Saturday, 31 July 2021

Lost Olympian of the Somme

THE honours board at Leander Club is filled with the names of Olympic champions, all emblazoned

THE honours board at Leander Club is filled with the names of Olympic champions, all emblazoned in gold lettering to mark the men and women who have reached the pinnacle of their sport.

But it’s easy to miss among names like Redgrave, Cracknell and Gregory that of Fred Kelly, a Henley Royal Regatta veteran who was also one of the country’s first Olympic rowing gold medallists.

Kelly dominated British rowing and sculling in the early 20th century. A talented sportsman since youth, he was also a prolific concert pianist and composer and spent much of his career working at the Dr Koch Konservatorium in Frankfurt.

But his promising life came to an end in the First World War when he was killed during the Battle of the Somme on November 13, 1916, aged 35. He had twice been wounded at Gallipoli.

A new book by Jon Cooksey and Graham McKechnie charts Kelly’s admirable but short life.

The Lost Olympian of the Somme contains his diaries from the battlefield, from his first thoughts after he signed up in 1914 to a haunting blank entry the day before his death.

His demise is a stark contrast to the image of the young man who took the rowing world by storm while he was still a teenager.

Kelly, who was born in Sydney, was first introduced to rowing while studying at Eton College in the 1890s.

He excelled at tennis, hand tennis and football but it was when he first got into a boat that he uncovered his true passion, which was matched only by his love for music.

In a foreword to the book, Cooksey and McKechnie say: “For the next 10 years rowing and music would vie for Kelly’s attention.”

Lauded for his elegant style in the boat, Kelly stroked the Eton eight to victory in the Ladies’ Challenge Plate at the 1899 Henley regatta. It was the start of seven years of success in the event.

After Eton, Kelly studied history at Oxford University, where he discovered a talent for sculling. He returned to Henley in 1902 to win the Diamond Challenge Sculls, beating English rival Raymond Etherington-Smith in the final.

He repeated the feat the following year, this time against Jack Beresford, but was unable to make it a third in 1904 when he set off too fast and ran out of steam, losing to Canadian Lou Scholes.

He also rowed for Oxford in the 1903 Boat Race but the Dark Blues were resoundingly beaten by Cambridge, losing by six lengths.

Kelly left Oxford that year with a fourth-class honours degree.

While his extra-curriculur activities may have affected his studies, his rowing prowess had piqued the interest of Leander Club in Henley and he joined the club in time for that year’s regatta.

Success followed immediately as he added the Grand Challenge Cup to his solo titles at the event.

Kelly went on the win the Grand Challenge Cup again in 1904 and 1905, adding his third Diamond sculling title in 1905 and setting a course record time that wouldn’t be beaten for 33 years.

His final triumph came at the 1906 regatta, when he won the Stewards’ Challenge Cup. After quitting club rowing, Kelly was drawn back for one more duel at the scene of his most famous rowing triumphs.

The Henley reach hosted the 1908 Olympic regatta and Kelly, noticing his old adversary Scholes intended to compete for Canada, found the chance of settling an old score was too much to turn down.

As it turned out, there was to be no battle with Scholes as Kelly was offered a place in the Leander eight, known as “The Old Crocks”, who beat their Belgian counterparts by two lengths in the final.

What made Kelly such an outstanding rower was not so much the volume of his success but the style in which it was achieved.

His serene technique in the boat drew many admirers.

A report in the Manchester Guardian said: “Kelly did not bang his slide back like a professional and finish with an ugly, independent heave of the body. His swinging and sliding were perfect in unison and symmetry. The whole thing was so astonishingly easy that at first sight it was impossible to believe in the pace of the boat.”

Cooksey and McKechnie say that Kelly was not concerned with titles, despite picking up many of them.

Instead, he simply enjoyed rowing and success was just something that followed naturally.

They say: “It was in the solitary discipline of sculling that he particularly excelled but, as a contemporary recalled, Kelly was no ‘pot-hunter’ — a gentleman of the time was hardly concerned with such trivialities as trophies. The manner of the race was what mattered.”

Kelly lived near Marlow with his sister Mary at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and was commissioned into the Royal Naval Division.

He travelled to France on a ship called the Grantully Castle along with his friends, poets Rupert Brooke and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, diplomat Charles Lister and fellow composer Denis Browne. They were known to fellow soldiers as “The Latin Club”.

While Brooke was well-known for writing poetry on the front line, Kelly spent his time in the trenches penning music.

After Brooke died of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite off the coast of Greece in 1915, Kelly, who helped bury him, wrote Elegy for Strings in his memory.

Kelly himself was to die just over a year later at Beaucourt-sur-l’Ancre in northern France, rushing a German machine gun post in the last days of the Battle of the Somme. He was buried at the nearby British cemetery in  Martinsart.

A memorial concert at Wigmore Hall in London in May 1919 featured some of his compositions, including Elegy for Strings.

What Kelly could have achieved had he not been killed prematurely will never be realised.

By the time he quit rowing in 1908 he already had concerns about problems with his hands and arms, prompting him to see a London hypnotherapist to save his music career.

But what he achieved in a boat, all before the age of 30, will always be remembered in rowing circles thanks to those gold letters on the Leander honours board.

The Lost Olympian of the Somme is published by Blink Publishing and costs £8.99. Cooksey and McKechnie will be appearing at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley on Saturday, July 9 from 11.30am.

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