting of the battalion into companies means he is currently in an empty billet located in a brewer's house. His only duty is to see the men as they come out of the trenches. Describes his sick room, which contains six beds. Explains that one of his current charges is Mr Burnell's son, who thinks is soon to get a commission. Mentions that he has been able to set a system whereby a company of men a day receive a wash and describes the set up for cleaning the men upon their return from the trenches. This work is done by the London Sanitary Corps and Territorial Corps. Mentions that the chaplain of the Field Ambulance (Territorial) is Mr Fox of St Peter-le-Bailey. Went to see him preach and had supper afterwards, during which the ambulance doctors spoke highly of the Liverpool Scottish. Expects the Bishop of London here on Saturday. Mentions he goes riding on his grey mare, 'Sally'. Asks to be sent pocket editions of Shakespeare and a Dickens novel. Has not yet received the gramophone. Mentions that he contracted lice at his last dressing station, but is now fine. Grieves to hear of Dr Macalister's loss. Will write to him tomorrow.

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