Remembrance: Memories & Thankfulness

Remembrance

Here’s my thought from the first half of this morning’s all-age parade service:

Memory is powerful.  We are often impressed by the large memory of the latest smartphone or computer but the human brain is in a different league.  Estimates vary as to the storage capacity of the human brain. Some argue that it is impossible to measure, others say that the figure is 100 terabytes or 2.5 petabytes (which is 2.5 thousand terabytes).  If this largest figure is correct, just for the sake of comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows.  You’d have to leave the TV running for 300 years before you would run out of space to store any more shows!  This capacity to store memories, then, is vastly superior to the memory of a computer.

Brain Memory

What memories are we storing?  We have been storing memories from earliest childhood, but not all memories are immediately accessible.  Some memories appear to stand out more than others in our minds, rather like our favourite profile pictures on Facebook.  They are often memories of loved ones, family and friends – those who have inspired us to be the best we can be.  Those who have demonstrated kindness and affection towards us.

Poppies are sold and worn every year around the time of 11th November.  This was the day in 1918 when the First World War ended. It was decided that people would remember on that day each year all those men and women who had died in the war so that we could live in peace in our own country.

Since then Remembrance Day has been used to remember everyone who has died in wars throughout the world. Although 1918 is long before we were born, it is still important that we do this today because there are lots of countries in the world who do not live in times of peace.  We should not take our peace for granted. Christians believe that God wants people to live in freedom and peace and with justice.  We should be thankful for the people who have given their lives so that we are free to live ours in peace.  People like Noel Chavasse.

Noel Chavasse was the only man in the First World War to be awarded two Victoria Crosses, as well as several other medals. (The Victoria Cross is awarded for outstanding bravery on the battlefield.)

The son of a Bishop of Liverpool, Noel Chavasse studied medicine at Trinity College, Oxford, and went on to pass the examination to be a surgeon.  In 1913 he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps  He was also an athlete. In the 1908 Olympic Games, he and his twin brother represented Britain in the 400 yards (400 metres).

When the First World War started in 1914, he offered to serve in France and was a Surgeon-Lieutenant.  This meant that as well as being a surgeon, he was an officer, carrying out military duties.  In November 1914 his regiment was sent to the Western Front (the front line of battle in Belgium and France).

A number of Noel Chavasse’s letters home are still in his family’s possession.  These letters show how he cared and campaigned for his men, fighting for access to washing and delousing facilities, and pioneering the use of a tetanus jab to reduce the risk of infection from cuts and wounds.

He was also outspoken about the importance of providing hospital and convalescent care for any soldier who showed signs of what we would now call a nervous breakdown.  In this he was far ahead of his time.  In those days soldiers suffering from shell shock were treated as cowards and weaklings.  It is likely that this attitude held back Noel’s promotion.

So why did Noel win his medals?  In March 1915 his regiment took part in the offensive at Ypres in France, where poison gas was used for the first time.  By June 1915 only 142 men out of the 829 men who arrived with Chavasse remained on active duty.  The rest had been killed or badly wounded.  Noel asked for a gramophone (an old version of a CD player) to play to the men.

In June 1915 his regiment took part in the Battle of Hooge, in Belgium.  Although it was the job of medical orderlies and stretcher-bearers to search for the wounded in no-man’s-land (the waste region between the German and Allied front lines), at night, Noel would regularly head into no-man’s-land to search for wounded soldiers.  It was for these acts of courage, carried out in addition to his daily medical work, that he was awarded the Military Cross.

In July 1916 his regiment was moved to the Somme, in France.  In August 1916 the regiment received orders to advance against the town of Guillemot.  They suffered heavy losses, losing one sixth of their force in four assaults.  Out of 600 men,167 were wounded, and 17 officers were killed or wounded during this action alone.

The first day, Noel looked after the wounded all day, in the open, under heavy fire, frequently in view of the enemy.  That night he spent four hours searching for the wounded on the ground in front of the enemy’s lines.  He himself was wounded when shell splinters were blown into his back.  In spite of that, the next day he continued with his medical work, and also went to the advanced trenches and carried an urgent stretcher case for 500 metres to safety.  The second night he took a party of 20 volunteers and again ventured into no-man’s-land, passing within 20 metres of the German front line, to rescue three wounded men.  In addition, and while fired on by machine guns, he buried the bodies of two officers, and collected many identity discs.  For this, Noel was awarded his first Victoria Cross.  The official citation concludes, ‘His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.’

Because of his wounds he was sent to hospital, but when he recovered he insisted on returning to his unit at the front.  Almost a year later, on 31 July 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, there was a British advance.  While working in the casualty clearing station Noel was hit in the head by shell splinters, which caused blood loss.  There was the possibility of a fractured skull.  The wound was dressed but he refused to be evacuated.

For nearly two days he went out repeatedly into the battlefield, rescuing and treating wounded soldiers, working under heavy fire, without rest or food and faint from his own severe wounds.  He rescued many who otherwise would have died.  For this he was awarded his second Victoria Cross.

At 3 a.m. on 2 August, while he was trying to get some rest, a shell entered the aid post.  Everyone was either killed or seriously wounded. Noel received four or five wounds, the worst being a gaping stomach wound.  He managed to crawl out of the dugout and somehow got to another dugout.  Medical help was sent for, and doctors operated on his wounds.  But two days later, at 1 p.m. on Saturday 4 August 1917, Noel died peacefully.

On Chavasse’s gravestone are the words of Jesus: ‘Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends.’  There could be no more fitting epitaph for Chevasse, who was a Christian, and demonstrated by his actions his commitment to Christ and love for others.

There are many similarities between his story and the story of Jesus.

  • Noel cared about his fellow soldiers – their medical treatment and living conditions.
  • Noel fought for the underdog – those shell-shocked soldiers who were accused of being cowards.
  • He condemned religious people who talked but did not act.
  • He put the lives of others first, before his own life, but not in a kamikaze kind of way, seeking self-destruction. He had just got engaged and didn’t want to die. But when the need arose, he was courageous.

Prayer

Lord, we thank you that Noel Chavasse loved with the bravery you showed on the cross.  May we have the courage to give ourselves to help others, even when it costs.  Amen.