Sunday, June 21, 2015

WWI: Chavasse, Lawrence, Plumer (Updated Oct 29, 2017)

This being the Centennial of the Battle of Liège in the second year of The Great War aka World War I, I have been looking up again how Oxford alumni fared during the war.

Two alumni stand out among the many Brits who died (more than 908,000 from the British Empire), the many more who were injured (2 million), and the huge number who served (8.9 million). A third person, a famed Sandhurst-trained officer in World War I, is immortalized in Oxford because his coat of arms was adopted as the arms of St. Anne's College.

Noel Chavasse (Trinity, Oxford)
Noel Chavasse, twin brother of the Francis Chavasse who became the first Master in 1929 and co-founder with his father of St. Peter's Hall (later College), Oxford. Elements of the Chavasse coat of arms are in the St. Peter's coat of arms.

Noel and Francis both matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1904 (1905?), and competed in sports (rugby and athletics) for the University. Both twins ran for Britain in the Olympics. Noel Chavasse has been described as the "Oxford's greatest military hero in the 20th century" by David Horan, author of Oxford: A Cultural and Literary Companion.

During the Great War, Noel was in the medical corps, treating injured soldiers. For his bravery in August 1916 in Guillemont, Captain Noel Chavasse was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honor, for the second time ("with Bar") – only one of three soldiers ever to have done so, the only soldier during World War I, and the only Oxford alumnus. His second VC was won in a battle in Belgium that killed him in 1917. He is buried in Belgium.

The Chavasse family compiled an extraordinary record in WW I. Noel's twin, Christopher, an Army chaplain wounded at Cambrai in 1917, won the MC. His younger brother Captain Francis Bernard Chavasse, also of the RAMC, was wounded at Hooge and was awarded the MC. His other younger brother, Lieutenant Aidan Chavasse also served with the 11th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool regiment, renowned as volunteering for dangerous missions and was judged by his Brigade-Major to be the bravest man under his command. He was wounded on a mission to inspect German wire near Sanctuary Wood in July 17. He sent his patrol back to safety and took cover in a shell-hole. His body was never found. In total, the Chavasse boys were awarded 21 medals for their actions during WW1. Their two sisters, Marjorie and May, volunteered to nurse at soldiers’ hospitals.

T. E. Lawrence (Jesus, Oxford)
T[homas] E[dward] Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia", was born on August 16, in Tremadoc, Wales. Thomas Edward was the second of five sons born to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, the governess to his daughters with whom Sir Thomas had an affair in Wales and then in Ireland.

T. E. matriculated at Jesus College, Oxford in 1907, studying history. He was fluent in Greek, Arabic and French. While at Oxford he joined the Oxford University Officer Training Corps. T.E. became an archaeological scholar and was recruited by the British Army military to conduct a military survey of the Negev Desert while doing archaeological research. He famously became a champion and military strategist for Arab rebels against Ottoman Turkish rule. He was awarded the DSO but refused the KBE.

His book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) was an account of his exploits as a military advisor to Arabs in their revolt against the Turks, and was the basis for the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He was killed on a motorcycle in 1935 after leaving the military; he had swerved to avoid two boys in the road on bicycles.

Field Marshal Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer has become an Oxford hero of sorts because of although his daughter Eleanor Plumer. He did not attend Oxford, but she did, via an extension course at St. King's College, London. She then she became the fourth Principal of St. Anne's and took St. Anne's to full college status at Oxford. His memory is preserved in the form of the coat of arms of St. Anne's College, which were adopted in 1942 from Plumer's own arms, by permission of his daughter.

Field Marshal Plumer
Field Marshal Plumer was born in Torquay on March 13, 1857, and was educated at Eton and Sandhurst. He is best known for commanding the 2nd Army in the Ypres Salient in 1915-1917.  He came up through the ranks, understood his troops and was popular among his men, who nicknamed him ‘Old Plum and Apple’. He was both a disciplinarian and someone with a sense of humor.

Plumer first saw service in the Sudan at El Teb in 1884. In 1885-1887, Plumer took the Staff Course and fought in South Africa during the Boer War, where he led the relief column to Mafeking. In 1906 Plumer was made a Knight of the Realm. In May 1915,  given command of Second Army Corps based in the Ypres Salient, he moved the base from the Salient to Ypres, leaving behind the elevated Messines Ridge. Determined to recapture the Ridge, he had his engineers build tunnels underneath German lines. In June 1917, after detonating a gigantic explosion, his artillery and infantry attacked the ridge using a creeping barrage. Unlike the Battle of the Somme a year earlier, the attack was a major success. “Plumer is one of the few commanders who came out of the Great War with an enhanced reputation,” said Robin Neillands in The Great War Generals. In 1918, Plumer was appointed Commander of the British Army of the Rhine, a year later Governor of Malta and finally High Commissioner of Palestine. He died on July 16, 1932 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. Plumer burned all his private papers before his death; the first book that came out about him was in 1935, by General Sir Charles Harrington.

(Postscript July 31: Today in 1917 began a major offensive against the Germans in Flanders. After many setbacks, leading to the replacement of Gough by Plumer, Haig eventually ordered major attacks on Passchendaele in late October, and ultimately the village was captured by Canadian and British troops on November 6, 1917, allowed Haig to claim victory. Some victory - made Pyrrhus look good. There were 310,000 British casualties vs. 260,000 Germans, to little advantage.  The Third Battle of Ypres remains one of the most costly and controversial offensives of World War I, symbolizing, for the British, the futile nature of trench warfare.)

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