From the World War I Trenches to the King’s Cup

The Australians outside Wharf House, their accommodation at Henley. From the Smedley Family Collection.

14 May 2019

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd has read two books about the oarsmen who died in the Great War, and one book about those who survived and competed for the King’s Cup at the Peace Regatta in Henley in 1919. Chris has also taken a quick peek in an upcoming book with letters from the trenches, written by famous Olympic oarsman Jack Beresford to his parents.

The four-years of struggle and slaughter in the trenches that ended a century ago has, understandably, continued to bring memoirs to the fore and tears to the eyes. The rowing community, endowed with many of fighting age, enlisted and volunteered in great numbers, and their clubs and descendants have not forgotten their heroic deeds nor their sacrifices, judging by numerous moving ceremonies and publications such as London RC’s book on the lives of its 50 casualties, or Nigel McCrery’s volume that shares its Fairbairnian title with this blog on Oxford and Cambridge rowers who lost their lives in the ‘war to end all wars’.

These are about the victims, but there is also news of the survivors. Soon to roll off the press is a volume of letters from the Front written by Jack Beresford to his parents, ably edited by his son John. Jack lied about his age to join up and survived the Great War to row on and win five consecutive Olympic medals.

But more of Jack later. Just published is Bruce Coe’s thorough account of how the Australian Army No 1 crew won the cup presented by King George V for the eight-oared event at Henley’s hastily organised Peace Regatta in 1919. Pulling Through, The Story of the King’s Cup, now awarded for the winner of Australia’s premier event, the inter-state championship, is timely because the pot will be on show at this year’s Henley Regatta, and the Stewards are holding a one-off challenge for eight military crews from eight countries for a replica of the cup.

The background to the Peace Regatta and other sporting events was that 200,000 troops of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) were hanging around in Britain, Belgium and France waiting for demob and repatriation. Events for military crews were held before Henley at Marlow and Walton-on-Thames and after Henley at Kingston-on-Thames, Staines, Molesey, Goring and Streatley, Reading and the Metropolitan at Putney, as well as the Inter-Allied Games in Paris. Five thousand oarsmen – half the estimated 1914 total in Oz – had joined up, and the AIF set up a Sports Control Board in London to promote teamwork and camaraderie among the bored men.

Other allied services were in a similar position. While Aussies hung out at the Anzac Buffet in Victoria Street and went rowing from London RC, Kiwis were ensconced up the embankment at Thames, Canadians shared the facilities at London RC and Americans were training in France. Distraction in Putney was supplied by the Australian Flying Corps on one occasion when Flight Lieutenant Lionel Armstrong flew his ‘plane under Putney Bridge as the first eight was pulling though it. The foolhardy flying rower somehow escaped serious punishment.

1919 King’s Cup. Photo from the Robb Family Collection.

The Stewards felt that they could not stage a full-blown regatta in 1919, but they warmed to the idea of special events for those who served (and some for those who didn’t). It will not surprise you to learn, as it did not surprise me when I stumbled across it in Coe’s book, that their eminences made a buggers’ muddle of deciding who was eligible to row for both the King’s Cup and the other events open to the military (8+ and 4- for Allied forces, 2- and 1x for ‘amateurs from Allied countries’). One thing was clear, however, entries from German and Hungarian clubs would not be countenanced. And to make sure, the pre-war agreement with the German and Hungarian federations were ripped up.

Oxford and Cambridge both produced a boatload of servicemen. Thames announced a Service crew but scratched. The Belgian Army didn’t show. Leander’s promised entry failed to materialise, as did the Rhine Army Officers’ BC. The AIF Wattle Club, an outfit for Aussies in desk jobs or temporarily unfit for active service rowing out of Hammersmith Town RC, failed the eligibility test for the King’s Cup and was refused for the Remenham Cup because the latter was only open to ‘English’ clubs. But what started a ruckus in the pages of The Times was the treatment of the River Lea-based National Amateur Rowing Association (NARA), champion of horny-handed amateur sons of toil, that sent in its entry before the King had donated his cup – only to hear later that the entry ‘proved unacceptable’ on the grounds of dodgy amateur status.

The NARA sent a telegram to its sovereign: ‘Eight British soldiers who have fought for their country, members of the NARA who are amateurs under every rule recognised in British sport, appeal to your majesty to see justice done them…’ The NARA told its monarch that its members believed that their entry was rejected on class distinctions when overseas and allied entries were accepted from applicants with qualifications similar to theirs. It appealed to the king to withdraw the cup.

The king’s assistant private secretary replied that the palace could not interfere. A Times leader sympathised with the NARA and attacked the antiquated rule that rated NARA members as ‘not “gentlemen” enough for old-fashioned rowing circles’. The committee should ‘make the race for the King’s Cup the event which its donor intended it to be.’ Wattle RC took up its own cause in the letters page, revealing divergence of opinion among its members. Eventually Fred Pitman of the organising committee condemned the NARA for not asking the committee to qualify its rules in advance! He said that the rules were set before the king donated the cup. So that’s all right, then.

Programme cover from Saturday, 5 July 1919. Photo: River and Rowing Museum.

At the regatta, Sod’s Law in the draw drew AIF No 1 against AIF No 2 in the first quarterfinal, with victory going to No 1. Other quarterfinal winners were Oxford University against the Canadian Army, the U.S. Army against the French Army, and Cambridge University against the NZ Army. The semis gave AIF and Oxford victory over Cambridge and the U.S. Army respectively, and the AIF beat Oxford in the final.

Australia defeat Cambridge in semi-final at the Peace Regatta. Photo from the Robb Family Collection.

Another non-surprise analysed by Coe is that during the six weeks of preparation for the Peace Regatta, the Aussie rowers and coaches – who included Stephen ‘Steve’ Fairbairn and the future Prime Minister of Australia, Stanley Bruce – were engaged in far from peaceful musical chairs, almost to the extent of losing their marbles, or at least their chance of winning. This derived partly from the variety of rowing ‘styles’ practised Down Under. What appeared to be a spat in 1919 turned out in the passage of time to have been a full-blown mutiny against the great god-like coach Fairbairn, an Aussie resident in London who had just taken on the captaincy of Thames RC.

An early version of the Australian Imperial Forces No 1 crew with coach Steve Fairbairn outside London RC. From the Robb Family Collection.

Rumblings of dissent among the first crew included criticism of Steve for coaching the crew instead of individuals by the boat’s captain, Captain Clive Disher. Dissent boiled over when Lieutenant Harry Hauenstein, rated the strongest and best puller, told Steve exactly what he thought of his patronising coaching methods before stomping out. Nowadays, says Coe, he would probably be diagnosed as suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing the maelstrom of death and destruction in the trenches.

The oarsman only returned when it was put to him that he would have to return to his unit if he didn’t. Hauenstein, incidentally, was a veteran of the Sydney crew who won the Grand at Henley and lost to Leander in the third heat of the quarterfinal at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. Like most of that crew, he was a policeman, but described himself as a civil servant at Henley so as not to fall foul of the Stewards’ concept of amateurism.

At the point of crisis, Steve thought that the crew he was coaching was better than the 1912 boat. Late in May, he withdrew ‘on grounds of ill health’ (with Steve the excuse was never ‘to spend more time with the family’). The root cause, however, was probably ill will rather than illness. Hauenstein had dared to question his selection policy and training methods. Sydney Albert Middleton was his immediate replacement.

It may not have been he first time that Steve had been involved in mutiny and it was certainly not the last, as ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ pointed out recently in a piece describing Fairbairn’s suggestion of holding a spring time trial on Thames RC’s notepaper one month and announcing the birth of the Head of the River Race on London RC paper in the next.

Julius Beresford’s unpublished autobiography hints heavily of rift at Thames between ‘Old Berry’, the father of Jack, Jr, and Steve caused by coaching differences and rivalry over selection of their respective sons for the stroke seat. But Steve appears not to have harboured a grudge against the Aussie Army. Asked by Sporting Life on 7 July 1919 what was the best crew he had ever coached, he named AIF No 1. ‘They were just back from the war and full of nerves, but they were the easiest lot to coach. You could tell them what to do, and then hang your megaphone up in the shed,’ he told the paper.

Eric Fairbairn

Incidentally, a Fairbairn who didn’t make the Peace Regatta was Steve’s nephew Eric. Eric attended Geelong Anglican Boarding School, Eton and Jesus and represented Cambridge in the 1908 and 1911 Boat Races. He played rugby for Rosslyn Park and, said the Jesus magazine, ‘like all geniuses, he has idiosyncrasies. He hates collars, takes no milk in his tea for fear of dead flies, and is a confirmed Peripatetic after bump-suppers.’ He was in the Jesus eight coached by Steve and Bruce that went to Belgium in 1911 to race the crew who beat them in the 1909 Grand. They returned the compliment on 25 May before 100,000 people in uproar on Terdonck Canal. The victory inspired a postcard that sold 170,000 copies, and a poem that reads in part:

‘Ere fiercely upsprang,
Eric the Mighty;
Red was his face
And Blue was his raiment
Kinsman was he
To Steve the great trainer…

Sadly, Eric enlisted in the Artists Rifles, was commissioned into the Durham Light Infantry and was fatally wounded on 20 June 1915.

Which brings us to where we started. Jack the son of Julius Beresford was a Bedford schoolboy when he enlisted and was sent to the Western Front with the Liverpool Scottish, from where he wrote home to his Father and Mother regularly from April to October 1918.

Jack Beresford

Jack’s son John has brought his father’s letters from the trenches together with an account of his glittering rowing career. ‘I have been moved to produce this book as a lasting memory to my Father, his remarkable rowing career…  and as a fascinating historical record of a young officer fighting in the Line in the First World War… Peter Jackson’s remarkable film, They Shall Not Grow Old has inspired me to publish one man’s daily experience in the trenches, as they show that the soldiers’ life was not all “hell on earth” as we usually hear from the appalling slaughter at, for example, the Somme, and Passchendaele… However, for balance I have also included his revealing letter to his daughter, Pandora, written on 4 October 1977, shortly before his death, which does give a rather different take on his life in France. Presumably his letters to his parents wanted to shield them from reality, but they still show the mixture of extremely long, hard work, often at night, excitement, fear, boredom, fun and relaxation that an infantry officer lived. Letter writing was obviously a form of relaxation and escape from reality, as was souvenir collecting, which he obviously loved doing.’

I met Jack towards the end of his life when I was a rookie rowing correspondent and he was writing for the Observer from regattas between his umpiring and stewardly duties. In contrast to his reputation as a fearsome competitor he was friendly, charming, helpful, and typical of the Gentility class whose ethos persists in the outsider’s view of rowing to this day despite the change in the social climate in general and in the sport during the last 50 years.

John Beresford. Photo: Greg Denieffe.

John’s over-riding feeling from the letters is that they portray Jack’s humanity for both his parents and his men. ‘He keenly observed and recorded so much detail of both war and nature at the Front. His ability to see the best out of a bad situation surely enabled him to survive the war and made him the champion oarsman that he became.’

One of Jack’s corporals described him as ‘One of the finest officers I’ve had in all my long experience in France. This isn’t mere eyewash, I’m quite sincere.’

Jack’s letter from France dated 4 April 1918 gives a flavour of his relationship with his family, his writing style, his comrades, the social climate of the era, and his rose-tinted description of life at the Front:

My dear Mother & Father,

I am going to number letters now as I don’t think you are getting all of them, as I have written pretty well every day. I only marked that letter as urgent as I wanted it to get through quicker.

No thanks I don’t need that kapok sleeping bag Dad dear, no papers either and I get plenty of chocolate out here. It is very good of you to think of all these things.

I think you would laugh if you could see me now lying on my belly writing this letter. I am in a little post with 20 odd men and a couple of Sergeants sleep in this shack with me. It is very warm in here. I don’t even sleep with my trench coat on. All through the night we are very busy on the alert, wiring, digging, etc. Just before it gets light we camouflage our work in the shell holes as we are in a secret post & one of Jerry’s planes would soon spot our post & soon we might get bumped a bit. As the last man comes into the shack he chucks loose earth on the path that has been trodden down. It is great sport. In the daytime we don’t move from our positions, but sleep as much as possible. The game we are on is called ‘baffling the Boche’. We have not started harassing the Hun yet. We had a fine Boche plane over today only a few hundred feet above us and he did not spot that we were in the old shack.

Well I hope you are not worrying about me as I am really very fit and well and having quite a good time. When I come back I shall have plenty to tell you and plenty to see at home I expect.

This last parcel I have sent off contains a German Very Light pistol. You have only to screw the barrel onto the body and it is fixed up, just one screw that is all. The two clips of cartridges in the German housewife have got the powder taken out of them.

I have not been able to get into a town locally to buy a present for Eric and granny and in all the villages round about when we get out on rest the villagers have cleared out the places.

Well the best of luck to you all I expect old Wink (his younger brother) is getting on well with his sculling.

Your loving son, Jack.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to rowing historian Andrew Guerin for help with illustrations.

Bruce Coe, Pulling Through, The Story of the King’s Cup, Slattery Media Group, 2019.

London Rowing Club, Members who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918, LRC, 2018.

Nigel McCrery, Hear The Boat Sing, Oxford and Cambridge rowers killed in World
War I
, The History Press, 2017.

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