Bernhard von Gaza: Olympian, Champion Sculler, Writer and Soldier

Bernhard von Gaza, 1881–1917

25 March 2021

By Göran R Buckhorn

Many of the oarsmen who competed in the 1900s and 1910s lost their lives in the Great War. Here Göran R Buckhorn remembers one of them, Bernhard von Gaza, one of Germany’s best scullers at that time.

The 1908 Olympic rowing at Henley-on-Thames was a great success for the host country’s crews, who won all the four boat classes: single sculls, coxless pairs, coxless fours and eights. Each nation was allowed to enter two crews, which meant that Britain also took the silver medals in all the events but the eights, where the Belgian crew from the famous Club Nautique de Gand managed to beat Cambridge in the semi-final but lost to Leander’s ‘Old Crocks’ in the final.

Bernhard von Gaza at the 1908 Olympic rowing at Henley.

With only room for two boats on the course, the losers of the semi-finals became the third placed – one whom was Germany’s best sculler at this time, Bernhard von Gaza. In his first heat, von Gaza easily beat Ernö Killer of Hungary, and in the quarterfinal, he won over Lou Scholes of Canada. In the semi-final, von Gaza was no match for Harry Blackstaffe, the 40-year-old butcher from Vesta RC. At the 1,500-metre mark, the German sculler stopped rowing – some sources say that he was ill, other sources state that his foot stretcher came loose – and he did not finish the race. In the final, Blackstaffe overpowered his opponent Alexander McCulloch, of Leander, who was half Blackstaffe’s age.

Bernhard von Gaza was born on 6 May 1881 in Usedom, Prussia, the son of Bernhard Franz Philipp von Gaza and Wilhelmine Karoline, nee Holz. Bernhard, Jrn., had four brothers and one sister.

Bernhard von Gaza competed for Rudergesellschaft (RG) Wiking Berlin and became the German champion in the single sculls in 1907. At these championships, held in Frankfurt am Main, he also won the double sculls with Carl Ekkehard Ernest, who, at the previous year’s championships, had taken the double sculls title with Otto Altman. Ernest and von Gaza also took the championship title in the double the following year, while von Gaza only reached the third place in the single sculls.

At the 1911 Holland Beker, German rower Bernhard von Gaza (sitting with the cup on the left) won the senior single sculls race by half a boat length ahead of Eric Fairbairn, of Jesus College, (in the back, in cap and bow tie). Sitting on the right is the winner of the junior race, Kurt Hoffmann, of Favorite Hammonia Hamburg. At the 1912 German championships, Hoffmann beat von Gaza in the single sculls. Photo from the book “Holland Beker” (2011). Courtesy of Johan ten Berg.

In 1911, von Gaza again won the German championships in the single sculls. The same year, he went to the Netherlands for the Holland Beker where he won the single sculls by beating the British oarsman Eric Fairbairn, nephew of the famous Cambridge coach, Steve Fairbairn. Eric Fairbairn and von Gaza had probably met before, not in a race, but on the riverbank at Henley in 1908. Together with Philip Verdon, Fairbairn had taken the Olympic silver medal in the coxless pairs.

At the 1912 Holland Beker, Bernhard von Gaza, won the senior cup for the second time. The German sculler is standing behind the table with the cups, wearing a hat and a victory sash. Courtesy of Johan ten Berg.

In 1912, von Gaza repeated his victory at the Holland Beker, although he came second at the German championships. Kurt Hoffmann became German champion in the single sculls in 1912 and was one of two German scullers who competed at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, the other being Martin Stahnke. Neither of the German scullers reached the semi-final.

The 1913 European Championships where held in Ghent, Belgium. Bernhard von Gaza and Wenzel Joesten placed third in the double sculls.

The following year, again von Gaza came second at the German championships in the single sculls. However, he paired up with Wenzel Joesten in the double sculls, and they took the gold in the boat class. They also finished third at the European Championships in Ghent that year.

Being a successful sculler, Bernhard von Gaza also competed in the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley Royal Regatta. In the 1907 Diamonds, von Gaza won his first two heats, first beating J. de G. Edye, Auriol Rowing Club, by five lengths, and then easily overpowering F. Beddington, Medway Rowing Club. In his third heat, the German sculler met W. H. Darell, Household Brigade, who proved to be too strong. von Gaza rowed himself to a standstill in a difficult headwind, leaving Darell to finish alone. In his second attempt to win the Diamonds, at the 1911 Henley Royal, Bernhard von Gaza was kicked out in his first heat by J. E. Dewar, London Rowing Club.

Already in 1907, Bernhard von Gaza had published Rudersport (Skullen und Training), book No. 17 in the series “Miniatur-Bibliothek für Sport und Spiel”. In the same series, von Gaza published Wanderfahrten im Rudder- und Paddelboot, book No. 49, and Rudersport (Riemenrudern und Training), book No. 59, which I have in my bookshelf. This book was published in 1914, although my copy is of a later edition.

von Gaza shows in his little book that he has read some of the English ‘how-to-row’ books as he is quoting both W.B. Woodgate and Rudie Lehmann. The German sculler/writer does bring up something in his chapter “Des Sportsmanns Lebensregeln” that neither Woodgate nor Lehmann mention in their books, ‘Sexual restraint’. von Gaza writes:

Sexuelle Abstinenz ist während des eigentlichen Wettkampftrainings unbedingt erfoderlich; denn sexuelle Erregung und geschlechtlicher Genuss setzen die sportliche Leistungsfähigkeit herab, zumal Sportbetrieb die sexuelle Reizbarkeit vermindert.

[Sexual abstinence is absolutely necessary during actual competitive training, because sexual arousal and sexual leisure reduce athletic performance, especially since athletic activity reduces sexual excitability.]

The article writer’s copy of von Gaza’s “Rudersport (Riemenrudern und Training”, first published in 1914. This is a later edition.

I am not sure if I agree with von Gaza on this ‘rule of a sportsman’, but you have to agree that it is a bold statement to have been written in 1914. However, while an English gentleman might not have put it down in writing, I am sure it still existed in the minds of the oarsmen, and if they were married, also their wives. In Tim Koch’s biography W.D. Kinnear: World Amateur Sculling Champion (2012), he is quoting John Roger, who said that Wally Kinnear’s wife, Lillian

used to tell all the wives that their husbands were in training – no sex! They were going to Henley Regatta, no sex. She would really lay the law down. It was one of the wives who told me this; she said that she [Lillian Kinnear] put the fear of God into you…

During the First World War, Bernhard von Gaza served in the 185th Infantry Regiment with the rank Oberleutnant. He was wounded in his left arm in 1915. A year later, he was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery. At a British attack against some German positions at the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, part of the Third Battle of Ypres, which took place between 20 and 25 September 1917 in Belgium on the Western Front, Oberleutnant von Gaza was probably captured together with another officer and 156 soldiers. He died in the hands of the British on 25 September and he is buried at the Dozinghem (British) Military Cemetery, block 16, row B, grave 6.

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