Posts tagged: Eton

They did not grow old – from Henley-on-Thames to the Somme

By , 26th June 2016 12:14

The start of the Battle of the Somme is the most significant First World War anniversary that falls during Henley Royal Regatta.  In 2016, Henley coincides with the Somme’s centenary commemorations.

Cities, towns and villages mourned the huge losses from this first major action for the thousands who had volunteered for the Army during 1914 and 1915 many of whom joined-up alongside their friends in what became known as Pals Battalions.

Although there wasn’t a Pals Brigade for oarsmen, Henley Races, published in 1919, includes a chapter entitled Last Post which lists of 273 Henley competitors (including 14 coxes) who fell during the war.  It provides an insight into the impact of the Great War on Henley and the place of rowing in Edwardian society.

Educated at Radley and Wadham College Oxford, the book’s author was Sir Theodore A. Cook. He was editor of The Field and a timekeeper at Henley. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that Cook “turned The Field in a propagandist direction” during the First World War. He was also a campaigner for “the preservation of true sportsmanship” and the amateur ethos.

Cook’s list reflects the definitions of “amateur” used by Henley and the Amateur Rowing Association at that time.   “Manual labour” and “menial duty” exclusions effectively restricted the right to compete at Henley and other leading regattas to the universities, public schools and those clubs serving the upper echelons of the middle classes.

Cook doesn’t explain how the list was compiled, but records from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge would appear to have been an important source, as he comments that “Cambridge has made a more complete record of her soldiers than Oxford.”

264 of those listed served in the Army, five in the Navy and 11 are either indicated as having been attached to the Royal Flying Corps or, from 1 April 1918, as serving in the newly constituted Royal Air Force.

Colleges are identified for 180 – two thirds – of the 273.  The largest contribution to the list – 26 – came from Trinity College Cambridge: 16 from First Trinity Boat Club and ten from the Third. Magdalen was the most prominent Oxford college, contributing 14.  E.D. Powell of Trinity College Dublin was the only oarsman identified as having come from a non-Oxbridge UK institution although G.D. East, killed while serving as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, is linked to both St Bart’s Hospital and Thames R.C..

42 individuals had competed in the Boat Race – 21 from each university.  Collectively they had amassed 71 Blues of which 40 were awarded by Oxford. 27 had been members of 40 winning Boat Race crews.

Twelve had competed at either the 1908 or 1912 Olympic Games. G.B Taylor killed serving as a Lieutenant in the Canadian Highlanders and formerly of Trinity Oxford and Argonauts R.C., had competed at both.  Four were Olympic Champions.

There is very much less information about club affiliations. Only thirteen English clubs are named compared with 36 Oxbridge colleges.  Total clubs losses of 67 are headed by London R.C. (15) and Thames (14).

While not all oarsmen get to race at Henley, the limited coverage of clubs suggests that Cook’s list understates the overall loss Henley competitors.   Hear the Boat Sing recounts the stories behind several club war memorials†.  Several oarsmen commemorated by their clubs are mentioned in the detailed records of the regattas from 1903 to 1914 that make up the bulk of the book but are missing from the Last Post chapter.  One example is A.J. Shaw who appears on the joint memorial erected on Trent Bridge by four Nottingham clubs and raced in the Wyfold for Nottingham Union R.C. in 1914 but is missing from the list.

In a similar vein, Chris Dodd’s history of London R.C., Water Boiling Aft, records that 90 members of the club volunteered between the outbreak of war and the end of 1914 and that 50 members did not return.  Only nine London members feature in Last Post.

Seven schools are identified against 91 of the names: Bedford (15),  Cheltenham (1), Eton (41), Radley (19), Shrewsbury (10,) Winchester (1) and Beaumont College (4)‡.

Cook corroborates Chris Dodd’s observation that oarsmen had been quick to join the flood of volunteers after the outbreak of war: “After July 1914, however, all rowing stopped except at schools. Nearly every boat club known at Henley — I am glad to record it — had sent its able-bodied men to the Army or the Navy before a whisper of conscription had been heard.”  He continued, “Both the University crews, and all the British competitors in final heats at the Henley of 1914, were in naval or military training by the Christmas of that year. “

Cross-referencing the Last Post list against the records for the 1914 Regatta reveals that the Christ’s Cambridge Ladies Plate eight and Jesus College Thames Cup crew lost four members each while the London R.C. Grand, Eton and Radley Ladies Plate crews and Selwyn College Thames Cup crews all lost three.  The Brasenose four that raced in both the Wyfold and Vistors lost three members while the 3rd Trinity Goblets pair of E.G. Williams and Le Blanc-Smith were both killed.

In The English, A Social History, 1066-1945, Christopher Hibbert states that 750,000 volunteers had enlisted by the end of September 1914 rising to more than a million by the end of that year.

Last Post suggests a high correlation between amateur oarsmen and the officer class.  Just ten of the 273 were privates or non-commissioned officers.

Hibbert notes “A high proportion of the killed and wounded [in the First World War] were officers, many of whom had received their commissions on the strength of certificates granted by the Officer Training Corps of the public schools and universities, and many more of whom had gone straight from school to France as second lieutenants before reaching that not very high standard of efficiency that the getting of a certificate demanded.”  About one in five officers from public schools were killed: the exact numbers for Eton were 1157 fatalities among the 4852 Old Etonians who served overseas.

53 of the 273 – a fifth – held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant while 88 – a third – were Lieutenants.  82 were Captains while 20 had achieved the rank of Major. The list also includes six Lieutenant Colonels and two Colonels.  (There were also four Reverends and one cadet.)

26 of those named had been awarded the Military Cross (one with a Bar), four the Distinguished Service Order, one the Distinguished Service Cross and one the Croix de Guerre.  Medals won on the water at Henley included 27 in the Grand, 32 in the Ladies, 12 in the Thames, 5 in the Stewards, 19 in the Wyfold, 18 in the Visitors, two in the Goblets and four in the Diamonds.

The Somme Campaign

Stretching along 14 miles of the Western Front between Maricourt in the south and Serre in the north, the Somme was one part of an Allied master-plan hatched in December 1915 to defeat Germany with simultaneous large scale attacks on the Western, Russian and Italian fronts during the summer of 1916.

Giuseppe Sinigagli, a member of Lario Club Como, was one of the representatives of overseas clubs mentioned in the list.  The 1914 Diamonds winner died on 10 August 1916 serving as a Lieutenant on the Karts Plateau on the Italian front.

The first day of the Somme offensive resulted in 57,470 British and Commonwealth casualties of whom 19,240 were killed.  July 1st 1916 holds the record for the highest number of casualties suffered by the British Army in a single day.   By the end of the 141-day campaign on 18 November, more than a million men on both sides had been either killed or wounded.

Although Cook’s list doesn’t record where the fallen fell, it has been possible to confirm that at least four of the 273 died on the first day of the Somme.

Two of these four were 2nd Lieutenants.

Charles Treverbyn Gill, was attached to the 22nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment was a graduate of Exeter College Oxford and a member of London R.C.. As a junior officer in an infantry regiment, Gill would almost certainly have led his unit “over the top” when the advance started at 7.30 am on what was a bright summer morning.  As such, there is a high probability he would have been one of the early casualties.  He’s commemorated at the Peronnne Road Cemetery, Maricourt.

In 1915, Christopher Monckton, had raced for Eton II against Beaumont School in one of the private matches that were virtually the only rowing on the Henley reach after the outbreak of war. From two Eton eights that raced that summer, no fewer than six fell in the War. A year later, Monckton was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Irish Fusiliers but attached to No 13 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corp. He was killed in action while flying BE2c 2648 having taken off from Savy aerodrome on a bombing mission at 14:40. His plane was last observed in combat with a German aircraft.  The 18-year old was laid to rest in Mons-en-Chaussee cemetery.

The other two Henley oarsmen identifiable as having been killed on 1 July were both part of a fatally-flawed and ill-fated “diversionary” attack on Gommecourt.  From this heavily fortified German salient the main British advance towards Serre at the northern end of the Somme front could be threatened by flanking fire.

Bernard Sydney Harvey and John Robert Somers-Smith were both Captains in the London Rifle Brigade which was part of the 56th (1st London) Division deployed with the 46th (North Midland) Division against Gommecourt.


“Gommecourt was particularly easy of defence, and from the shape of the ground it was a most difficult place from which to disengage troops in the event of partial failure or incomplete success.”

Official History of the War, Military Operations: France & Belgium 1916, Vol 1.

Born in August 1888, Harvey had raced at Henley for Trinity College Oxford in the Wyfold and Visitors in 1908 and in both the Ladies Plate and Thames Cup in 1909.  (Doubling-up was commonplace at Edwardian Henley.) He had also trialed for the Oxford Blue Boat in 1909.

Somers-Smith won the Ladies Plate with Eton in 1905 and competed again as Captain of Boats in 1906.  He stroked and steered Magdalen College Oxford to victory in both the Wyfold and Visitors in 1907 and then the Stewards and Visitors in 1908.

As well as trialling for the Oxford Blue Boat in both 1907 and 1908, he reached the semi-final of the Grand in 1908, losing to Gent. He went on to win gold at the Olympic Regatta of the 1908 London Games – also held at Henley – where he stroked his Magdalen coxless four to victories over Canada in a heat and Leander in the final.

He had been awarded the Military Cross for gallantry at the 2nd Battle of Ypres (22 April – 25 May 1915).  His elder brother Richard, a double rowing blue for Oxford, had been killed at Hooge in the Ypres Salient on 30 June 1915 – a year and a day before the start of the Somme offensive.

The two Captains were among 2,026 who paid the ultimate price at Gommecourt.  Like so many thousands of those who fell on the Western Front, they have no known graves. By coincidence, their names are adjacent to each other on the Thiepval Memorial.

The second overseas club referenced in the list is erroneously named as New South Wales. K. Heritage had been a member of the winning Sydney R.C. Grand crew of 1912 which went on to represent Australia at the Stockholm Olympics.  As a Captain in the Australian Infantry, he was awarded the M.C. He fell on the 26th day of the Somme Campaign and is buried at Pozieres British Cemetery at Ovillers La Boisselle.

Post Script

Nine of the 273 listed succumbed to injuries between the armistice of 11 November 1918 and the publication of the book in mid 1919.  Even while writing the introduction in 1919, the author warned that the list was “subject to revision.”

One of these was W.A.L. Fletcher, DSO, Chairman of the Regatta Committee and Umpire. As an oarsman in the late 1880s and early 1890s, he won four Boat Races with Oxford, two Ladies Plates, and the Thames Cup.  He raced three times for the Grand.

Another Henley official who did not survive the war was W.F.C. Holland, a committee member and judge. Rowing at bow behind Fletcher at stroke in the 1890 Oxford crew, his rowing honours included three Boat Race victories in four appearances, three wins in the Grand and one in the Ladies.

 

Mainzer Ruder-Verein von 1878

In his introduction to the records relating to Henley 1914, Cook wrote, “This Regatta had begun before the murdered Archduke Francis Ferdinand was buried; but the shadow of coming catastrophe was not seen upon the famous racecourse, and we all went home after the meeting without the slightest premonition that it would be some five years before we met again, or that – in the dreadful interval of the coming warfare – so many who were competing in the races of 1914 would be lost to us forever.  In one contest that fateful summer there was, as we look back on it, a very singular prognostication of the results to be shown in 1918.” He was referring to the race in the Grand between Jesus College Cambridge and the German club Mainzer Ruder-Verein von 1878.

Mainzer appeared at Henley several times during the early 20th century.  In 1914, they were quite possibly en-route to Henley to race in the Grand and Stewards as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June lit the fuse that would lead to war.

At that time in Germany, all able bodied men between the ages of 17 and 45 were liable for military service: 17 year olds could be called-up to serve in the Landsturm home defence force, similar to the British Army’s Territorial force.  On his 20th birthday, if not working in an exempt profession, a man would start two-years of active service.  This would be followed by 4-5 years in the reserves with an obligation to attend two-weeks training each year – considered to be something of a holiday from home and work during peace time.  After the reserves, men were attached to the Landwehr for a further 11 years.  Most Mainzer members were attached to the “Grand Duchess” (3rd Großherzoglich Hessian) No. 117 Regiment, which was garrisoned in Mainz.  The regiment had a reputation for its sporting prowess.

The 1914 Grand entry included five members of the Mainzer crew that became the very first of the noble tradition of German eights to take gold at international championships when it won the European Championships in Gent in August 1913. Victory for Mainzer over Jesus College Cambridge by ¾ of a length in their first heat meant that for the first time in its 75-year history, and much to the regret of Cook, all four semi-finalists in the Regatta’s blue-riband event were from overseas. In the closely contested semi-final, Union B.C. Boston, USA, who never led by more than half a length, held on to win by a canvas.

Four from the eight also raced in the Stewards, losing to Leander in their first heat having suffered from steering problems off the start and the collapse of their three-man, Oskar Cordes, as the crews approached Phyllis Court.

Of the Grand eight, we know that Werner Furthmann, Josef Fremersdorf, Oskar Cordes, Lorenz Eismayer and cox Johann Baptist Stohschnitter all survived the war.  However, injuries prevented Fremersdorf from returning to the water until 1921 while Cordes, who went on to become a leading figure in the German rowing federation, lost a leg. Eismayer’s brother Konrad also perished.

George Oertel (7) and Erich Vetter (6) were members of both the 1913 European Championship and 1914 Grand crews.  Oertel served  at Verdun, the Somme and Champagne and was wounded five time, three times seriously.  He survived the hostilities but died suddenly in March 1920.  Vetter was killed in action. Richard Piez, their crew-mate in the 1913 crew, was also killed in March 1917 while serving as a pilot.

In total, Mainzer lost 39 members to the conflict.

(Many thanks to Rolf Stephan, club archivist and Axel Lang curator of an exhibition on the 1913 European Championship crew for their help with information on Mainzer Ruder-Verein 1878.)

 

Links

In this World Rowing article to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, Martin Cross describes his own journey in a sculling boat down the Somme and how War and the Somme Campaign has touched the rowing communities of many countries.

For eye-witness accounts of the first day of the Somme, listen to this podcast from the Imperial War Museum

Notes

†The Imperial War Museum website includes a register of war memorials. All clubs which have memorials to members lost to war should check that their’s is included.

‡Beaumont was Jesuit public school in Old Windsor, sometimes known as “the Catholic Eton”. It closed in 1967.

Will London 2012 give Britain’s sporting heritage its Moment to Shine?

By , 21st December 2011 13:27

The ‘towns on route’ have been announced and 6800 torch bearers have been unveiled. The complex planning process for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Torch Relays is entering its final stages. Over the next couple of months, the planning team must agree the street-level routes with local authorities across the country. But will the organisers miss the chance to create a legacy that would benefit the nations tourism industry beyond 2012?

The curtain-raiser to the Olympics since the infamous Berlin Games of 1936, the Olympic Torch Relay was transformed into a major sponsorship property by the Los Angeles Organising Committee in 1984. LA’s controversial ‘Youth Legacy Kilometer’ initiative also pioneered the idea of torch-bearers being nominated by the public: nominations were invited from individuals or companies who made a $3,000 donation to a special youth sport fund. Since LA, the fund-raising element has been dropped but the operational model, with incremental refinements, has been passed on in relay from one Games to the next.

LOCOG first outlined its vision for the Relay to “connect people to the Olympic Games, its heroes and its spirit,” in May 2010. “The Olympic Torch Relay will bring the 2012 Games to people’s doorsteps and showcase the best of the UK from dynamic urban areas to places of outstanding natural beauty and sporting and cultural landmarks.” To their credit, the LOCOG planning team appears to have bettered its initial target of the Relay route passing “within a one hour journey time” of 95% of the British population.

LOCOG’s initial Relay announcement bore an almost uncanny resemblance to the equivalent announcements from Vancouver, Beijing, Turin, Athens, Salt Lake and Sydney and even the Commonwealth Games Baton Relays of Delhi, Melbourne and Manchester. Strict observance of the established operational model appears to be stifling originality to the extent that sporting relays have become formulaic.

In their efforts to capture the public imagination and differentiate one Relay from the next, recent organisers have resorted to uplifting taglines. The invitation to “Light the Passion, Share the Dream“, was possibly misconstrued by the demonstrators that were attracted to various international legs of Beijing’s relay. London positions the Relay as “A moment to shine”.

Sadly, LOCOG appears to be in danger missing a trick. Britain’s unique sporting heritage gives LOCOG the opportunity to give the 2012 Relay a very distinctive feel and re-connect it, and the watching public, with the origins of many modern sports.

History is important to the International Olympic Committee. The Olympic Museum in Lausanne is currently the only permanent publicly accessible manifestation of the Olympic Movement. It is in the midst of a £30 million refurbishment.

DeCoubertin, who was inspired to re-establish the Olympics by William Penny Brookes, an octogenarian GP from Much Wenlock in Shropshire, once said that “holding an Olympic Games means evoking history”.

It is the century of iconic sporting moments and the spirits of athletes like Spiridon Louis, Dorando Pietri, Harold Abrahams, Jessie Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Ogla Korbut, Mark Spitz, Kathy Freeman, Steve Redgrave that underpin and sustain the Olympic brand. It’s the heritage that keep the IOC’s corporate sponsors and the world’s media coming back for more, decade after decade.

Without this heritage, a latter-day de Coubertin would find it impossible to persuade a single country, let alone a single city, to invest the billions required to host simultaneous world championships for so many different sports.

When inviting the world’s athletes to come to London during the Year-to-Go celebrations in Trafalgar Square on 27 July, IOC President Jacques Rogge talked of the Games “coming to the nation that invented modern sport and the concept of fair play.”

The IOC website acknowledges how Britain created, codified or popularised 15 out of the 25 current summer Olympic sports. Thanks to Scotland’s role as the home of both golf and rugby sevens, the tally will rise to 17 at Rio 2016. It’s an unfortunate oversight that the Relay route bypasses the birthplace of sevens at Melrose.

In recent years, history has been out of fashion within Britain’s educational establishment. In spite of this, the subject has remained popular with the public and continues to attract respectable audiences on television, even in our multi-channel age. Television historians have been elevated into the ranks of celebrity. Given the chance, history can still engage and excite school children – especially when there are local and sporting dimensions.

The final presentations to the 2005 Olympic Congress that secured the Games for London were littered with references to Britain’s sporting and Olympic pedigrees. However, LOCOG’s enthusiasm for history appears to have waned.

Yes, LOCOG did name their official mascots after the aforementioned Much Wenlock and the Buckinghamshire birthplace of Paralympic sport at Stoke Mandeville. But, beyond including these two towns and a handful of other sporting venues in the Relay, references to sporting heritage have largely disappeared from more recent Relay announcements. The only reference to “heritage” in the towns-on-route announcement relates to one of the presenting partners.

While retaining the ambition to make the 2012 Games themselves “historic”, LOCOG has placed modernity at the heart of its brand values. Unfortunately, to its international audiences, “modern London” has taken on new meaning since the summer riots of 2011.

Places all over the country have significant associations with the development of sport. Incorporating just a selection of these places into the detailed street-level route could provide a narrative thread running through the 2012 Torch Relay that would demonstrate to the nation and the wider world how deeply sport is embedded into the DNA and landscape of these islands.

This needn’t be chauvinistic. The Relay provides a unique opportunity to celebrate the places all over the country and the diverse, if sometimes flawed, characters that helped shape world sport. A deeper understanding of our own sporting heritage would help prevent future embarrassments like the FA’s failed World Cup bid.

Examples are many, varied and often surprising. The magnificently named Major Walter Clopton Wingfield reputedly demonstrated lawn tennis for the first time at Nantclwyd Hall near Wrexham. John Graham Chambers, who drew up boxing’s Queensbury Rules, and was the driving force behind the first national championships in modern athletics, was born in Llanelli. Matthew Webb, the man who arguably did more to popularise swimming than any other person by conquering the English Channel unaided, was born in Dawley, just a few miles from Much Wenlock. He learned to swim in the River Severn in the shadow of the famous Ironbridge.

Charles Alcock who conceived the FA Cup and international football and also hosted the original Ashes cricket test match in his capacity as secretary of Surrey CCC, was born in Sunderland.

The story of Harry Clasper challenges the stereotypical perception of rowing as the preserve of public schools, Oxbridge and the Thames. At different times a miner, ships carpenter, wherryman and publican, Clasper became a folk hero on the Tyne racing against professional watermen from the capital. He also revolutionised racing boat design, introducing keel-less hulls and outriggers – the forerunners of the boats that will race at Eton next year. More than 100,000 Geordies are reported to have turned-out for his funeral in 1870.

The Sydney 2000 Olympic Torch Relay was instrumental in transforming scepticism among Australians outside the host city into widespread enthusiasm nationwide. In Britain, many who live outside the M25 tire of the continual, often subliminal, assertions of the cultural and economic superiority of London. Actively celebrating the sporting contributions of the communities along its route could help protect the Relay and the Games from such cynicism.

It’s also a sad reality that Torch Relays rarely generate much media coverage outside the host nation. The exceptions are as they enter the host city towards the end of their journeys or when they attract protesters.

As the 2012 Relay unfolds, a hundred or more overseas teams will be arriving in the UK for pre-Games training camps. Involving some of these visiting athletes as torch bearers at landmarks associated with their own sports would give the international media the stories that would justify covering the event. When even the Economist is questioning the tourism benefits of the Games, extending the world’s gaze beyond London could help transform the nation’s sporting heritage into a lasting sports tourism legacy that benefits the whole country.

In her 2011 RTS Huw Weldon Lecture, Bettany Hughes said, “It is the purpose of history to allow us to look confidently into the future.” Her observation that “History is essential to nourish the next generation,” echoed the aspirations that Seb Coe had for sport when he addressed the IOC in Singapore in 2005. Reconnecting the British people with their own local sporting heritage could give a boost to another struggling 2012 legacy programme by inspiring more people to take up sport themselves.

LOCOG’s own campaign to encourage the public to nominate unsung heroes as torch bearers was branded “Moment to Shine”. London 2012 still has the opportunity to give Britain’s unique and fascinating sporting heritage its own moment to shine.

London’s historic marathons

By , 24th April 2010 09:44

The London Marathon is now established as one of the world’s premiere elite marathons. It is also probably the biggest mass-participation sporting events on the planet as well as one of the most successful charitable fund-raising events.

Today’s London Marathon course starts in Blackheath, heads east through Charlton and Woolwich before turning west and passing the Cutty Sark in Greenwich at around 6½ miles. Crossing the River Thames at Tower Bridge, the course heads east as it passes half-way and loops around the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf before heading west again along The Highway and the Embankment to Parliament Square, Birdcage Walk to the finish in front of Buckingham Palace.  The event has transformed many of London’s iconic landmarks into sporting landmarks.

The finish has changed most over London’s near three-decades of city marathon history. The first London Marathon, held on 29 March 1981, finished on Constitution Hill between Green Park and Buckingham Palace.  From 1982 until 1993 the race finished on Westminster Bridge with the Houses of Parliament in the background. But in 1994 repair work to the bridge meant the finish line was moved to The Mall where it has been ever since.

Elsewhere, alterations have been surprisingly few.  In 2005 a cobbled area near the Tower of London – around 22 miles – was eliminated to the relief of elite and fun runners alike. The direction taken by runners around the Isle of Dogs between 14 and 21 miles switched from clockwise to anti-clockwise the same year.

In 2012, London’s third Olympic and first Paralympic Marathons will draw on the elite marathon expertise of the London Marathon organisers.  They will be hoping that they will be able to stage races as dramatic as the first two London Olympic Marathons: in both, the gold medal slipped from the grasp of the leading athlete between entering the stadium and reaching the finishing line.

1908

London’s first Olympic Marathon in 1908 was also historically significant in defining the 26 mile 385 yards / 41.195 km  distance that is now the standard.

The race started on the East Terrace of Windsor Castle from where the 55 competitors ran through Windsor town centre and across the Thames to Eton and then on to Slough.  The course then continued on to Uxbridge, Ickneham, Ruislip, Eastcote, Pinner, Harrow, Wembley, Harlesden, Willesden and Old Oak Common before crossing Wormwood Scrubs to reach the Anglo-French Exhibition Grounds and the White City Stadium.  Traveling along the route today, it is clear that today’s sprawling London suburbs were still very distinct villages in 1908, and much of the course would have had a distinctly rural feel.

The White City Stadium was the first stadium ever to be built specifically as the principal venue of an Olympic Games. It had a capacity of 150,000 or which 68,000 were seated but only 17,000 were protected from the elements. Incorporating a 1/3 mile running track, 660 yard banked cycle track and swimming pool, the Stadium was built by the organisers of the Anglo-French Exhibition in just 10 months.  In later life, White City was also a soccer World Cup venue, hosting the Uruguay v France match in the 1966 tournament.  The Stadium was demolished in 1985 and the site is now occupied by the BBC.

From Windsor to the stadium, the proposed 1908 course measured approximately 26 miles. On entering the stadium through entrance “QQ RR SS” in the south west corner, it was decided that the runners should turn left to run 385 yards around the track to the finish line immediately below the Royal Box.

Race day was 24 July.  The Games’ official report describes how the “close, warm, and muggy atmosphere of that summer afternoon, when the sun was deceptively strong and there was very little air,” was to have a profound impact on a race which started started at a brisk pace: the first mile was completed in just 5 minutes and 1 second.

With a dozen British entries, it was home athletes who made the early running.  Jack Price led the South African Charles Hefferon by 200 yards at half way – in Ruislip.  Frederick Lord, another Briton, in third place was “laboured in his action” just ahead of the Italian Dorando Pietri.

Hefferon took the lead at 15 miles and attempted to make a decisive break. Pietri closed on Hefferon in Old Oak Common Lane and passed the South African as they approached Wormwood Scrubs. However, Pietri’s push was too much and he was almost unconscious when he reached the track, turning right instead of left in his confusion before  collapsing.

In describing what rapidly became elevated to the status of legend, the official report says,

“As it was impossible to leave him there, for it looked as if he might die in the very presence of the Queen and that enormous crowd, the doctors and attendants rushed to his assistance. When he was slightly resuscitated the excitement of his compatriots was so intense that the officials did not put him on an ambulance and send him out, as they would no doubt have done under less agitating circumstances. The first fall and the first assistance rendered had, if it had been only realised, disqualified the Italian for the prize.”

Eventually, Pietri struggled to his feet and staggered to the tape in a time of 2 hours 54 minutes 46.4 seconds.  Shortly afterwards, the American Johnny Hayes reached the finish without assistance in 2 hours 55 minutes 18.4 seconds.  An official objection from the US team was eventually upheld and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.

Hefferon had hung on for silver and Joseph Forshaw, another American, took bronze.  Queen Alexandra, who had witnessed the drama from the Royal Box, presented Pietri with a gold cup.

The events of London 1908 captured the public imagination, established the marathon as the ultimate sporting challenge and paved the way for a flurry of races between the leading protagonists over the now official distance which could be considered the forebears of modern city marathons.

Excluding the disqualified Pietri, only 27 of the 55 athletes finished the 1908 marathon. Given the sultry conditions, perhaps the instructions to competitors contributed to the high attrition: “Every competitor must wear complete clothing from the shoulder to the knees (i.e. jersey sleeved to the elbows and loose drawers with slips). Any competitor will be excluded from taking part in the race unless properly attired.”

Other aspects of the race would not be unfamiliar to modern marathon runners.  As “official caterer” the Oxo Company provided refreshments.  Rather than mineral water or energy drinks, 1908 athletes were offered an “Oxo Athlete’s Flask containing Oxo for immediate use” while hot or cold Oxo or Oxo and Soda were distributed at feeding stations along the route. Rice pudding, raisins, bananas, soda and milk. and stimulants were also available “in cases of collapse” while “eau de Cologne and sponges can be had for use of competitors from the Oxo representatives…”

Pietri’s exploits are commemorated today in Dorando Close which skirts the BBC White City complex.  The location of the finish line of the old White City Stadium is marked on the site.
View London’s historic marathons in a larger map

Update: In his blog which examines sporting myths, US blogger Brian Cronin explores the connection between the British Royal Family and the official marathon distance.

1948

When the Olympics were resurrected after World War 2, the 1948 Games were centred on the Empire Stadium, Wembley.  For the marathon, the organisers devised an out-and-back route that took runners north from Wembley in order to avoid the many roads that were still bomb-damaged in inner London.  The course also climbed more than 300 feet as it progressed from Middlesex into Hertfordshire.

The Marathon Race on the final afternoon of the track and field events – a warm, humid and windy day – was curiously reminiscent of the Pietri race forty years earlier.

Around six miles, Etienne Gailly, a 25-year old Belgian who had escaped from occupation during the war, eventually reached Britain and joined Belgrave Harriers, moved to the front of the field of forty-one.  At 15 km. he had a lead of 14 seconds and extended this to half a minute by 20 km. At 30 km. Gailly was 53 seconds ahead of the Argentinian Delfo Cabrera but five kilometres later Choi Yoon-chil of Korea had moved into a 28-second lead over Cabrera, with Gailly another three seconds behind.  Choi dropped out with injury around 38 km.  With 5,000 metres to go, Cabrera was leading, just five seconds ahead of Gailly.

It was Gailly who entered the Stadium first “exhausted and hardly able to drag one foot after the other”  yet needing to complete a little over a lap of the track to secure the Olympic title.  Within a few seconds, Cabrera entered the stadium and had no difficulty in overhauling the “practically insensible” Belgian to snatch the gold in a time of 2 hours 34 minutes 51.6 seconds.  Welshman Tom Richards was the third to enter the Stadium and he too had little difficulty passing Gaily taking the silver in 2 hours 35 minutes 7.6 seconds.  The gallant Gaily held on to finish third in 2 hours 35 minutes 33.6 seconds, just over half a minute ahead of the South African Johannes Coleman, who had finished sixth in the 1936 Berlin Games.  In one of the closest Olympic Marathon finishes of all time, the first four athletes were running their final laps of the stadium at the same time.

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