Edward Mellish, the first of three army chaplains to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War, worked in parishes both in Deptford and Lewisham. Anne Fowler wrote about this brave man in Sydenham Life, July/August 2006.
The Army Chaplains Department had been in existence for some 120 years when the Great War started in the summer of 1914;.
Initially comprising only Church of England men, over the years it had evolved to encompass Roman Catholic, Wesleyan, Jewish and other smaller denominations by the beginning of the 20th century.
In August 1914 when the British Expeditionary Force sailed for France the department was still only small with just over 100 commissioned chaplains, of which 65 accompanied the original expeditionary force. By the end of the war close on 3500 had served in all the theatres of war, ministering to the needs of the men and women serving their country overseas.
It is generally accepted that between 170 and 180 of these men died or were killed in action serving God and their country whilst in the front line with the troops, which is where many preferred to be. A quote from an unknown padre sums up the attitude of many:
"If the men can't go to church then the church must go to the men".
Many men of the Chaplains Department were decorated during the Great War and three of them won the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.
The first of these was The Reverend Edward Noel Mellish VC, MC, who interestingly has a local connection. He was born on Christmas Eve 1880 at Oakleigh Par, Barnet, North London, and educated at Saffron Walden Grammar School. On completing his studies he became a member of the Artists Rifles and in 1900 went to South Africa and served with Baden-Powell's police against the Boers. He returned to study at Kings College London, took holy orders in 1912 and become curate at St. Pauls Church in Deptford.
When war broke out Edward Mellish offered his services to the chaplaincy in which he served from May 1915 until February 1919. During this period, attached to the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, he was involved in the "Action of the St. Eloi Craters" at Ypres. During the first two days of this action he brought in 22 badly wounded men from ground that was literally swept by enemy machine gun fire, and on the third day took charge of a party of volunteers who went out again to rescue any remaining wounded they could find. His citation reads:
"It was only during a lull in the fighting when the ambulance parties could get out that he finally took a rest. Next day he was out again unconcerned as ever. Some of the men would not have survived the ordeal had it not been for the prompt assistance rendered to them by Mr Mellish."
One of those brought in by the padre was a cockney solider well known for his anti religious views. When settled in a base hospital after the fighting the solider enquired, "What religion is 'e?" When told he replied, "Well I'm the same as 'im now and the bloke as sez a word agen our church will 'have 'is ******'ead bashed in.;"
When Edward Mellish left the Army Chaplains Department in 1919 he took over as vicar of St. Marks church in Lewisham, so we can truly claim him as a local man. He died in Somerset in 1962 at the age of 82. You can see the Victoria Cross of this remarkable man today at the Royal Fusiliers Museum in the Tower of London.
Return from Edward Mellish to WW1 at St. Bartholomew's.
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