Heroism of 42 Oxbridge Boat Race rowers who lost their lives in the First World War revealed

Patrick Sawer

Millions of television viewers and those lining the banks of the Thames to cheer on this year's university boat race will no doubt be left in awe of the crews’ feats of strength and determination.

But they may also want to pause a moment to consider the fate of their counterparts one hundred years ago who, having battled each other on the river, went on to die together on the battlefields of the First World War.

A new book reveals that 42 former boat race crew members lost their lives during the carnage of the Great War and its immediate aftermath, their athletic prowess and intellectual potential snuffed out - alongside that of an entire generation.

They included an Oxford rower killed while leading his men in attacking a German machine-gun position and a Cambridge graduate killed by a shell while riding to the aid of wounded comrades.

Frederick Septimus "Cleg" Kelly on the Thames at Henley

Just as poignantly, perhaps, the book also tells the story of one former boat race crew who survived the carnage of the Western Front, only to die in the Spanish flu pandemic that followed WWI.

Researching his book, Hear the Boat Sing, author Nigel McCrery discovered that by a strange twist of fate 21 former boat race crews from each university were killed or died of their wounds or sickness in the years that followed the outbreak of war 1914.

Mr MrCrery told The Telegraph: “I was lucky enough to go to Trinity College Cambridge and knew many rowers. They were young, full of energy and with a zest for life I had rarely experienced before.

"Most went on to achieve remarkable things and are a credit to the country they live in. But the rowers of 1914–18 never had that chance. Their lives cut short before they could fulfill their potential.”

That lost potential was epitomised by men like Frederick Septimus "Cleg" Kelly, who took part in the 60th Boat race held on 1 April 1903, rowing for Oxford.

His boat lost, but Kelly made up for it by winning an Olympic Gold rowing medal in the 1908 Games held in London.

Crews for the 1901 Boat Race

During the war Kelly served with the Royal Naval Division, where he became close friends with the poet Rupert Brooke, who wrote those memorable lines about the fallen: “If I should die, think only this of me;/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England”.

Kelly was with Brooke when the poet died of sepsis from an infected mosquito bite in April 1915 and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in Gallipoli during the evacuation of the peninsula that winter.

The following November Kelly was killed while leading his men in a frontal and ultimately successful attack on a German machine-gun position at Beaumont-sur-Ancre, in north-east France. He was 35. A fine musician, he composed an Elegy for strings dedicated to his friend Brook which is still played to this day.

Among the boat race crews whose service for King, Country and their fellow servicemen cost them their lives was Edward Parker Wallman Wedd.

 Lieutenant Commander Frederick Septimus Kelly

A Cambridge man he crewed in the 1905 boat race, losing by three lengths, before training as a surgeon at Barts Hospital, in the City of London.

It seemed natural that he should enlist with the Royal Medical Corps during the war. By this point he had already been mentioned in dispatches during his service with the Essex Yeomanry and, as the war ground on, he continued to show his bravery.

In April 1918, under intense bombardment south west of Ypres, he raced from one shelter to another to tend the wounded, for which he was later awarded the Military Cross.

But, three months later, Wedd was hit by a stray shell as he rode his motorbike to a casualty clearing station to provide medical assistance.

Wedd’s former Brigadier later wrote to his mother: “I don’t think a straighter fellow ever went over the border than your son.”

The 42 former boat race crews who perished included one man who won all four races in which he took part.

William Alfred Littledale 'Flea' Fletcher crewed for Oxford in the 47th boat race on 26 March 1890 and in the three years that followed, winning each one.

On the outbreak of the second Boer War he took a commission as a junior officer with the 32nd Company, Imperial Yeomanry and was twice mentioned in dispatches.

One one occasion, in May 1901, his unit was ambushed by more than 300 Boer farmers, but Fletcher refused to surrender his position over two days of heavy fighting until the enemy gave up and withdrew.

He was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order for his actions. At the outbreak of WWI he joined the 2/6th Battalion, King’s Liverpool Regiment as a Captain and in February 1917 was sent to the front in France.

Here Fletcher was involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the war and was badly gassed at Armentières, during the second mustard gas attack of the war. His battalion suffered 457 casualties during attack and Fletcher’s own health suffered irreparable damage.

The Boat Race 2017 crew

After the war Fletcher became acting chairman of the Henley Regatta and in 1919 organised what became known as the ‘Peace Regatta’.

However, a few days later, his lungs badly damaged from the effects of the gas attack, he died from bronchopneumonia during the deadly ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic that killed as many as 100 million people around the world.

“Britain lost around one million people during the First World War and there is a danger we see the casualties as numbers rather than as people. But all these people had lives, they were loved and loved other in turn,” said Mr McCrery, who has also written books about the hundreds of first-class cricketers and British Olympic athletes killed during the First World War.

“I hope my book will at help people remember that, so that these men are remembered and don't die in our memories.”

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