ROYAL HENLEY PEACE REGATTA
open to men who had served in the recent war or who were still in uniform. The games’ track-and-f ield program was held between 22 June and 6 July 1919 in a purpose-built stadium near the Bois de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris. Holding 25,000 spectators and named for United States Army commander General John Pershing, the stadium was a gift from the Americans to the people of France.
Fearful that striking French construction workers would jeopardise the games’ ambitious starting date, and consequently rob the competition of star athletes as the troops progressively departed Europe, American army engineers pushed the strikers aside and completed Stade Pershing in just over three months.
With the “concrete hardly having time to set”, the Inter-Allied Games began. For the grand opening parade of 1500 athletes, the stadium was “packed to its utmost capacity and another 20,000 people could not get in”, according to Soldiers and Sportsmen, the off icial account of the AIF’s sporting efforts.
Australian successes were “not many”, Soldiers and Sportsmen admitted, “but they became the most popular group of the competing nations”. When the Australians appeared at the opening “clad in their blue and gold, there was a great cry of ‘Les Australiens! Vive les Australiens!”’ The greeting for the Australians was said to be “second only to that accorded to the athletes of France”.
Although they were latecomers to the war, by the summer of 1918 the USA had committed about 2 million men to the conf lict. They therefore still had a massive pool of potential athletic talent in Europe from which to choose. Their ranks included the likes of swimming world-record holder and future Olympic champion, Norman Ross.
As might be expected the Americans went on to dominate the games, but not without some disquiet as to the fairness of the competition. For instance, they brought over wrestling champion Paul Prehn to compete. At the time Prehn was a hand-to-hand combat instructor in Texas preparing soldiers for the Border War with Mexico.
One Australian observer wrote to Sydney sports paper The Referee complaining that, despite the requirement that competitors be servicemen from the recent conf lict, the USA “imported many of her winners...who were not battle-worn heroes of the Great War”. In the writer’s view, this took “all credit away from the Yanks”.
So, as the gravediggers pressed on with their harrowing task, and the athletes turned battlef ield aggression to constructive sporting rivalry, an uncertain world awaited them all.
Although Australia had lain far distant from the fighting, its society was utterly changed by the previous four years of madness.
Some would quietly swap an army uniform for a civilian suit, relieved and thankful for a second chance at a normal life. But for thousands of physically and mentally broken men, their war and that of their families had only just begun.
The silver gilt medal presented to Lieutenant F.A. House from Tasmania, number two oarsman in the winning eight at Henley. Each crewman’s name was inscribed on the medal, and the reverse was engraved with THE KINGS CUP WON BY AUSTRALIAN I.F. N°1 CREW.
The program from the Royal Henley Peace Regatta, held 2–5 July 1919. Crews from Australia, France, Canada, NZ, the USA, and Oxford and Cambridge universities competed.