11 November 2018
By Chris Dodd
Lord Ampthill, president of London Rowing Club, dedicated a memorial tablet on 5 March 1921 to honour members who lost their lives in the Great War. Ninety-seven years later, on 7 November 2018, the current president, Mike Baldwin, re-dedicated the tablet at a commemoration service in the clubhouse conducted by the Reverend John Whittaker, rector of St. Mary’s, Putney.
Baldwin told the company that Amptill could speak with the fervour and emotion of someone who had seen it for himself, having been mentioned in despatches twice and having known personally some of the men whose names the tablet listed:
‘He spoke of the importance of memorials to such men being in places where they had spent their time, in surroundings that were familiar to them, rather than memorials tucked away in churches or municipal buildings, places where they could be seen by those who followed them, in this case in the joy and satisfaction of our sport. His final words in his address were “Let no man look at this tablet without reverence, either today, or in the years to come”.’
The restored tablet will have pride of place near the entrance to the club. Its re-appearance is accompanied by an elegant book containing biographies of the 50 who never returned, complete with a guide to the battlefield cemeteries where they rest in France. Before recital of their names by five current members who have military connections, Baldwin described the fallen as ‘mostly young, fit, energetic, well-educated and inculcated with the rowing man’s concept of being part of a crew, with a determination not to let their crew mates down. This obviously made them ideal officer material, but also made them particularly vulnerable to the dangers of war.
‘It has been said that one man’s death is a tragedy, whereas 1,000 deaths is a statistic. Sheer numbers obscure each individual tragedy, the desolation felt by family and friends, and even a list of 50 names can obscure those identified as individuals, which is why this booklet, so painstakingly compiled, is so important, picking out as it does each individual from the list and giving him his identity, so we can begin to understand that we are not remembering one times fifty, but fifty times one, men who lived, breathed and enjoyed their sport from this spot – and gave their lives for what they felt was right.’
It was a moving occasion in the club’s Fairbairn room – Fairbairn is one of the names on the tablet – and a moving address which knotted the president’s throat before he had quite finished his delivery. Sod’s Law applied briefly when the cistern in the Gents which is about 100 years old joined in despite being barricaded behind closed doors, surely an occurrence that would have amused those in the trenches.
An Armistice centenary lunch followed the service at which trophies won by Second Lieutenant J. Evan Dewar (1886-1916) were presented to the club. Dewar was a Lloyds broker who represented LRC at Henley each year from 1907 to 1911. He was commissioned into the London Rifle Brigade in 1916 and sent to France in September of that year. He was pronounced ‘missing presumed killed’ at Lesboeufs, Somme, on 8 October. He has no known grave and is commemorated on Thiepval Memorial.
Christopher Sprague, who chaired the sub-committee on WW1, tells us in his introduction to the book that of nearly 200 LRC members who served in the forces, seven of the casualties were awarded the Military Cross, eleven were Mentioned in Despatches, one was made an OBE (Military) and one awarded the Légion d’Honneur. His team has produced a book stacked with brave and moving stories.
Captain Walter Fawcus MC was a marine engineer at Harland and Wolff in Southampton who rowed for Ryton RC on the Tyne before joining London in 1910. He was commissioned in the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1914, being awarded the Military Cross for gallantry at the Somme and killed in action on 25 March 1918.
Lieutenant Jebusa Newton Ward and his brothers Lieutenant Colonel Francis Ward and Captain Peter Womersley Ward MC, sons of a noted portrait painter, all rowed for London and fought in the war. While Francis survived, Peter lost his life in Mesopotamia and was buried in Basra in 1917, and Jebusa, who served with the Royal North West Mounted Police and the Royal Canadian Dragoons before joining the Irish Guards, was killed near Arras in 1918. Both Peter and Jebusa worked in publishing and journalism before the war. Brothers Captain John Robert and Second Lieutenant Richard Wellington Somers-Smith both met their death, John on the Somme and Richard at Hooge.
Names familiar in London’s pre-war history feature in the roll of honour, including a Schlotel, a Le Blanc-Smith and George Eric Fairbairn, nephew of the club’s renowned coach Steve Fairbairn. George was schooled in Australia and Eton and was a tyro oarsman at Jesus College, Cambridge. He rowed for CUBC twice and took part in the Grand final at Henley on six occasions. George took an Olympic silver medal in the coxless pairs in 1908. Serving with the Durham Light Infantry, he died of wounds at Armentières on the France-Belgium border in 1915.
LRC’s renewal of remembrance has been a sobering but uplifting exercise, carried out as is characteristic of the club, with panache.
We will remember them.
London Rowing Club: Members Who Gave Their Lives In The Great War 1914-1918, London Rowing Club Ltd, ISBN 978-0-9552938-1-8.