Rowing to War – Lest we Forget

Lest we forgetHTBS’s Louis Petrin writes from Australia:

World War I was a time when many fine men and women lost their lives. It was a time of personal loss for family and friends, devastating nations and having an enormous impact on the sport of rowing with many of its finest being lost to the war.

Recently, on 29 March 2015, at the Australian National Rowing Championships there was a Commemorative Ceremony to pay tribute to the South Australian rower, Tom Whyte, who died on 25 April 1915 at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Turkey, one hundred years ago.

In Australia, the 25 of April is our Remembrance or Memorial Day, called ANZAC Day.

It was on that fateful day that thousands of brave young men went ashore on a foreign beach in a far and distant land. Soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) faced a formidable task. They were sent to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula to force the Ottoman Turkish Empire out of the war, and to establish an alternative supply line with the Russian allies in the Dardanelles which connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret’d), Governor of New South Wales and Mrs Hurley laid a wreath during the Commemorative Ceremony. Wreaths were also laid by Captain Charles Huxtable, Royal Australian Navy, President of the Australian Defence Rowing Association, and para-rowing World Champion and former Australian Army Sergeant, Gavin Bellis.

The ceremony was quite moving and the first time held at the national rowing championships in Australia. The day was chosen because the Men’s Eight row for the King’s Cup, which was award at the 1919 Peace Regatta at Henley.

Henley Peace Regatta medal


Private Thomas Anderson Whyte
Tom Whyte was born in Unley, South Australia on 19 February 1886. He went to school at St Peters Anglican College in Adelaide. Little is known of his family, except that he had one brother.

At the age of 22, Tom was working a wholesale grocery business which was dissolved in 1908. By then he was a successful lacrosse player, playing a number of interstate matches for South Australia between 1908 and 1912.

However, it was as a rower that he was best known, beginning quietly with the Adelaide’s Mercantile Rowing Club in 1903 before developing several years later into a particularly successful oarsman. He represented South Australia in the Men’s Inter-state Eight-Oared Championship, as the King’s Cup was then known, rowing in the 6 seat in 1907 and stroking the crew in 1908 and 1909.

Interstate 8, 1908. R. Wigg (bow), C.A. Hamilton (2), A.E. Luxmore (3), ? (4), Doyle (5), Madigan, C.T. (6), A.R. Fearley (7), T. Whyte (stroke), V. Smith (Cox), A.J. Grayson (Coach right back), W.H.G. Blain (left back).
Interstate 8, 1908. R. Wigg (bow), C.A. Hamilton (2), A.E. Luxmore (3), ? (4), Doyle (5), Madigan, C.T. (6), A.R. Fearley (7), T. Whyte (stroke), V. Smith (Cox), A.J. Grayson (Coach right back), W.H.G. Blain (left back). State Library of South Australia – SRG 32/5/125.

Whyte’s rowing achievements are summarised in the following review:

Observer (Adelaide) – Saturday 8 May 1915, page 39.
Observer (Adelaide) – Saturday 8 May 1915, page 39.

He was a popular member of Mannum Rowing Club and during his last rowing season he joined the Adelaide Rowing Club.

Whyte enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in Morphettville within weeks of the outbreak of war in 1914 on 19 August at the age of 28 years.

He was posted to the 10th Battalion with many of his mates from school and the Adelaide Rowing Club. They embarked from Adelaide’s Outer Harbour on board the HMAT A11 Ascanius on 20 October 1914. After docking in Freemantle, they steamed west for Egypt for further training before being sent to Gallipoli.

During breaks in training he rowed with his friends and toured Cairo as seen in this picture of Whyte and a fellow member of the Adelaide Rowing Club, Lance Rhodes, sitting on the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Nine members of the 10th Battalion. All except two of these men were students at St Peters Anglican College in Adelaide, and five of them died during the First World War. Pte Thomas Anderson Whyte is in the front row on the left.
Nine members of the 10th Battalion. All except two of these men were students at St Peters Anglican College in Adelaide, and five of them died during the First World War. Pte Thomas Anderson Whyte is in the front row on the left.

On 24 April 1915, aboard a transport ship bound for Gallipoli, Tom Whyte put pencil to paper. Facing his first glimpse of action in a few hours’ time, he wrote a profoundly raw letter to his fiancée, Eileen Wallace Champion, lest he fell in battle the next day. His words reveal the heartfelt fears of a soldier facing an uncertain future:

My Dear Sweetheart, I thought of writing this in case I went under suddenly. Not that at present I have any thought of not seeing you again but in case of accidents.

Tom hoped that the letter would never be sent, “May this letter never be necessary. But the thought that hurts worst of all is of you and your sorrow.” But at the moment of writing, Tom found solace in the thought that the future would be a happy one for Eileen. “Just think of me as non-existent in spirit, blotted out completely,” he wrote. “It would soften the last thoughts if I knew you would be really happy again… Goodbye my love, may you get all the happiness you deserve, that will be my last wish.”

It was planned that the 10th Battalion would be among the first formations to land on Gallipoli in the early hours of the 25 of April 1915.

At 3.30 am, 36 rowing boats in groups of three, each group being towed by a small steamboat, left the battleships Prince of Wales, London and Queen and headed towards the coast. In the boats were six companies (a company contained about a hundred men), about 1,200 soldiers from the 9th, 10th and 11th Battalions of the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade. These men were to be the first ashore at what is now known as Anzac Cove (Turkish: Anzak Koyu), a small cove on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. The cove is 600 metres (2,000 ft.) long, bounded by the headlands of Arıburnu to the north and Little Arıburnu, known as Hell Spit, to the south. Following the landing at Anzac Cove, the beach became the main base for the Australian and New Zealand troops for the eight months of the Gallipoli campaign.

On the morning of the Landing on Gallipoli, the 10th Battalion had been divided into two parts – the first would row ashore just before dawn in the first wave of soldiers to land, and the second would land just after daybreak. Private Tom Whyte had volunteered to row one of the boats ashore in the second wave.

Drawing by Signaller Ellis Silas – The Landing.
Drawing by Signaller Ellis Silas – The Landing.

His friend, Arthur Blackburn VC, wrote a letter to Tom’s fiancée, Eileen on June 24, some months after the Gallipoli landing, about Tom’s fate that day which was subsequently published in the Adelaide Register. Blackburn describes the scene of Tom’s final moments,

You have no doubt read in the papers an account of our landing, and have seen that after daylight the dangers of landing were increased considerably. The men off the transports had partly to be towed, and partly to be rowed ashore amidst a hail of shrapnel and bullets that was simply indescribable. Now, the most dangerous position of the lot was that of the men who were rowing, as they of course could take no shelter. They could not even crouch down in the boat, but were compelled to sit up and row. The dangers of such a task were so apparent that officers hesitated to order men to expose themselves to the work of rowing. Tom immediately grasped the situation, and, as everyone knew he would, volunteered his services as a rower, as the boat crept in towards the shore the fire became hotter and hotter. The men towing had a terrible time, but they stuck to it in a way which was absolutely magnificent. Just as the boat touched the shore Tom slipped over on to the bottom of the boat, and it was then discovered that he was badly hit.…

Tom’s courageous nature was confirmed by reports from the men he had rowed ashore: “no one was more cheerful than he. He was joking and laughing all the way to the shore, and our battalion has lost one of its best soldiers.”

Tom had been shot through the pelvis. He was taken to the Hospital Ship HMAT Gascon for immediate treatment. Tom Whyte, the champion rower, died that evening aboard on the way to Alexandria.

Blackburn wrote, “the poor fellow was killed before he had fired a single shot, but there is no doubt that it was largely due to the courage and endurance of Tom and his fellow-rowers in all the boats that everyone was landed with the minimum of loss”.

Sitting beside Tom as he lay dying was Sister Katherine Lawrence Porter, Tom’s last nurse. Sister Porter – ‘Kitty’, as she was known – was also engaged to be married, and felt something of the heartache the death of this young man would cause. She wrote some months later on 26 January 1916 to comfort the devastated Eileen,

I remember Private Tom Whyte very well. The poor man came on the Gascon during the morning. He had an abdominal wound and was taken to the operation room almost at once and everything possible was done for him… the only thing he was worried over was some package being delivered to his friend… I feel certain that there must have been some message for you in it… it was knowing that he was engaged made me stay on duty a little longer to be what comfort I could to him. It was a terrible day for us all and I saw so much that was awful that day.

Sister Porter’s letter had offered something beyond value to Eileen – the knowledge and closure of knowing the fate of her sweetheart on the battlefield. In a chaotic war, many were never to know the last moments of their loved ones.

Trinkets of Tom Whyte donated to the Australian War Memorial by the family of Eileen Wallace Champion.
Trinkets of Tom Whyte donated to the Australian War Memorial by the family of Eileen Wallace Champion.

Private Thomas Anderson Whyte was buried at sea between Gallipoli and Alexandria. He was 29 years old.

Whyte was posthumously awarded the following Medals: 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.

His name appears on panel 61 on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial, along with more than 60,000 others from the First World War.

Lone Pine Memorial

Whyte’s commemoration details are also recorded at The Lone Pine Memorial (Panel 33), Gallipoli, Turkey.

gravesWe will always remember all those who went to war, whether they were rowers, labourers or doctors.

Lest We Forget.

One comment

  1. Louis one of the favourite parts of my book is the part written by my late Uncle Laurie Radley(not forgetting Chris Dodd who edited Lauries hand written notes into a coherent whole). His description of a crew of blind WW1 veterans rowing on the Lea is very moving.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.