I was privileged to see the original wooden cross from the grave of Captain Noel Chavasse V C and Bar MC during a recent visit to Oxford. It is in the Chapel of St Peter’s College, Oxford along with copies of the medals and brief histories of all the Chavasse family who served in World War 1.
Captain Chavasse was treated at Casualty Clearing Station No32 at Brandhoek which is between Poperinghe and Ypres. It had moved there as part of the preparations for Third Ypres. His nurse at Brandhoek was Sister Ida B. Leedam who had , like Noel Chavasse, worked at the Royal Southern Hospital in Liverpool. She wrote at some length to his father, the Bishop of Liverpool, about his condition and treatment. His brother, Lieutenant Francis Bernard Chavasse M C, was serving as the Medical Officer with the 17th (Pals) Battalion, Kings Liverpool Regiment but although they were nearby, he did not hear of his brother’s death until August 6th. He was able to make enquiries about his brother’s wounds and treatment and was also able to visit his grave. All this he wrote about to his father who circulated the letter to other members of the family. It was not the norm for families to have such detailed information about the fate of their relatives, but Noel Chavasse was a very special man and part of a very remarkable family.
Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Corps, was from Wakefield and had completed her Nurse training at Leeds Infirmary in 1915. On joining the Imperial Nursing Corps she was sent to Whittington Military Hospital in Lichfield and on completion of her training to No 2 General Hospital at Le Havre. From May 1917 she was with No 44 Casualty Clearing Station which on 19TH July 1917 moved to Brandhoek. It was no more than five miles from the front, and was constantly shelled by the Germans. The hospital site was close to the important railway sidings and munition dumps but on 21st August after returning from her long shift on the ward to her quarters, Nurse Spindler was seriously wounded by shell fragments. Despite having immediate treatment she died of her wounds. She was buried at Lijssenhoek with full military honours, more than 100 officers attended including the Surgeon-General. She is the only woman buried at Lijssenhoek where there are nearly 11,000 graves from over 30 nationalities.
In addition to the shelling there were also regular raids from German Gotha bombers. August 21st was to be an especially challenging day. The nurses regularly worked 16 hour shifts and a number of them narrowly avoided serious injury as they continued to care for their patients.
Sister Elizabeth Jane Ecketts was working in a ward that was hit by several pieces of shrapnel which had ripped through the canvas walls. She was awarded the Military Medal for ‘despite being under fire she continued to attend to her patients and by her example prevented many from further injury’. Sister Alice Kelly was also awarded the Military Medal for helping to protect her patients from shrapnel and encouraging and reassuring them while under fire.
With the death of Nellie Spindler and the damage which had been caused to the railway, the decision was made that Brandhoek should be evacuated. Over 320 patients were moved, initially to Lijssenhoek. For her work in ensuring the speedy evacuation of patients and transfer of nurses, Sister Minnie Wood was awarded the Military Medal.
After improvements to the protection around the tents, with the use of sand-bags, and the construction of a shelter, the nurses returned to Brandhoek on 25th August.
Sergeant John Thomas Wall 3rd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment
John Wall had enlisted in the Regiment as a Drummer Boy in 1912 and had served on the Western Front from 12th August 1914. By 1917 he had been promoted to Sergeant. In 1917 the Battalion was in action near Bellwardwe Ridge, when Sergeant Wall went missing during the attack. This was certainly out of character and when he reappeared he was court martialled for cowardice in face of the enemy, convicted and shot at dawn at Poperinghe on 6th September 1917. He is buried at Poperinghe New Military Cemetery.
Sergeant Wall’s defence was based on the response to the battle conditions on that day. The attack was faltering and he was ordered to take cover, which he did with others, in a bunker. Some of the men from another Company were taken by another Sergeant, but when he left the bunker a few minutes later there was no sign of his or any other Company. Conditions were so bad that any movement was a challenge. It was described as a ‘glutinous knee deep swamp’, and as the initial assault had scattered Companies and Platoons across the Front, Wall’s experience was far from unique.
Piet Chielens from the ’In Flanders Field Museum’ wrote ‘It is clear he was an excellent soldier, then one day he decides to stay in a bunker with eight men because the stretch he has to cross is open to German fire. He is charged with cowardice in the face of the enemy and executed for that one offence. What he did was at worst an error of judgement but more likely good soldiering common sense’.
Sergeant Wall was of impeccable character yet no comment appears from any other officer, other than Haig on his death warrant. A former Hampshire cricketer Lt. Col. Alexander Johnston authorised the Court Martial, yet he had only taken over twenty four hours before the attack. The result of the operation was 114 casualties in twenty four hours.
Captain Vint was in charge of the firing squad and he later wrote, ‘It seems to me a miscarriage of justice, as Wall had been in France since 1914, had fought in many battles and was probably quite mad. One cannot go through three years of this inferno and keep sane in all circumstances.’ Wall certainly did not consider himself mad.
Corporal James Llewellyn Davies V C 13th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers
Corporal Davies had served in Gallipoli until December 1915 but was sent home in early 1916 after contracting Typhoid. He rejoined the Regiment in France in October 1916 and on day one of Third Ypres he was in the attack on Polygon Wood. Corporal Davies led a group of men to capture a German Machine Gun post. He was wounded and some of his men were killed, but he continued moving forward. He shot one of the enemy, bayoneted another and captured a third. Despite his wounds the gun was captured and his prisoner brought back for interrogation. He then led a party to bomb a defended farmhouse, where he shot a sniper that had been firing on his platoon. Returning to his lines Corporal Davies was taken to a Dressing Station where he died from his wounds. He is buried at Canada Farm Cemetery, Elverdinghe, named after the Dressing Station where he was treated. His widow and eldest son were presented with his V C which is now in the Royal Welch Fusiliers museum in Caernarfon Castle.
Sergeant Ivor Rees V C 11th Battalion South Wales Borderers
Sergeant Rees was at Pilckem Ridge on the first day of Third Ypres. His Platoon were suffering severe casualties from German Machine Gun fire. He worked his way to the rear of the emplacement, shot one of the crew and bayoneted another. He then charged another position and bombed a large concrete fortification. He killed five of the enemy and took 30 prisoners including two officers. He also captured an undamaged machine gun.
After the war Sergeant Rees returned to Carmarthen and served in the Home Guard in World War 2. He died aged 73 in 1967. His V C is in the South Wales Borderers Museum in Brecon.