Remembering the fallen: The Olympic heroes of the First World War

Remembering the fallen: The Olympic heroes of the First World War

11 November 2018 / 02:33
Just six years after London first hosted the Olympic Games, 51 British Olympians went to war and never returned. 

The start of the First World War came only weeks after celebrations in Paris which marked the 20th anniversary of the modern Olympic Movement. The conflict however saw the 1916 Games cancelled and many athletes due to compete sent to the front line. 

Sprinter Arthur Anderson competed at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics and emerged from the war with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Military Cross (MC).

His younger brother Laurie, however, was less fortunate. He too was an Olympian in 1912 and reached the rank of second lieutenant with the third battalion Cheshire Regiment but fell at Ypres aged just 25. His name is inscribed on the Menin Gate memorial.

Noel and Christopher Chavasse were identical twins who competed over 400m at the 1908 Olympics in London. When war arrived, Christopher became an army chaplain while Noel took a post as a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps and later 10th battalion Kings Liverpool Regiment.

Noel was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) after treating the wounded under fierce fire and is thought to have saved 20 lives over two days. His London Gazette citation read “his courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.”  He died under heavy shelling at Ypres in 1917 and was posthumously awarded a bar to his VC.

The misery of war was a far cry from joyous Olympic celebration. Major Reggie Pridmore of C Battery, the Royal Field Artillery died serving in Italy during the last year of the war, a decade after his ten goals helped England win Olympic hockey gold in 1908.

Awarded the Military Cross for his calmness under fire as Forward Observing Officer, his comrades erected a wooden cross with the inscription “a most gallant sportsman and comrade”.

Kenneth Powell was a gifted all-rounder who competed in the 1908 110m hurdles as well as tennis, where he lost to the eventual silver medallist. He enlisted in the Honourable Artillery Company as a private but was killed in action at Ypres in 1915.

Olympic 400m runner Wyndham Halswelle served in the Boer War and soon became one of the finest Army athletes ever seen. He became Olympic champion in 1908 after an extraordinary 400m final against three Americans including John Carpenter.

“Carpenter's elbow undoubtedly touched my chest, for as I moved outwards to pass him he did likewise, keeping his right arm in front of me,” wrote Halswelle.

“In this manner he bored me across quite two thirds of the track, and entirely stopped my running."

Carpenter was disqualified, his team mates withdrew in protest so Halswelle ran alone to claim gold.

He received his prize from Queen Alexandra but quit the sport soon after to concentrate on his military career. When war broke out he had reached the rank of Captain.

Wounded in action in France, he returned to the front where he died from a sniper's bullet in Neuve Chappelle in 1915.

Universities excelled in elite sport and particularly rowing with Magdalene College Oxford winning coxless four Olympic gold in 1908. The quartet seemed destined for great things but Captain John Somers-Smith lost his life in the assault on Gommecourt at the Somme in 1916.

Somers-Smith’s body was never recovered and his name is commemorated in a memorial on Thiepval Ridge. His crew mate Duncan Mackinnon, a Lieutenant in the Scots Guards, was killed in 1917 at Ypres.

When the guns stopped, Antwerp was confirmed as the Olympic host city for 1920 and many members of the British team paraded in military uniform.

Arnold Strode Jackson DSO, 1500m gold medallist in 1912, wrote to The Times:
“The cream of our manhood has disappeared. As a memorial to them let us spare no effort to produce men worthy of taking their place.”

The team for Paris in 1924 included Sir Philip Neame, awarded the VC whilst serving with the Royal Engineers in 1914. He won Olympic shooting gold in the Running Deer team event and remains the only man to hold both medals.

The Prince of Wales led the British team in laying a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris.

Neame himself went on to serve again in the Second World War.