First published in Britain at War in April 2016.
Chaplain to the Forces, 4th Class, The Rev Edward Noel Mellish: sacrifice
Edward Noel Mellish was born on Christmas Eve, 1880, in Oakleigh Park, Barnet, north London. Noel, as he was widely known, was the son of Edward and Mary Mellish and the couple had one other child, Richard Coppin Mellish. Noel was educated at Saffron Walden Grammar School, Essex, before working for a wine company at Waterloo Bridge, London. However in 1899, he became a member of the Artists’ Rifles and in 1900, at the height of the Second Boer War, from 1901-2, he served as a trooper with Baden Powell’s Police against the Boers.
After being discharged from the Police in 1903, he worked on the Springfontein and Jagersfontein railway in Orange River Colony before working at a diamond mine in Jagersfontein. He also did missionary work and in 1907 he worked as a lay reader. In 1910, he started studying theology at King’s College, London, and he was ordained in 1912.
At the outbreak of the First Wold War in August 1914, Mellish was assistant curate at St Paul’s, Deptford, east London. However, he was determined to do his bit for the war effort and volunteered for service in the Army’s chaplain’s department in early 1915.
In May 1915, Mellish arrived in France and, two months later, at Rouen, he became attached to the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment). His brother, Second Lieutenant Richard Mellish, his only sibling, was killed in action on 25 September 1915 at the Battle of Loos, while serving with the Middlesex Regiment.
By early 1916, and still attached to the same regiment, Noel Mellish was at Ypres Salient, Belgium. It was during the first three days of the action at St Eloi that he showed outstanding bravery. St Eloi is a village some two miles south of Ypres on the Messines road and on 27 March the British attacked a German position known as The Mound from which the enemy was shelling them. After a preliminary artillery barrage and the explosion of five mines, the British advanced and destroyed The Mound but, in achieving their objective they suffered extremely heavy casualties.
On three consecutive days from 27 to 29 March inclusive, and during heavy fighting, Mellish, who was by now thirty-five, repeatedly risked his life, continuously operating between the original British trenches and the captured enemy trenches. His simple aim was to rescue and treat as many British soldiers as possible despite repeatedly encountering heavy shelling and machine-gun fire. On the first day alone, in an area swept by enemy machine-gun fire, he rescued ten severely-wounded men. Three men were actually killed while he was tending their wounds but, remarkably, Mellish remained uninjured.
On the second day of fighting, his battalion was relieved but Mellish returned and saved a further twelve wounded men. On the third day, Mellish took charge of a group of volunteers and rescued an unspecified number of wounded men who consisted of the remaining wounded from the trenches. All in all, however he is believed to have saved the lives of more than twenty wounded soldiers.
Mellish’s VC was announced on 18 April 1916, just three weeks after his heroics, when his citation concluded that “This splendid work was done voluntarily and was far outside the sphere of his normal duties.” He was the first member of the Army chaplaincy to be awarded the VC during the Great War. The defence of St Eloi is commemorated by the Hill 62 Memorial. Mellish received his VC from George V in an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 12 June 1916.
In 1918, the final year of the Great War, Mellish was Mentioned in Despatches and awarded the Military Cross (MC). He married Elizabeth Molesworth at St Paul’s, Deptford, on 3 December 1918 and the couple went on to have a daughter and three sons. He remained in the Army chaplaincy until February 1919.
In that year too, on 2 August 1919, Mellish officiated at the wedding of Sidney Frank Godley VC, also of the Royal Fusiliers, when the young private married Ellen Norman. Godley was awarded the VC on 25 November 1914 for outstanding gallantry in the defence of the Nimy Bridge at Mons, Belgium. He held the bridge, using his machine-gun, for nearly two hours despite being seriously wounded. The wedding is believed to have been the only occasion when a vicar who had been awarded the VC officiated at the wedding of a soldier who has also been awarded Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry.
After leaving the Army, Mellish continued a career in the Church of England: he was vicar of St Mark’s Church, Lewisham, east London, from 1919-25; vicar of Wangford-cum-Henham, Suffolk from 1925-8; and was vicar of St Mary The Virgin’s Church, Great Dunmow, Essex, from 1928-47. Throughout the Second World War, he served from 1939-45 as an Air Raid Precautions officer. From 1946-7, Mellish served as Deputy Lieutenant Essex before becoming curate of Baltonsborough, Somerset, from 1947-53, when he retired. In his retirement, he was a Fellow of King’s College, London.
Mellish died on 8 July 1962, in South Petherton, Somerset, aged eighty-one. He was cremated at Weymouth Crematorium, Dorset, and his ashes were scattered at St Mary The Virgin’s Church, Great Dunmow.
His VC medal group is displayed at the Royal Fusiliers Museum in the Tower of London, while replicas are on show at the Museum of Army Chaplaincy at Amport House, Hampshire. The museum tells the story of British Army chaplaincy from the earliest times to the present day, with the help of archive material and historical relics. The museum was originally housed at Bagshot Park but was re-housed to Amport House in 2001.
After some thought, I have categorised Mellish’s bravery under “self-sacrifice”: even though he did not die saving others, this was simply because of good fortune and no other category of bravery seems more appropriate for his courageous actions.