Remarkable Courage: Double Victoria Cross Winners

Three men have won the VC twice, two of whom served in the Royal Army Medical Corps.
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Double Victoria Cross Winners

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest award for valour, in the presence of the enemy, awarded in the United Kingdom. Created in 1856 by Queen Victoria, it has only ever been awarded 1,358 times, of which 295 were awarded posthumously. The medal is held in such high regard that, by tradition, all ranks in the British Army will salute a soldier who has won it however junior he or she may be. It can also never be taken from a recipient no matter what crime they may commit in the future.

In the nearly 170 years of its existence, only three men have been awarded the Victoria Cross twice. One of these men is the New Zealander, Captain Charles Upham who won both awards during fierce fighting in the Second World War, first in Crete in 1941 and then in Egypt in 1942.

The only two British men to have won the award twice were both medical officers in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The first of these men was Arthur Martin-Leake who won his first VC in 1902 during the Boer War. On this occasion he went to the aid of two wounded men whilst under heavy fire at close range from his enemy. Despite being shot three times, he continued to care for the men and refused any assistance for himself until they were safe.

Having left military service after the Boer War, he rejoined the Royal Army Medical Corps at the outbreak the First World War and was sent to the Western Front. There, near Zonnebeke in Belgium, over the course of a week, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to save a large number of wounded men and so was awarded a bar to his VC.

The last of the three men is probably the most well known. Captain Noel Chavasse led a remarkable, if brief, life. Having graduated with a first class degree from Oxford in 1907 he went on to represent Great Britain at the Olympics in 1908, competing in the 400m. He joined the British Army in 1913 and he too was sent to the Western Front out the outbreak of the war.

In 1915 Chavasse won the Military Cross, which was the second highest award for gallantry at the time, and later that year his bravery was noted again when he was mentioned in dispatches. But it was in 1916, in Guillemont, where he won his first Victoria Cross. There, he spent all day out in the open tending to wounded men whilst under fire. He then spent the night searching the ground in front of the German trenches for more wounded men in need of his help. The next day he was wounded by a shell fragment as he stretchered a critical case over 500 yards to safety, then spent that night rescuing three wounded men from a shell hole in no man’s land, as well as recovering the bodies and identity discs of dead men so that their families might know their fate.

In the Summer of 1917, his devotion to duty was called on again. Although severely wounded whilst carrying another casualty from the battlefield, he spent the next two days venturing out under enemy fire to carry other wounded men to safety until he finally succumbed to his wounds and died.

Chavasse is commemorated on more war memorials than any other British soldier, but there is an interesting side note to Chavasse’s story. Chavasse had a twin brother, Christopher, who is less well known but perhaps no less notable.

Christopher also represented Great Britain at the Olympics of 1908, and he also represented England at lacrosse, as well as playing top level Rugby League for St Helens where he was known as ‘the flying curate’. In the First World War, like his brother, he joined the British Army although he joined as a chaplain. At the end of the war he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for his valorous service but, more relevant to this story, is the Military Cross that he was awarded in 1917. Despite being a chaplain, in August 1917 he rescued a number of wounded men from the battlefield whilst under fire. This he did just weeks after his twin brother had died doing the same.

It seems that many men owed their lives to these two remarkable brothers who between them held five awards for their extraordinary courage.

Adam Staten served as a medical officer in the RAMC and is the author of Steadfast.