From Rowers to Riflemen
11th November 2018
A commemoration of Cygnets in WWI
Any institution that has been around for over a century is unlikely to have escaped the dead hand of warfare; Cygnet Rowing Club is no exception. The outbreak of the Boer War, less than ten years after Cygnet's foundation, would be the first conflict to claim several members' lives. However, the First World War was on an altogether different plane and threatened the very existence of Cygnet RC, among others. By the time hostilities drew to a close in November 1918, seventy-nine active and honorary members had served with the armed forces; eleven of them - The Fallen -would never return.
With the outbreak of war, most Cygnet volunteers signed up to the Post Office Rifles (POR), the General Post Office's dedicated regiment. The POR had a long history dating back to the mid-19thC; today, they are best remembered for their role as infantrymen on the Western Front. Many would-be recruits would have responded to a flier similar to the one shown here which is held in the collection of the British Postal Museum & Archive Blog.
It was remarkable how rapidly events moved once war had been declared on 4th August 1914. Within weeks organised rowing at Cygnet had ceased, the remaining club fixtures for the 25th season were cancelled due to 'exceptional circumstances' and annual subscriptions for all serving active members were suspended.
The call of 'King and Country' was overwhelming and the 1st/8th Battalion, POR was quickly swamped by new recruits, necessitating the formation of the 2nd/8th Bn in September 1914 and the 3rd/8th in 1915. Initially intended as a reserve to provide reinforcements for the 1st Bn, by January 1917 the 2nd Bn had also been dispatched to France to join the British Expeditionary Force at the 'front'. The POR served in all the main theatres of conflict on the Western Front from 1915-18, sustaining severe losses at Ypres and Passchendaele.
Like so many others, the 'Old Crocks' left behind to man the club expected it to be 'all over by Christmas' with a return to business as usual in 1915. They were, of course, soon disabused of that notion, a harsh reality that would be aptly summed up in later years by club historian 'Dusty' Miller. To quote his words, "It can truly be said that 1914 heralded the beginning of an end of an era that crumbled in August of that year and which by 1918 had disappeared for ever".
The 1st/8th Bn POR embarked from Southampton on 17th March 1915, moving to the 'front' in early May in readiness for the Battle of Festubert, which endured from 15th to 25th of that month. This battle would claim the first Cygnet fatality, one Albert Dunn, a sergeant, who died on 25th. He had been in France for barely ten weeks.
There would be many false dawns during WW1: to give but one example, a letter to all members at the end of 1915 recounted how serving members home from France had visited the Club "to enjoy the novelty of once again taking a seat in a boat"', talked of improvements to The Camp (the 'Cygnets' bungalow) and ended with the hope that before 1916 was out "Cygnets will have returned to greet the 'Old Crocks". It was, of course, not to be.
By the end of that year, Cygnet had sustained a further two fatalities in conflict. The first, Ernest Erridge, a 26-year old corporal with 'A' Company, died on 8th April in St Bartholomew's Hospital, London from injuries sustained at the 'front'. Later in the year, Wilfred Doley, a lance corporal aged 27, died on 15th September in an assault on High Wood during the Battle of the Somme.
As the war rumbled on into 1917, the secretary rarely missed an opportunity to express the hope that there would be an early return of all, and a rebirth of the desire for active sport. Yet even he found it a struggle to remain unfailingly upbeat in the face of so many wounded men returning from the 'front', as an extract from one of his reports reveals:
"It must, unfortunately, be realized how great is the number who are now deprived of the ability to participate in many sports. Some of these could take part in the pleasure side of rowing and .... It is a sport that will be welcomed as one that can be shared with those to whom fate has been less kind."
Yet the 'Old Crocks' refused to concede defeat and the report continues "In arranging our fixtures, we propose to revive the "Up River" trips in which those unable to take part in the vigours of racing could join. So when asked 'What of the future' we can surely say 'It is of the brightest'."
Regrettably, some of the darkest days were still to come: 1917 claimed seven of the eleven Cygnet lives lost during WW1. The year began badly. Bertie Valentiny, serving as a sergeant in The Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment), was killed on 20th January; Private John Rogers, Royal Marine Light Infantry, died on 17th February; Private Arthur Thaine was killed on 1st March; and Arthur Rixon, Company Sergeant Major in the London Irish Rifles, met his death on 7th April.
Lady luck dealt some serving Cygnet members a very poor hand. Arthur Rixon, who had survived the battles of Loos and Ypres, was killed in a minor skirmish west of Ypres. Arthur Thaine was one of just two casualties sustained during what was described as a 'quiet night' in the trenches at Neuves Chappelle. John Rogers never lived to see the heat of battle, a German artillery barrage having wiped out half of his battalion before the intended assault - the Battle of Miraumont - had even begun.
The POR were at the forefront of the fighting throughout 1917, losing more than half their number at Wurst Farm Ridge in September during the Third Battle of Ypres which gained especial notoriety because of its focus, in its latter stages, on the village of Passchendaele. Fought in appalling conditions, even by the standards of WW1, it was here, in what came to be known as the Second Battle of Passchendaele, 26th October to 10th November, that three Cygnet members - Robert Erridge (brother of Ernest), Cornelius Gibney and Cecil Toms - met their deaths on the same day (30th October). The following extract from the Battalion War Diary captures the full horror of the attack:
'The state of the ground was awful. There had been days of rain and the duck-boards were several hundred yards short of the outpost line. Aerial photos showed the ground to be like a vast morass of mud and slime. In places little progress could be made, men sunk up to their arm pits and provided easy targets for the enemy. Remarkably 500 yards advance was made in places but most of this had to be evacuated by night (on the 30th). Casualties were severe. The POR lost 5 Officers and 34 Other Ranks killed. 173 ORs were missing, many of whom drowned in the mud."
By comparison with 1917, 1918 was relatively kind to Cygnet, with just one fatality - Lance Sergeant Albert Russell, The King's (Liverpool Regiment) - who died in Flanders on 8th May, most probably during the German spring offensives. He was the last Cygnet member to be killed in WW1. Like so many others, he left what few goods and chattels he had to his mother.
There is no formal memorial to the POR in France. Instead, their names adorn such memorials as Menin Gate (Rixon and Valentiny), Le Touret (Dunn), Theipval (Dooley and Rogers) and Tyne Cot (Erridge R, Russell and Toms, whose name is seen inscribed on the tablet above). Others are interred at Dozinghem (Gibney) and St Vaast Point (Thaine). A Book of Remembrance for the POR is available to view at Church of St Botolph's without Aldersgate, London EC1.
For those Cygnet members who were lucky enough to survive, one of the greatest comforts must have been the knowledge that there was anything to return to at all. Unlike so many clubs that languished and were never reborn, Cygnet stood ready to welcome back its flock to Hammersmith. Still, as club members convened on 18th June 1919 for the first meeting since the end of the war, many must have mourned 'The Fallen'. Yet their sacrifice had not been in vain: the meeting elected a host of new active members, agreed a racing programme and fixed a date for the Annual Concert. Cygnet Rowing Club was 'back in business' with a vengeance.
This year, to mark the sacrifice these men made, Cygnet has made a donation to the Royal British Legion's Flanders Field of Remembrance, which will be recreated beside the Menin Gate at Ypres. Several Cygnet members' names are inscribed at this memorial; others appear at Thiepval, Tyne Cot and further afield. Cygnet held a more formal commemoration at the Henley lunch to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1. I should like to close by thanking Ian Mountain again for his tireless research, without which this would have been a much shorter and less informed piece.
Paul Rawkins and Ian Mountain