Monday, 30 March 2020

Preparations for the Peace Regatta

VISITING Allied soldiers on a day trip to Henley could stroll a few yards to Henley Bridge and catch the first glimpses of the many boats and crews of all shapes, nationalities and sizes.

The servicemen could explore the boat enclosure and peer into the beautifully crafted boats stored on racks or resting on wooden trestles within the enclosure before setting off for a pleasant stroll down the Thames towpath.

For the hundreds of Australian “diggers” who travelled daily to Henley and “packed the banks from day to day” the sight of both Australian Imperial Forces crews paddling and rowing pieces up and down the Henley Reach brought great interest and amusing entertainment.

Not least, the Australian diggers “delighted to hear the collection of military ranks in No 1 crew abusing each other”.

The New Zealanders and Canadians took up quarters at Eversley House in Hart Street and Mattlands in Vicarage Road respectively.

The Canadians had two 1914 Grand Challenge veterans in their crew. The New Zealanders had won the Sevres Trophy at the French Regatta on the Seine in April and then had decisively beaten the Australian crew at Marlow. They were eyeing the prospect of three wins from three starts.

The YMCA and Henley Stewards had now erected special enclosures and grandstands for the visiting Allied troops.

The New Zealanders, also fresh from winning the prestigious King’s Cup for rugby, were expected to descend on Henley in their thousands to watch their crew of All Blacks potentially win their second King’s Cup.

Henley now crawled with foreigners and military personnel from all the Allied armies. English military crews still expected to enter the King’s Cup, potentially from the Army of the Rhine, Sandhurst Military College, the RAF, the Tank Corps, a Thames Rowing Club Service Crew, Oxford and Cambridge Universities and a Leander Club Service Crew.

As the Australians, Americans, Canadians and New Zealanders practised over the Henley Reach, some voiced concerns that the local club crews had not yet entered or made an appearance on the water.

The grim reality was that many of the English rowing clubs had realised they could not gather enough service oarsmen from their sadly depleted membership ranks to enter crews in the increasingly competitive King’s Cup.

Only the rowing club bastion of Leander remained hopeful of entering a quality eight in the King’s Cup from its cohort of returned servicemen.

The dominion crews kept a keen eye out for the appearance of the fabled cerise colours of Leander Club on the Henley Reach, which would mean stiff competition for any crew on the water.

The Cambridge and Oxford university students swelled the regatta entries in many events, necessitating an additional day to be added to the racing programme, extending the regatta from three to four days. Eventually, the Australians were disappointed to hear that the venerable rowing institution, Leander Club, had eventually scratched.

The Henley Standard was somewhat bleak in tone about the English chances of winning the King’s Cup, when it reported that the central plank of Leander Club had, “failed to get a service eight together to row for the King’s Cup… and it is practically certain that the trophy will leave England.”

Leander instead focused on a quality service four and chose to contest the Leander Cup.

The four was carefully selected to represent two oarsmen each from both Oxford and Cambridge universities including the dogged, long distance specialist oarsman, the Rev Sidney Swann (bow), Ralph S Shove, R E Burgess and the Oxford Boat Club tresident and stalwart oarsman, Arthur F R Wiggins as stroke.

For several weeks, however, Harcourt “Tarka” Gold had his Oxford squad secretly training on their home waters of the River Isis in Oxford before arriving in Henley and settling into West Hill House.

The Oxford crew that Tarka had selected included some quality oarsmen from pre-war Henley days but also some emerging freshmen oarsmen from the ranks of Eton or Magdalen colleges. It was great mix of young guns, war heroes and salty old sea dogs.

The Oxford crew showed they had some horsepower with a reasonable time of seven minutes 19 seconds down the course.

This jolted the AIF No. 1 crew, who had been struggling with times between seven minutes and 30 seconds to 40 seconds.

Capt Clive Disher, the stroke of No 1 crew, with a pang of envy and a flair for the dramatic, thought that the Oxford crew were “a jolly good crew and will take a lot of beating”.

Throughout June 1919 the Americans also flexed their muscles and powered along the course in their George Sims-built racing eight.

The local pundits noted that the Americans had improved and that, “…there is plenty of power in the boat and although the Americans have not the pace or finish of the Australians at the present time, they are likely to improve”.

After the Cambridge University crew moved into their Henley quarters, Roslyn House in StMark’s Road, they were soon training steadily on the water under the guidance of a young member of the Australian parliament, Stanley “Janey” Melbourne Bruce, who would later become the prime minister of Australia in 1923.

With the eventual arrival of the French Army crew, and the contentious decision of the Henley committee of management to accept the AIF No 2 crew into the King’s Cup, the stage was set for a multinational and quality field of oarsmen — allies on the battlefield but fierce rivals on the water — to compete.

• Scott Patterson is the author of The Oarsmen — The remarkable story of the men who rowed from the Great War to peace, which is published by Hardie Grant Publishing in August (£25).

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