Thursday 11 September 2014

Charles Jarvis - the "Chelmsford" VC

Charles Alfred Jarvis was born in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, on 29th March 1881, the son of a coastguard. He spent his early life in Carnoustie, in Angus. He trained as a plumber on leaving school but left Scotland at the age of 16 and in 1898 at the outbreak of the Boer War he joined the Royal Engineers. Instead of seeing action in South Africa, however, he was sent to Singapore at the time of the Boxer Crisis in China. He served for seven years and transferred to the reserves in 1907, returning to civilian life as a telegraphist in London. Some time after that he moved to Chelmsford and became a metal worker at Hoffmann's Manufacturing Company.

He was a well-known figure in our town, known as "Scotty" or "Mac", and he was a founder member and secretary of the Chelmsford Sea Angling Society, organising trips and competitions to Tollesbury, Brightlingsea, and out in the Blackwater and the Crouch. He was also an active trades unionist, and a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers.

He had actually left Hoffmann's in early 1914 and had moved to London. As a reservist he was called up at the outbreak of the First World War as 3976 L/Cpl C. A. Jarvis. He first reported to Chatham, from where he was sent to join the 57th Field Company, Royal Engineers, which was assembling at Bulford in Wiltshire. This unit was sent to France on 16th August, and by the Saturday 22nd it had arrived at the front in Mons, after a twenty mile march.

The first task of the engineers was to assist the infantry in setting up a defensive line on the Mons Canal. Early the next morning Jarvis was ordered to demolish one of the bridges over the canal, near the village of Jemappes. He obtained a rowing boat, and with a Colchester lad named Sapper Neary made his way into a lock and under the bridge. With the help of two Royal Scottish Fusiliers to steady the boat, he attached an explosive charge to the underside of the bridge. Unfortunately he did not have the detonators or leads required to finish the job, so he sent Neary back to the RE toolcart to obtain them. They had been under sniper fire since early in the morning, but a machine gun opened up on the bridge from a nearby chateau, and artillery was brought into action, with a hail of "shrapnel, bullets and splinters".

After an hour the Scots losses mounted and Jarvis' own officer was wounded, and there was still no sign of Neary. Jarvis decided to search for the detonators himself and, under fire, made his way into Jemappes town square. Amid scenes of chaos as the civilian population and the wounded were being evacuated, he found his adjutant, Captain Theodore Wright, RE, who was bleeding profusely from a head wound. He ordered Jarvis back to the bridge and to wait for him to bring the leads and detonators. Shortly afterwards Wright appeared with the equipment and, despite his wounds, made two attempts to fix the leads into the charges, and eventually fell into the canal, from which he was rescued. The two engineers then blew the bridge and escaped to safety. This was the only bridge on the Mons Canal that was successfully destroyed that day.

Jarvis and his unit were involved in the heavy fighting which followed the early German advance, and in the subsequent British and French counter-offensive from the 6th September. On the 30th October it was announced that he had been Mentioned in Despatches. By November he was exhausted, and was evacuated back to the Cambridge Ward of the London Hospital. On 16th November the London Gazette carried the following citation for the award of the Victoria Cross:
For great gallantry at Jemappes on August 23rd in working for 1 ½ hours under heavy fire in full view of the enemy, and in successfully firing charges for the demolition of a bridge.
Nine VCs were announced that day, including Captain Wright, who unfortunately had been killed in September, and four of the awards were for action on the 23rd August.

Jarvis became an instant hero and the news was greeted with great enthusiasm in Chelmsford. It was also celebrated at Carnoustie, with some surprise too - it was reported that it had been over six years since he had last been heard of by his family, and he had been long given up for dead!
L/Cpl Jarvis VC

Despite the Chelmsford claim, Jarvis visited Carnoustie on discharge from hospital in December. On Wednesday 13th January 1915 he was received at Buckingham Palace and had his Victoria Cross pinned to his breast by the King himself.

"Chelmsford's VC" finally returned to the town on Wednesday 21st July 1915. He stayed with Edwin Temple, at 194 Moulsham Street, and in the evening they went to see "Merry Miss Madcap" at the Empire Theatre. He was recognised by some in the audience, and the manager, Mr Lionel Holding, invited him on to the stage, which brought a great ovation. On the Friday there was a public demonstration in his honour which began at outside St John's Church on Moulsham Street. The band of the the 5th Battalion, Essex Regiment led the way, with a guard of honour from the 3/5th Battalion, Essex Regiment, and the Borough Fire Brigade. Jarvis himself, wearing his VC, was driven in Col. Tufnell's motor car in the company of the Mayor, George Taylor, Alderman J O Thompson, and Mr Ewell McAllen, of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. They passed through the streets to the gun platform (now gone) in front of the Shire Hall. Following a speech by Col Tufnell, the Mayor presented Jarvis with a walrus-hide purse containing £30 (about £3,000 today), Following some words from the Mayor, Jarvis made a patriotic speech to one of the largest crowds ever assembled.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am very proud to be among you all in Chelmsford again. When I left here twelve months ago I went with the feeling that I would like to come back, and I used to come back occasionally just to do a little fishing. But I have been fishing for other things since (laughter) and I just want to say a few words on behalf of the men at the Front, to those young men who have not yet come forward. While their fathers are doing their bit, they are still walking about here with their trousers turned up, their hair parted in the middle, and wearing fancy socks (laughter and cheers). Let them remember that we have 843,000 married men in the Services doing their duty. Why are not the young fellows coming forward and doing theirs? Why are they not in khaki?"
L/Cpl Jarvis under the bridge at Jemappes

After his Chelmsford speech Jarvis returned to the RE depot in Chatham and shortly afterwards was assigned to recruiting duties in Essex, and he did not return to active service, In 1916 there was a call for skilled volunteers from the Royal Engineers to transfer to munitions work and Jarvis was sent to work in the Portsmouth Dockyards. He appeared in the newspapers again the following year: by this time he had accumulated 17 years' service in the Colours, and was looking forward to the military pension and lump sum to which he would be entitled on reaching the eighteen year point. But he was given a discharge from the Army within only months to go. This was a full discharge, which meant that if he left his protected munitions job he would be subject to conscription under the Military Service Act.The case attracted some attention but the outcome is unknown. Jarvis next appears working in the Napier aircraft factory at Acton Vale, where he was recognised by the King during a visit in November 1917.

Jarvis was in the news again in May 1919, when it was reported that he had been unemployed since the end of the war. Despite being a "superior plumber and gas fitter" he had no luck finding work, and threatened to buy a barrel organ and play it outside Buckingham Palace! The subsequent publicity helped him find a government post in Southampton. He eventually returned to Scotland, where he died in 1948.

Men from Chelmsford received many medals and awards during the Great War, but none of them merited the Victoria Cross. Jarvis had, at best, a limited and temporary association with our town, but he was happy to acknowledge it and I think we can be proud of our "Chelmsford VC".

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