Thomas Noel Heath Stretch, the fourth son and the fifth child of John Francis Stretch (later Bishop of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia and Amelia Weekes, was born 22nd December 1893 at Brighton, Melbourne, where his father was Vicar of St. Andrew’s. He attended the Armidale School NSW, 1908-1909 and Brighton Grammar School. He began at Geelong Grammar School as a boarder on 8th February 1910. He was in the School Cadet Corps, for two years as a 2nd Lieutenant. In March 1914, on leaving school, he began reading law in preparation for holy orders at Trinity College, Melbourne. He represented Geelong Grammar School and the College in rowing, cricket and football.
On the outbreak of war Noel enlisted in the 1st Australian Imperial Force at Prahan, Victoria, on 17th August 1914. His army records contain little personal information but they do tell us that he was 5 feet 11½ inches tall and weighed 12 stone 9 lbs., and that he had scarlet fever when he was two and was able to ride.
He embarked on the transport Orvieto at Melbourne 21st October 1914 for service overseas with the Fifth Australian Infantry Battalion, the first contingent to sail for Europe. He was promoted sergeant on 15th September 1914 and on 27th January 1915, while stationed at Mena in Egypt, was recommended for a temporary commission in the regular army for the duration of hostilities. While in Egypt he had a spell in hospital with influenza and bronchitis.
Noel was discharged from the 1st Australian Imperial Forces in England on 5th April 1915 and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps (Imperial Army) on 6th April 1915 and posted to the R. A. S. C. Depot at Woolwich. He was subsequently promoted to Lieutenant. The above photograph was taken at Admiralty House in Lewes, Sussex where Tessie lived with her young family and husband Francis Caesar ‘Frank’ Barchard. It was probably at this time that he visited.
After service with the 6th Training Division he was attached to the 165th Company of the Machine Gun Corps on 25th October 1916 and arrived at Étaples in France on 21st November. He joined his Company in the field 10th December but not for long. On the back of a photograph of his company he wrote to his brother:
Dear Carlos, I am quite reconciled to the idea of never hearing from you again. However here is a photo of my section before we went into action on July 31st. Hope you are all well. Love from Noel
After a period in hospital at Camiers, he returned to duty 29th January 1917. In May/early June he attended a M.G. course at Camiers. In that year on the 31st July he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in the Ypres Salient during the Battle for Paschendaele. The citation reads: ‘He successfully brought his four guns with the assaulting Infantry up to the second objective and when there found that the right flank of the Brigade was exposed to attack from a party of the enemy still in the Pommern Redoubt. He pushed two of his guns well forward on the flanks of the Brigade and was thereby able to bring covering machine gun fire to bear while the rest of the Brigade was advancing to take the final objective. He took two prisoners with the assistance of one of his gun teams, and then obtained an Infantry bombing party to clear the trench of the remainder of the enemy.’
On 27th November 1917 he was awarded a Bar to the M.C.. The citation reads: ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty from 20th to 22nd September 1917, East of Ypres. He advanced with three machine guns to the first objective and got them into position. He then returned to the advanced company headquarters, and despite heavy shelling, did splendid work in keeping up communication. On hearing that the officers of the forward sections had become casualties he supervised the working of those sections in addition to his own. His cheerful and courageous example greatly inspired his men.’
In December 1917 Noel was yet again admitted to a Field Hospital with bronchitis. He returned to duty on 2nd February 1918, joining 104 Company.
At the beginning of the Battles of the Somme in 1916, Maricourt was the point of junction between the British and French forces and very close to the front line. It was lost in the German advance of 21st March 1918 when thirty-seven German infantry divisions, including many released from the Eastern Front following the Bolshevik Revolution, attacked seventeen British divisions. This was the last great German offensive by which they hoped to win the war before American troops could arrive in significant numbers. The attack was finally halted on 4th April. In that desperate fighting on 25th March Noel was shot, aged 24, by a sniper while on duty as officer of the day.
He lies in the Peronne Road cemetery at Maricourt beside a quiet country road on the edge of the village above the Valley of the Somme, a peaceful place of sunshine and birdsong, beautifully maintained by the War Graves Commission. In the Visitors’ Book, among the large number of entries from visitors all over the world, the Peterborough (England) Under 14 Football Club members made many sensitive comments.
In Australia, presumably in 1918, The Newcastle Herald published the following undated report: ‘A service of a memorial nature to Lieutenant Noel Stretch, who was killed in action in France, was held last night at Newcastle Cathedral.
The choir rendered Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’. The Rev. Canon Porteus, in the course of his address, after pointing out that God cared as much for the individual as the general, drew consolation from the fact that though Christ’s life was cut off in its prime yet it was the most fruitful of all lives. His was the great test case. The young lives cut off by the war would come into their own work, though we had no idea how this was to come about. They had died for Australia, and the right of free peoples to live free lives. In particular, our thoughts turn to one who was known to many of us personally, and to all of us by repute – Noel Stretch. Our sympathy is offered to our bishop and his family in this their sorrow. It is, alas! a common sorrow now, and for that reason not less bitter, but rather more. Above this grief at the death of Noel, our Father in God has the double anxiety of one son returned from the front in broken health, and another son getting ready for, if not already in, the firing line. Moreover, the burden of the war had pressed heavily upon him from the first, for he had recognized far more clearly than any other man the preacher knew the tremendous gravity of the position – he saw in it a fundamental menace to the Empire – unscrupulous, mighty, prepared to the last detail; he knew how dreadfully near it would go to success – and this from the very day of war’s declaration. Now that his boy has died in the great cause, he can lift up his heart out of grief in a lofty content, knowing that he had given his life as he gave his services, out of a deep instinct for the right. ‘All is well with the boy’. Noel was a son of whom any father might be proud. Big and athletic in body (for he won his ‘colours’ for tennis, swimming, football, cricket and rowing), alert and keen in mind, simple and sincere in his young outlook upon life, pure in heart. The needs of the lost sheep of Christ’s flock appealed to him, and he had a strong leaning towards the foreign mission field. But a more insistent call came first, and to that he answered ‘Here’. That Australia will be poorer for his death, and many like him, we cannot doubt. But as it was with the Master of all Heroes, so it shall be with them – somehow the work they were to do will not be undone.
The preacher concluded: And the passionate pleading voice of Noel Stretch and all our forty thousand who have passed to another life is this: If we died for Australia, giving all, will you live for Australia, making it in very truth a free land of free men, subduing tiger madnesses of greed, class hatred and lust, slaying the sickening, whining plottings for easy comfort, rising to the full glory of a majestic and human religion, which loves man and God – redeemed, disenthralled, empowered by the abiding presence of the Spirit of God’s Son, who gave Himself that we might be free, pure and great.’
On 23rd May 1920 at a Service in Newcastle, Carlos Stretch [brother of Noel] presented the Cathedral, on behalf of his family, with a Processional Cross in memory of Noel. The inscription read: ‘AMDG. In memory of Lieutenant T. N. H. Stretch, M.C. and Bar, Killed in action, France 28.3.1918.’
On January 1st 1922 The Newcastle Diocesan Churchman reported, ‘The Stretch family has received one of the British Government War memorial Plaques, commemorative of the services of their brother, Lieut. T. N. H. Stretch M.C., M.G.C. who was killed in action in France on March 25th 1918. The plaque is of a circular form, about 5” in diameter, and embossed upon it is the figure of Britannia, holding a laurel wreath over the embossed name, ‘Thomas Noel Heath Stretch’. At the feet of Britannia is the figure of a lion. The only other words besides the name are, ‘He died for Freedom and Honour’.
Noel had a strong connection with Toc H. ‘There were a number of Clubs for the men serving in the Ypres Salient in World War I, but there was something special about Talbot House in Poperinghe. What was it? So much has been written about it over the years and in all of it the ‘Upper Room’ is referred to over and over again. It had a special place in the lives of so many. It highlighted the importance of the Spiritual Nature of Man. We will never know how many were uplifted spiritually by their experiences in the Upper Room. One young Australian Lieutenant whose name is in the Roll of Honour in the Upper Room is Noel Stretch.’
On 1st April 1926 the Newcastle Diocesan Journal published the following article from The Newcastle Herald (quoted in part): ‘Dr. H. Crotty, Padre of the Newcastle group, prior to unveiling the memorial portrait of Noel Stretch, spoke at length on the aims and objects of Toc H. He mentioned that the naming of a Patron Saint of Australia had recently been suggested, but after much discussion it was not considered advisable to depart from the name of Gilbert Talbot. It was, however, decided that groups or branches could immortalize their own local saint. This group had accordingly selected the name of Lieut. Noel Stretch, M.C. and Bar, who, Dr. Crotty stated, was the brilliant son of a brilliant father, and the brother of Jobmaster Hubert Stretch. Dr. Crotty then unveiled the memorial portrait, and the members stood while he recited the ‘Light’ ceremony.’
The Sword of Honour
On 5th June 1915 the sword manufacturers, Henry Wilkinson, who supplied dress swords to the Services, recorded the sale of an unengraved sword to [2nd Lieutenant] T. N. H. Stretch. His name and the insignia of the Machine Gun Corps were etched on the sword subsequently.
Following Noel’s death in 1918 the sword was given to Marina Julia Highfield née Stretch. She was the daughter of Theodore Stretch (a cousin of Noel) and Julia Marina Cripps. Why she held the sword it not known perhaps because she was the nearest next of kin outside Australia or possibly because he had left it with her or her parents when visiting on leave. After the Second World War she gave the sword to Major Martyn Highfield, R.A., M.C., the nephew of her husband ‘Jack’ Highfield. In 2001 Major Highfield decided to offer the sword to the Australian Army. After some discussion of various proposals, Major-General Leahy decided the sword would be best placed with the University of New South Wales Regiment (UNSWR). The Regiment decided to award the sword annually to a Staff Cadet for Exemplary Conduct and Performance of Duty and the first such presentation was made at the UNSWR Parade on 5th March 2006.
Noel’s sword is displayed in the Staff Cadets’ Mess at the UNSWR Depot, Kensington, together with replicas of his M.C. and Bar and an account of his service, as a source of inspiration to the cadets.