Noel Chavasse letters, Nov 1914 - Dec 1914

Correspondence of Captain Noel Chavasse VC and Bar MC, Nov 1914 - Dec 1914

Introduction

These letters were sent by Noel Chavasse to his family from the beginning of November 1914 to the end of December 1914.

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

Postcard from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                    1 Nov 1914

Noel writes his father a note as he travels along the coast to Southampton. Expects to take a week or three days crossing. Sent from The train to coast

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Postcard from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                     2 Nov [1914]

Noel writes his father a note to say that he has arrived safely at the French port. He has hopes of finding his brother Christopher there. The captain of the ship gave him his cabin for the crossing, so he was able to get a full ten hours sleep. Sent from the SS Maidan

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                          5 Nov 1914

Noel writes to his father as he makes his way up to the front. Mentions urgent need for reinforcements and rumour that victory will depend upon who supplies them first. The London Scottish have already seen battle, successfully taking their position after a charge of 1,000 yards. Offers some details of the crossing, which was at night without lights to avoid submarines. Says that he has asked Dorothy [Chavasse] to call on the captain's family, who live in Birkhead. Spent all of 2 Nov anchored outside port waiting for other transports to be unloaded, finally docking at 7pm. Disembarkation was not very smooth. Marched through the town to the overlooking hills, passing a field hospital and a Red Cross hospital on the way. Original orders to move out at 6pm were changed to 3.30pm, which resulted in a rush, but then did not leave until 7pm. Mentions how he found a stray kitten in his pack, which he has adopted as a mascot. Arrived at Rouen at midnight. Says he has never felt better or fitter and how the weather is more like April than November. Describes the surrounding countryside, its people and the French soldiers. No sending address given

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Postcard from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                    13 Nov 1914

Noel sends his father a field postcard filled out as follows: I am quite well. I have received your letter. Letter follows at first opportunity. No sending address

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                          17 Nov 1914

Noel writes to his father to let him know that he is still at British Headquarters. Mentions how he can hear the distant sound of guns and how aeroplanes are constantly circling overhead in response to bombing by a German plane. He is billeted in a small village, with his surgery located in the wash house. The locals look after him and his men well, providing them with soup and other luxuries. Is busy writing reports. Sunday is no different from other days, although a chaplain comes to conduct a 20 minute service. Mentions that he misses church services and has not been able to receive communion since leaving home. The weather is getting wetter and the men are often soaked through. Describes his routine. Having access to a bed has not spoiled him, since he recently had to relinquish it to a sick captain and slept soundly on the floor. He has never felt better in his life, though is not looking forward to the winter. He expects to be moved to the front at any moment. The men will be in the trenches for 24 hours, being replaced with fresh men at night, while he expects to be behind in a dugout. He believes that doctors will not be allowed in the trenches, so expects to be at very little risk during the war. Also does not intend to take any undue risks. Mentions that he is getting fatter and has heard that feeding in the trenches is fantastic, with a Daily Mail for every ten men. Lord Roberts died on Saturday evening and the battalion lined the streets for his funeral, but Noel was unable to attend. Is very content, since he has inoculated everyone in the battalion against typhoid and this inoculation seems to be working. Has no news to report; only hears rumours. He saw General French the other day, who goes to the front each day by car and returns at night to dine. The scenery is flat and plain, and the village dirty and waterlogged. The people seem pleased to see the British, however, although there are almost no men around, just women and girls. The nearby town is also dirty, muddy and dreary. Mentions his poor French. Is confident in the strength of his regiment. Thanks his father for his letters, which he loves to receive. Sent from Headquarters, Liverpool Scottish.

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                          22 Nov 1914

Noel writes to his father to let him know that he has moved to Divisional Headquarters after a march of some 22 miles. The guns are very loud. Expects to be moved into the trenches in a couple of days. Tomorrow they will go to the firing line, so the men can see a shrapnel burst. The stay in France was very wet and the men became ill. There was a sharp frost on the morning of the first march, which was hard on the horses as the roads were slippery. Upon arrival at their destination, they were kept waiting in the town square, where it was very cold, and finally marched out to barns and stables two miles away for billeting. He had to look after his water and ambulance carts. Billeted his men and then saw two sick men, but was so tired he went to sleep as he was on the floor, later awaking to get some food. There was a very hard frost that night. Met a high-ranking RAMC official who explained that doctors are not allowed in the trenches. He will be stationed in a cottage quite safe from the shelling. Met a group of men returning from the front who looked tired and unkempt, with set and rather pale faces. During sick parade the men watched a dogfight between an English and a German plane, which was won by the Englishman. A Presbyterian parson came to give a service, but it was cold, the guns were loud and the parson not much use. Hopes that the cold snap is ending. Is dreading winter for the men, but feels that it will be good for those who come through it. Asks if his sister Dot might send some more woollen clothes. Asks for his running blue sweater and a small parcel of washing supplies. Is well in himself but is looking forward to a family gathering when the war is won. Sent from [Divisional Headquarters]. 

Postscript dated 23 Nov: The weather is much milder today. Believes they will be here a week. Marched today within half an hour's walk of the trenches. The countryside is flat and uninteresting. Crossed into Belgian territory and met an old Oxford friend on the march, who advised him that a doctor must always try to save his skin and only take risks when necessary. Expects that the trenches will not be too bad and that he will never be expected to go into them when they are under rifle fire. Asks his father to send his field glasses. Mentions that he is taking good care of his medical equipment and that he keeps his dressings in little tins. Asks his father not to forget his sweater and also asks that he send chocolate.

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                  26 Nov 1914

Noel writes to his father to tell him that he is off to the trenches tomorrow. Is now in a little Belgian village along with the brigade to which they are attached. Was inspected by the Army Corps general before departure. The general gave a heartening speech. Is currently billeted in a Belgian Church along with 300 men. Has fashioned a bed from praying stools and was rather disheartened to see men playing cards in the church, but all in all they have behaved well. The local priest and his congregation showed up this morning as he was washing, and held mass while the men were sleeping. Noel continued to wash while the service went on. He hopes that the congregation could not see him as well as he could see them. The spell in the trenches will last four days, followed by four days of rest. Feels the men are fit and hard and will give a good account of themselves. He is finding work hard due to the cold, and is irritated when he cannot serve the men as he would like, which means he finds it hard not to be snappy. But he is happy and feels he is where he belongs. Postscript: A sentry fell asleep and shot himself in the head by accident, his first tragedy. No sending address.

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Dorothy Chavasse                              26 Nov 1914

Noel writes to his sister to tell her that he is off to the trenches tomorrow. Asks if she might send some more warm clothes, which he will carefully distribute amongst his men, making sure to give items first to two members of his sister's congregation who are out here. The things she sent last time are being put to good use, especially the balaclava sleeping bag. Mentions how he was billeted in the church and that many of the men had bad coughs. There have been some cases of frostbite in the trenches, so asks her to send gloves and mitts. Wishes only that she could see the pleasure of the men who cannot afford to have such items sent to them. Also needs thick woolly vests, such as those she sent out to his RAMC men. One reason fresh clothes are needed is that those in the trenches cannot change often, so their clothes become infested with vermin. Mentions he is getting fitter every day. Retells the story of him washing during mass. Must stop writing as he has a lot to prepare for tomorrow. No sending address

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                         5 Dec 1914

Noel writes to his father to tell him of his first experience of the trenches. His brigade left their billets on 27 Nov and moved towards the firing line about five miles away. They arrived at a little town, which was in ruins. There were large holes were shells had burst, now filled with water, and the roads had turned to mud that was ankle deep. A few sentries could be seen and the sounds of a waltz being played on a pianola could be heard. Noel and his men arrived at a field just behind the line, from where sniper fire could be heard. Artillery fire came from behind. The regiment they had come to relieve [Glasgow Highlanders] suffered only one casualty. Under darkness, half the battalion were sent to occupy the trenches, while the rest were billeted in the farm house, next to which shells often landed due to a battery located close by. Noel then made his way to the trenches and a farm house used as a dressing station. Bullets passed by his ear and overhead, causing him to duck. He found his house, and during the night took in a man from another regiment, shot in the knee. He then set two men as sentries and went to bed, but sleep was troubled by the groans of the man he had treated and the thought of returning on the road zipped by bullets. His men were even more shaken than he and did not sleep at all. The house in which they were staying was nevertheless comfortable. At 4am, the sick man was carried up to the road and taken by ambulance. Noel and his men then returned, staying close to the hedges and thus hidden from view. Settled in to relax during the day (most work is at night) and managed to catch and kill one of the farmyard animals running around outside. The men then gathered together vegetables and a stew was made. There was artillery fire all around and some shells bust close by, so that night the quarters were moved to a doctor's house on the main road. The men tidied up the house, which had been ransacked. There were no casualties that night. On Advent Sunday, Noel received news that a captain [of the Liverpool Scottish, Arthur Twentyman] had been shot and killed trying to dislodge a German sniper. He is very sad at this, since he liked the man a lot. The Colonel instructed Noel to retrieve the body. First, a service was celebrated, after which a guide led the men to the trenches, which they reached safely. The sniper fire was constant. They nevertheless reached the Captain's body. Describes the return journey, which was more dangerous. The Captain is now buried in a little copse in the estate of a Russian count. The service, which was very moving, was performed by the Colonel. There was only one more casualty and the next morning the men came out of the trenches. They looked haggard, but had performed gallantly, having beaten off a German attack. They had also killed four snipers and one officer. The men then proceeded on a night march of 10 miles. Noel is writing this letter after a rest of about six days. Two days ago the King inspected the battalion from a motor car and now they must go back to the trenches. They all hate the war more than they imagined. They are currently on a hill overlooking Ypres, which looks much like Oxford from Hinksey Hill. There has been heavy rain and everything has turned to mud. Noel asks that his father send [his brother] Bernard his love and to ask him to buy the best electric torch he can find at Pulfords, which Noel will pay for as his birthday and Christmas present. Also asks his father to thank [his sister] May for her parcel. He then asks to be sent the following items: one electric torch, some candles, some cocoa and tea cubes, and one tin of dubbing for boots. Sends his love to his mother. No sending address.

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                          11 Dec 1914

Noel writes to his father to wish him a Merry Christmas. He is writing early as he is off to the trenches tomorrow for the third time. The men had a terrible 72 hours in the trenches, drenched through and sometimes knee-deep in mud. To see them afterwards is a terrible sight. They are caked in mud, tired, haggard and vacant in expression, so that they look almost like beasts. Noel has to deal with men who collapse from exhaustion. He has never seen anything like it. It is often a 2 to 4 mile walk to the billet, where the men collapse, but in three days or so they are fit again. Foot problems are beginning to appear, since the men are often standing for hours in water; the complaint is similar to that noticed during both the Balkan and Crimean wars. Later took part in an attack by another regiment on the German trenches. The men lay out in a field and Noel at the bottom of a ditch. The attack proved fruitless and part of Noel's battalion then had to replace men from the other regiment in the trench, during which time two privates were killed. One was a charming young man, who was killed looking over the parapet. Asks his father to wish his mother Merry Christmas and to thank his sisters for their letters and parcels. No sending address.

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                          16 Dec 1914

Noel writes to his father explaining that he was writing a letter when he got called away. He has spent the last three days behind the fighting line. The time was uneventful, although he did witness an infantry attack upon the enemy. Experienced a range of emotions, but no sense of honour. Hardships such as death and pain have become quotidian. Small things cause the most worry: the search for fuel, meals and clothing. Arrived at the firing line at night. Describes his dressing station. The night was quiet, but those men who went out [to the trenches] had to stand in waist-deep water. The experience exhausted them. The next night he received word that they were to serve as the reserve battalion in an attack on the German lines. Spent about two hours on the road, hearing nothing but sniper fire and seeing the odd explosion. Arrived at a deserted town where the men collapsed from exhaustion in what remained of the houses. Were awoken by tremendous artillery fire involving some 400 guns. The bombardment lasted all day but stopped as the regiment made its attack, during which it suffered great losses. Noel did not see it himself, but events were described to him by a machine gun officer. One of the regiments involved in the attack made it to the German trenches, but the other was beaten back, each suffering casualties of 50 and 200, respectively. German prisoners were captured and marched through the town, where Noel remained all day, conducting a sick parade. Reports how he tries to instil in his stretcher bearers a wider sense of caring for the battalion beyond collecting bodies. Returned to the dressing station in the evening. Soon found himself overwhelmed with work. Describes treating of mud-caked wounds with iodine. Noel lay down at about 3am, but was woken at 6am by a stretcher bearer who reported that men were still lying out in front of the trenches. Stretcher bearers were sent out, who acquitted themselves admirably. Meanwhile, one of the officers had been shot through the forearm, causing a neat flesh wound, just bad enough to get him sent home for Christmas, about which he was very pleased. A friend of his gave Noel a large piece of bacon, which he cooked and served to the officers who enjoyed it greatly. The men are washing and drying themselves, and although they are downhearted and sick they are not nearly as bad as previous spells in the trenches. Describes attempt by others to rescue wounded officer, who was later killed. A parcel has just arrived containing candles and other supplies, which are much appreciated. Mentions he is going to try and get in touch with Christopher [Chavasse]. He is in good health and is growing ever closer with his men. He asks if books might be sent, which can be read during the day when the dressing station is shut up. It is during these hours that he likes to read his British Medical Journal. Also asks for some washing supplies and reports that his sister Dorothy's wool items have arrived. Sends love to his mother and sisters. No sending address given

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Letter from Noel Chavasse to Francis James Chavasse                           29 Dec 1914

Noel writes to his father for the first time since returning from the trenches. Spent Christmas Eve in rest camp. Describes feelings about the war and the constant fear of death. Has been comfortable but busy. A company was sent to the front, but this was attacked by the Germans. The stretcher bearers began to slowly bring the wounded back, but were hampered by heavy mud. Talks about poor condition of dressing station, which was lit by only three candles. The wounded began to arrive after about an hour. The first patient had a large slash on the back, which was washed with iodine and dressed, and was given hot Oxo and cocoa in an attempt to warm him up. Mentions he is using the rubber hot water bottle sent to help warm the men's feet and asks that another like it be sent. Treated about 10 wounded men in all. Describes their wounds, in particular the way in which a bullet causes a neat hole on entry and a gaping wound where it exits. The stretcher bearers then rested, but at 6am had to take the wounded men to a waiting ambulance. Later received news that one of the wounded men had been left behind. He was fetched after dark and had a huge thigh wound, which took 3/4 of an hour to clean. Mentions that his best stretcher bearer had been shot and killed the previous day. Received a letter from a wounded man from another regiment thanking his stretcher bearers for fetching him. Spent Christmas at rest camp and took Communion for the first time since August. Mentions that he received his father's letter and one from his mother. He has not received any Christmas gifts yet, but the candles and condensed milk have arrived. Asks that his father send him the British Medical Journal weekly. If others want to send presents, he asks that they send either chocolate or cigarettes, as well as candles and penny novels for the men. No sending address given

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