One hundred years on from conflict to rowing
One hundred years ago, young men from all over the world were preparing for war. Among their ranks there were many of rowers. Some of them, like France’s Lucien Roche or Germany’s Erich Vetter, were champions. Others were from rowing clubs as far apart as Sydney, Australia and Ghent, Belgium. Their world – and therefore ours – would be changed forever.
In many of the world’s rowing clubs, you can still see the names of some of those oarsmen who died, engraved on plaques at the clubs they once represented.
The men of the Deutschland Achter of 1913, took the European title from Switzerland and Italy. Three of that Mainzer Ruderverein crew did not return from the war. Among them, fighter pilot Richard Piez, who lost his life over the Western front in 1917.
As we know, the First World War became a titanic clash of continents, whose soldiers fought and died on battlefields throughout the globe. One hundred years later in Europe, it is the Western Front, which for four years snaked its bloody way through Belgium and Northern France, that has come to symbolize that conflict. Millions visit the memorials, cemeteries and preserved battlefields there each year.
Olympic single sculling champion, Mahe Drysdale (New Zealand) has written powerfully of the impact of his trip to the battlefields of the Western Front. During the summer of 2011, Drysdale reflected on the difficulties his training regime presented him with, compared to those that the Anzac soldiers of 1914-18 encountered: "I don’t think even the worst case scenario in my mind goes close to what they endured," said Drysdale. And he went on: "Thankfully, we are unlikely to ever find out if we are capable of doing this. But it does show that people are capable of extraordinary things."
Not far from where Drysdale was training that year, runs the tranquil rivers and canals of Northern France:; the Aisne, Marne, St Quentin Canal and, of course, the Somme. They all gave their name to key battles during the first World War. Of those rivers, it was the Somme that still resonates so clearly in 2014. The reasons for that aren’t hard to fathom. The French call the Somme Battle of 1916, ‘The Battle of the Nations’ because the armies of France, Germany, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India all clashed in a conflict that lasted over five months and cost over a million lives.
Those new nations of the former British Empire, like Australia and South Africa, all suffered grievously on the Somme. But the scale of their sacrifice almost validated their new sense of both nationhood and independence. Both of those countries have their national war memorials close to the banks of the River Somme as recognition of the price that was paid for their new-found ‘status’.
I think it was that, which in May of 2014, drew me back to the Somme – a site I had visited many times before. But this occasion was to be different. I was to take my single scull and visit the battlefield sites in a way I’d never experienced before. There was another powerful reason why I was taking my boat to the Somme. I was drawn there to commemorate two Olympic Champions who lost their lives there in 1916 - one British, the other Australian.
Captain John Somers-Smith was killed while attacking the German-held village of Gommecourt on July 1, 1916. It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Eight years earlier, Somers-Smith had stroked the British four to a memorable gold medal win in the 1908 Olympic Regatta.
As I looked out over the flat agricultural landscape that currently surrounds the modern day village of Gommecourt, it was in the knowledge that the Olympic Champion’s body was never found. His remains either lie somewhere under the fields, or in some grave, marked with a cross and the epithet: ‘Known unto God’. He is officially one of the missing. If you want to see his name commemorated, you have to look among the 72,191 names commemorated on Lutyens huge memorial to the missing that stands on the Thiepval Ridge.
Frederick Septimus Kelly was a kind of ‘Mahe Drysdale’ of his day. The Aussie, who went to school and university in England, won the prestigious Diamond Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta three times in the early years of the 20th century. Contemporary accounts call him the best and most stylish sculler of his day; a complete natural. It was no surprise that the Australian got a seat in the British eight that won gold in the 1908 Olympic rowing regatta.
Kelly did not hesitate in joining up as soon as war broke out, even though it meant a halt to his career as a virtuoso musician and composer. He served with Rupert Brooke, one of the most gifted poets of his day. On Brooke’s death in 1915, Kelly – now better remembered in his native Australia as a musician – composed the hauntingly beautiful Elegy for Strings, in memory of his great friend. It still has the power to stir emotions in the listener today. On August 17 2014, it will be performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall as part of the commemorations of the war’s centenary.
Kelly died a year after Brooke in the mud, wet and cold, as the Battle of the Somme finally drew to a halt. He was killed on November 13 1916, while leading his men from the Hood Battalion into action, just outside of the town of Beaucourt Sur L’Ancre. Unlike Somers-Smith, Kelly’s body was recovered. It now rests in the beautiful little hamlet of Martinsart.
While there, I was determined to commemorate Kelly’s life by taking my scull onto a stretch of water a stone’s throw from where he met his death. Unfortunately, the tiny river Ancre – a small tributary of the Somme – is not big enough to scull on. But there is a small fishing lake, where it is possible to get 30 strokes in without stopping. To me, those few strokes on that lake felt like an important act of remembrance to an exceptional oarsman.
On my scull down the Somme, I had also wanted to see if one of the German rowers who competed at the 1914 Henley Regatta in the Mainzer Ruderverien eight might have fought on the Somme. But I was unable to find any connections. Then, a few weeks after I had completed my journey I received an email from a Mr Mark Osborne, based in Germany.
Osborne had heard of my scull down the Somme and felt moved to tell me the wonderful story of his family. It spoke to me on two levels. Firstly, it indicated just how much the conflict still resonates with so many, one hundred years later. Secondly, it is a powerful sign of just how far the Europe of 1914 has become a more integrated place.
It is worth quoting the relevant parts here. Osborne wrote, “My grandfather joined the army early in 1915 and was sent to France in the summer of that year. He went 'over the top' for the first time at Loos, a few days short of his 18th birthday. They lost many men. His next real action was at the end of July 1916, as part of the Somme campaign. His Battalion successfully attacked Delville Wood and over the coming days survived incessant bombardment from three sides. They were relieved after three days and had lost over 350 men. My Grandfather survived and was later involved in the final action of the Somme Campaign at Beaumont Hamel in November (along with FS Kelly). He was awarded the Military Medal in 1917."
Osborne’s grandfather survived the war and died in 1993. That meant he was never able to see his great grandson – Jason Osborne - born just a year later, in 1994. Now, 20 years on, Jason Osborne has become one of the world’s top scullers. Remarkably, he represents Germany. In June, though I did not know of his connection with the First World War, I was fortunate to witness one of his best races to date; the final of lightweight men's double sculls at the World Rowing Cup in Aiguebelette (FRA), where, together with his partner, Moritz Moos, he won a silver medal behind France.
Even more noteworthy, Jason Osborne is based at Mainzer Ruderverien, the same club as the German eight that won the European Championships back in 1913 and made the semifinals of the Grand at Henley in 1914. At the time of writing, it looks as though Jason will win his first World Championship medal for Germany at the World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam (NED), in the stroke seat of the lightweight men’s double.
In his email, it is understandable why Jason Osborne’s father made an important point. He wrote, “My grandfather fought against the Germans and less than a 100 years later his great grandson was rowing for Germany. I am sure he would have been very proud. He never showed any malice to the Germans and he remained a gentleman to the end.”
When one rightly asks, ‘Why should we remember a conflict that started a century ago?’ Why not reflect on the story of Jason Osborne’s family? If nothing else, it shows just how far the world has come in those one hundred years.
By Martin Cross