Of all the Victoria Cross recipients I have researched, the story of Edward Noel Mellish was the one that probably inspired me the most. A story worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster and involving bravery of the very highest order; a story of unswerving devotion to duty, not only to king and country, but a duty also to care for those brave young men who went over the top to drive back the enemy at the point of a bayonet.
Edward Noel Mellish, the son of Edward senior, a Bill Broker and Mary, was born on Christmas eve in 1880. His father’s work had taken the family to China, but they had now returned to England and were living at Tenable House, Oakleigh Road, Barnet. The family had seven other children, six of whom were girls.
Edward was educated at King Edward VI School in Saffron Walden in Essex, and in 1900 he joined the Artists Rifles. He sailed from Southampton the same year aboard the SS Kildonan Castle Bound for South Africa, where his regiment were involved in the South African War.
During the conflict he and his colleagues found themselves trapped by Boers in a lonely, isolated farmhouse. Edward immediately volunteered for the near suicidal task of breaking through the enemy to summon help. As he went his comrades felt he was facing certain death, and that they had seen him for the last time. There did not seem to be more than a one in a million chance that a man could run the Boer gauntlet.
Despite the odds against it, Edward succeeded in breaking through enemy lines. Not satisfied with simply delivering the SOS message, he then turned around and went back, alone, through the encircling enemy to bring the news to his besieged comrades that help was on its way.
After the war he remained in South Africa working in a diamond mine in Jagersfontein, and also helping out at a local Native Mission in the evenings. He would often be found sitting up all night nursing dying Africans. It was this voluntary work that convinced him that his future lay with the church and the service of others.
On his return to England, Edward went to King’s College London to read theology, and in 1912 he began his service with the church. He was ordained a year later, and his first appointment was as curate of St Paul’s Church, Deptford in South East London.
When war broke out, as a former soldier he was certain that there must be a job for him at the front. He applied for and was given a temporary commission as an army chaplain and was attached to the 4th Royal Fusiliers. His position meant that he could have remained at headquarters, a safe distance and nobody was going to stop him.
On the 27th of March 1916 Edward’s battalion was involved in heavy and desperate fighting at St. Eloi, near Ypres in Belgium. The enemy have constructed a complex series of defensive positions, and the fusiliers are facing murderous fire, causing heavy casualties. The British were outnumbered two to one yet managed to drive back the enemy at bayonet point.
After each assault, all six feet of Edward Mellish was seen, striding out into no man’s land under heavy enemy fire, prayer book in hand, walking as though he was on a Sunday church parade. He tended the wounds of the injured and brought them back, one by one, to the British trenches. The fire was so murderous that three men were killed as he knelt beside them. This didn’t deter him, and he continued to bring in the wounded that had seemed beyond the reach of the stretcher parties.
The next day he got straight back to work, heading back out into no man’s land, without even waiting for the enemy barrage to abate. With shells exploding close by and bullets passing too close for comfort he continued his work, walking slowly and calmy out to the wounded, bringing each man back to safety. He only stopped for a breather when there was a lull in the fighting and the ambulance parties were able to go out.
His battalion was relived the next day, and he really should have left with them, instead he chose to stay and saved another 12 lives. Later that day he led out a party of volunteers and cleaned up the remaining inaccessible wounded. Describing the scene, a brother officer said, “he was walking into a tempest of fire, a prayer book under his arm as though he were going on a church parade in peace time” a Private adding “It made us think a bit more of parsons, to see how he walked quietly under fire.”
Edward was awarded to Victoria Cross in 1916, and later the Military Cross in 1918. After the war he went back to the Church becoming the Vicar of St. Marks in Lewisham. In 1939 thieves broke into the Vicarage at Great Dunmow in Essex and stole his V.C. and M.C. as well as two pounds. They left all the collection plates in the church though.
He retired from the church on October the 1st 1953 after 5 years as the Vicar of Baltonsborough, near Glastonbury and moved to Galhampton with his wife. He died on the 8th of July 1962 aged 81, leaving behind his wife Elizabeth, and three children.