28 June 2019
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch reviews a long-awaited work – and is not disappointed.
Historically, men have had two great chances to prove their mettle: in battle and in sport. While many are aware that Jack Beresford was one of Britain’s greatest oarsmen, this new book by his son, John, reveals what few knew, that Beresford served his country with distinction in war as well as in peace. Moreover, he did both with a modesty that is usually indicative of true merit.
In our time, many sportsmen and women have had their biographies or (alleged) autobiographies published long before their sporting careers are even over. Commonly, these professional sportspeople have had little life experience beyond their chosen discipline. Thus, it may seem strange that the greatest rower of the pre-Redgrave era, and a man who led a very full existence beyond rowing, has only just had parts of his life illuminated in a work published 42 years after his death.
John Beresford’s book is in two sections, the first covering Jack’s letters home from the trenches of France in the 1914 – 1918 War, and the second looking at his life before and after the War. John is keen to stress that it is not intended to be an exhaustive account of his Father’s rowing career. The project began as an attempt to produce a summary of Jack’s wartime letters simply for members of the family. However, he soon decided to transcribe them in full and also add an existing semi-biographical 2006 article by John Jenkins, “Rugby’s loss is Rowing’s Gain”, with additional information gleaned from family knowledge.
In the foreword, John writes:
It seems to me that my 19-year-old father’s 119 letters home to his parents, between April and October 1918 bring him and his comrades to life…. with their keenly observed record of a soldier’s daily experience of war and nature….
It’s tempting to think that the seeds of (his later rowing successes) – the determination, the optimism, the refusal to be bowed by odds – are all there to be seen in those youthful letters almost twenty years earlier.
It is commonly said, ‘show me the boy and I’ll show you the man’ and John reveals that Jack the schoolboy, the soldier and the sportsman was driven by the same strict principles throughout his life.
A letter written on 10 July 1918 is as typical as any of those that Jack sent from the Western Front:
My dear Mother and Father,
I am now out of the front line and am in charge of a half company guarding a bridge on the canal bank. We live in big iron shacks built into the bank. It is not too warm today so I don’t know if I shall bathe yet.
I saw quite a good little scrap yesterday morning. First, a Boche plane dived out of the clouds and drove down one of our reconnaissance planes. Then one of our little scouts came up and attacked the Boche. They scrapped for a bit and circled around each other and then both beat it to their own lines.
I have got some souvenirs for home this time, at least they have come out of the front line with me: Boche tin hat, belt, ammunition pouches and potato masher (stick bomb).
I had a ripping swim this evening and feel quite grand again. You see I have not had my boots off for 6 days and that makes your feet a bit soft. I shall have done 16 days in the line before getting back in rest again. Only 3 days rest this time, then comes another dozen in the line…
Your loving son, Jack.
While Jack’s letters frequently casually mention the dirt, discomfort and danger that he experienced, they are also universally positive and upbeat and, consciously or not, are written in a manner attempting to put his parents’ minds at ease. Only once, in a letter of 19 June 1918, does he seem to deviate from his relaxed manner:
I don’t quite understand what you mean by ‘that awful (front) line’. I shall get fed up if you keep on worrying about me. You seem to think I am going through hell or some such place. Well, it is all rot, there is nothing the matter with the place, we are having quite a good time. If you go on worrying at the rate you are at present going, I think you will break down, it seems to me to be so absurd. What (you) have got to worry about, I don’t know.
It is interesting to compare the usually upbeat letters to his parents in 1918, showing Jack’s lifelong firmness of purpose and joie de vivre with a letter to his daughter, Pandora, written in 1977, shortly before his death, which gives a more revealing view of his war service. It begins:
You ask me what was life in the trenches like in the 1914-1918 War, that is hard to answer because life varied so much. Sometimes we’d be only 25 to 30 yards from the German trenches, in other parts of the front up to 300 – 400 yards was the No Man’s Land. We were always expected by the “Brass Hats” at the base to dominate No Man’s Land. Often very unrewarding and rather fruitless, especially so in winter time when one was wet, cold, hungry and tired and frightened for it is only then that real soldiering begins – any fool can soldier when he is well fed, warm, rested and surrounded by friends.
The letter ends:
You know, in those days a lieutenant’s life was reckoned to be roughly 14 days. I was lucky and did six and a half months. Towards the end of the war, we had to attack and cross a canal in daylight, that bit of stupidity by the Brass Hats behind the Line cost my company in 3 days hefty casualties. We went in with 3 officers and 87 men came out with one officer and 15 men and that 4 weeks before the Armistice. One learnt to become a fatalist. I firmly believed they’d never hit me. If you didn’t adopt that mentality, you’d crack up. Well, machine gunners got me in the end.
Jack was wounded by a machine gun bullet in the shin on 4 October 1918. He was sent to Fowey in Cornwall to recuperate. There, he borrowed a dinghy and rebuilt his strength by rowing it in the estuary and along the coast. The rest is (rowing) history.
John recently wrote:
Dad told me many fascinating stories of his life but only referred to what an illustrious oarsman he had been in a matter-of-fact way. When he talked of his time in the trenches, he showed no malice and I am sure this enabled him to live with experiences that could have caused, what we today would call post–traumatic stress disorder.
The book does note, however, that after the war:
(Jack) couldn’t sleep in a bed for a while so slept on the floor and was for a long time ready to attack anyone moving in his bedroom after dark, for example, his parents, which he apparently did on one occasion!
The letters from France take up three-quarters of An Olympian at War, while the remainder (‘Jack Beresford – A Life’) is split into five chapters: Early Days, The Infantry, After the War, The 1936 Berlin Olympics, Life after the Olympics. The 30 pages of Part Two were never intended to be an in-depth rowing biography and, while they provide little information that has not been published elsewhere, it is pleasing to have it all collected in this one place and to have it supplemented with comments and pictures from John.
One piece rescued from obscurity is an article written by Jack himself in 1964 about his races in the Berlin Olympics:
In 1935 Dick Southwood teamed up with me in a double sculler – object Berlin, 1936. By that time we were both pretty tough and mature, with the confidence and will-to-win well ingrained in us. In those days there were no open double-sculling races in England, but with 10 months practice behind us and 2000 miles in the boat plus daily early morning running and exercises, we were strong and fit…
(In the final) we were determined to stay with those Germans, but even at halfway (1000m) they led by 1 1⁄2 lengths with the other countries out of the hunt. At that point, we challenged for the lead and went on doing so until they “blew up”. We literally gained foot-by-foot for the next 800m until at 1800m we were dead level. And so we raced to the 1900m mark with blades almost clashing, for they had tried the old game of trying to line us up, but not again! Right in front of Hitler’s box, the Germans cracked and we went on to win by 2 1⁄2 lengths. The air was electric, for until we broke the spell Germany had won five finals off the reel. Yes, the last win in the doubles was the greatest and the sweetest, for we had come out to Berlin without a race and beaten the world.
John says that his book is the story that his Father never wrote (although he had discussed Chris Dodd writing his biography). It is also a narrative with a delicious (if vicious) irony; the German bullets that wounded 19-year-old 2nd Lieutenant Beresford in 1918 led in him abandoning rugby and taking up rowing. Eighteen years later, the German favourites to win the Olympic Double Sculls paid the price of Jack’s change of sport as, in the final’s last 100 metres, Dick Southwood and Jack Beresford rowed them to a standstill to win Olympic Gold.
In his affectionate but unsentimental work, John is entirely successful in his aim, which is, in his words, ‘to produce a brief tribute to a remarkable man, who was my Father’.
Jack Beresford: An Olympian at War by John Beresford. Published on 28 June by Cloister House Press. Hardback ISBN 978-1-909465-89-3 is £14.99 and paperback ISBN 978-1-909465-87-9 is £11.99. Available from most rowing booksellers, including Richard Way Book Shop in Henley-on-Thames (tel. 01491 576663), or online from Waterstones, Amazon or Book Depository.
Pictures courtesy of John Beresford.