Inside the Royal Henley Peace Regatta of 1919 and its centennial celebration.
By: Andy Anderson
Black and White Photographs: Andrew Guerin
2019 Photography: Lisa Worthy
In January 2019, the Henley Royal Regatta announced that this year’s edition would include a new event—the King’s Cup for military eights. It’s not truly a new event, but it’s been a while; the last time it was contested was in 1919. This year marks the centenary of the Royal Henley Peace Regatta, when Allied military crews formed boats to race after the Great War. This year’s event will have a twist: the eights will be composed of military personnel of both genders, the first international rowing event to feature coed eights.
The King’s Cup will have entries from the original six nations of Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, joined in a gesture of reconciliation by Germany and also by the Netherlands, competing in Henley’s traditional single-elimination format over the final three days of this year’s regatta. Sir Steve Redgrave, chairman of the regatta’s committee of management, said: “The regatta is delighted to host such an important commemoration. The 1919 Royal Henley Peace Regatta was a key milestone in our sport and was staged by the rowing community to help heal wounds and hasten the return to normality of the Allied nations and their troops recovering from the First World War.”
At the 1919 Peace Regatta, an Australian army crew won the King’s Cup, presented by King George V. As you might expect, there’s some interesting history regarding what happened to the cup. The cup was presented to the victors, but subsequently confiscated by the authorities in Australia, who said it represented “spoils of war.” They instead intended for it to be displayed in a museum. The crew members protested and petitioned the King, who said, “Take the Cup.” Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war, chimed in: “The oarsmen should have it.” And so the King’s Cup was put into service as the trophy that is awarded annually to the fastest state crew. Did you know that Australia is divided into six large states and two territories? In the 2019 Henley, military crews will be competing for a newly-commissioned King’s Cup, so the tradition of the trophy lives on.
For a world torn apart by war, the Peace Regatta in particular and sport in general had a role to play in a devastated Europe. Two hundred and fifty oarsmen who had raced at Henley in 1914 had died in the “war to end all wars,” so the Peace Regatta was conceived as a way to begin the slow process of healing and a return to normality.
Huge numbers of troops were billeted on the continent waiting for transport home, among them 200,000 Australians. There was great enthusiasm among the troops in Europe to do something while they waited. The U.S. Army organized an inter-allied Games in Paris with the help of the YMCA to give these young men something to do and to take their minds off the horrors that they had recently experienced. The Games were a mini-Olympic Games, with 19 sports offered to 1,500 athletes in late June and early July. The rowing events in the Inter-Allied Games were scheduled two weeks after the rest of the events in order not to conflict with the Henley Peace Regatta. The importance of Henley was evident to everyone.
Shortly after the armistice was signed in November 1918, ending the war, there were calls in the British press asking for Henley to restart. The Leander club members thought that staging a normal HRR in 1919 would be too difficult, but urged the stewards to do something, and the “Royal Henley Peace Regatta” was born, the first two words in the title reversed in order to distinguish it from the traditional Henley Royal Regatta. Planned as a two-day event, it was so popular that the racing was held over four days, from July 2-5. The public’s appetite for normalcy and for rowing was evidently much greater than anticipated.
“Shortly after the armistice was signed in November 1918, ending the war, there were calls in the British press asking for Henley to restart.”
The Peace Regatta consisted of two premier events, the Leander Cup for military fours and the King’s Cup for military eights, and one pairs and one singles event that were restricted to oarsmen and scullers from allied countries, not necessarily military men. Of course, there was controversy within the British entries. Cambridge and Oxford servicemen were ultimately the two British entries, but an entry from the National Amateur Rowing Association, a working class group, had signed up for the regatta before either of them. The NARA entry was disallowed because, according to the British governing body, their oarsmen did not fit the amateur code, a scenario that would be played out famously the next year with Jack Kelly of Philadelphia’s Vesper Boat Club and his rejection from the Diamond Sculls at the revived HRR. NARA sent off a telegram to King George V complaining that “Eight British soldiers who have fought for their country, members of the NARA who are amateurs under every rule recognised in British sport, appeal to Your Majesty to see justice done them.” Their plea fell on deaf ears; the King’s private secretary said that they should have known the byzantine rules of British amateurism.
For Henley, the Peace Regatta resulted in one important benefit; the Steward’s Enclosure was introduced to the regatta as a device to raise funds to support the regatta. It proved to be remarkably successful, enrolling 300 members that first year. And for the past hundred years, love it or hate it, Henley would be inconceivable without the enclosure. The Peace Regatta also helped stoke enthusiasm for the regular HRR. That famous regatta began to grow at an unprecedented pace. In the next 20 years, entries increased by more than 60 percent.
The American entry into the eights race for the King’s Cup featured a boat comprised of American Army officers. They had departed from Paris on May 20 to train at Henley. Not surprising for the times, the Americans leaned heavily on Ivy-leaguers. Bow was manned by Collis Coe (Yale); at two was Royal Pullen (Washington); three seat was J. Howard McHenry (Yale); four was Henry Middendorf (Harvard); five Louis Penney (California); the six seat was held by Herman Rogers (Yale); seven was J. Amory Jeffries (Harvard); and stroke was Douglas Kingsland, who had stroked the Cornell varsity in 1916. The cox was California’s Guy Gale. All members of the crew were in the fighting on the Western front, and Jefferies was wounded in Champagne. Despite individual talent, though, the eight had trouble blending the disparate styles that were evident in those days. Photos make it look like the boat was anything but together. Remember that the concept of a national team crew was still at least 50 years away.
It was an interesting collection of men who had all served their country on the front lines. The three Yale men had rowed at Groton and in the Yale varsity before the war. Middendorf and his twin brother had been part of the Harvard JV boat that won the Grand Challenge Cup in 1914. Royal Pullen, who rowed in the Washington varsity as it began to build momentum under coach Hiram Conibear, as an undergrad was best known for a little excursion he took on the Huskies’ first trip across country to race Wisconsin in 1910. Pullen, a member of the West Coast champions, decided at one stop across the country to stretch his legs and impatiently jumped before the train came to a complete stop. However, the train was not stopping, just slowing for a flag station. As he sprinted to catch the train, his teammates cheered him on. He seems to have learned his lesson and henceforth waited for the train to stop before beginning to exercise.
The Americans were coached by Major Paul Withington of Harvard, who entered the singles event in 1919 after having been knocked out in an early race of the Diamonds in 1914. They were housed at “Greencroft,” a sumptuous manor house in Henley, were extended every courtesy at the Henley Golf Club, and were welcomed cordially at Leander.
“The Peace Regatta was conceived as a way to honor the dead and to begin the slow process of healing.”
An Associated Press report described them as “all exceedingly fit and hopeful of giving a good account of themselves where their compatriots upheld the traditions of American oarsmanship in the memorable regatta of 1914. They have a long slow strong stroke, with less body swing than is apparent in the majority of British oarsmen and Major Herman L. Rogers, the captain of the eight, is satisfied that his crew have developed pace and staying power.” Rogers, incidentally, became a great friend of Edward VIII and was one of a very few guests who attended his wedding to Wallis Simpson at a chateau outside of Paris in 1937. Nothing like being a crew captain for making friends in high places.
When race day dawned, the first races pitted Australia 1 against Australia 2, Cambridge versus the New Zealand Army, the French Army versus U.S. Army, and Oxford against the Canadian Army. Australia 1 beat their running mates by three quarters of a length, the U.S. won handily (three lengths), and Oxford beat Canada by two lengths. Cambridge won the best race of the day; New Zealand had a slight lead by Fawley (just under halfway down the 2,112-meter course), before Cambridge put on a tremendous move after the mile post and passed the Kiwis to move into the semifinals.
The semifinals had the best races of the regatta. Australia took a half-length lead in the first half mile and then had steering troubles, almost clashing oars with Cambridge twice. Cambridge came back and cut into the Australian lead, which had reached a full length. They moved swiftly but the Australians held them off to win by three quarters of a length. In the second semifinal, the Americans roared out to a lead but were mowed down by Oxford with a finishing sprint that gave them a length-and-a-quarter victory.
The final was a decisive win for Australia. They jumped out despite a lower stroke rate and by Fawley had a length lead that Oxford could not cut into. Their many countrymen who had made the trip to Henley went wild with the victory. Rowing history aficionados have for years noted that the first coach to work with the Australian Imperial Forces crews was the famous Steve Fairbairn. Although he was one of the most successful coaches of the era and one of the most influential of all time, he had to leave the training camp under a cloud. The five man, Harry Hauenstein, an Olympic veteran and judged to be the strongest man on their squad, blew up at Fairbairn and ripped him for his coaching methods. Fairbairn left Henley before the racing because of “ill health,” although it is likely he departed to forestall a mutiny among the oarsmen.
The 1919 regatta was a tremendous success. Remember that there had never before been devastation like that of the Great War; there had never been a need for so many men from different countries to move past war. Rowing helped many to find their way back into civilian life. It is important to note that while all the participants in the regatta had been from the Allied Forces, it was not conceived of as a regatta of the victors. It was a regatta for peace. And now we are in preparation for the celebration of the Peace Regatta’s centennial. The 2019 regatta has been conceived as fulfilling three important roles. First, it will honor the memory of the original Peace Regatta and its role in returning post-war life back to normal. Second, it will celebrate eight allied nations’ finest, their men and women in service. Finally, it will recognize the role that women play in their nations’ defense forces by offering mixed-gender competition, the first time any major international regatta has featured mixed boats.
Although it would be nice to report that the crews would be comprised of four men and four women, that seems not to be the case. The rules require that each eight have a minimum of two men and two women rowing (coxswains are not counted in the gender minimums). It seems likely that most of the crews will feature two oarswomen and six oarsmen. This does represent the percentages of women and men serving in the armed forces. Still, although not going as far as to be completely equitable, the Peace Regatta is to be commended for breaking this ground and reaching out for inclusion. As Chris Hartley, chairman of the King’s Cup committee says, “Once again (it) demonstrates the power of sport to build positive change. As military forces around the world embrace gender inclusiveness, the prospect of mixed crews racing at the Regatta is tremendously exciting.”
There is a magnificent new trophy to be awarded, also called The King’s Cup. Commissioned by the King’s Cup committee, this includes highly symbolic contributions melted down from each of the eight nations and encased in gold. Amongst these the French have sent four “Croix de Guerre,” their battlefield bravery award won during World War I; the Americans part of George Washington’s 1797 USS Constitution; and the Australians material from their hallowed Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial—and even a small component of the original 1919 cup.
At press time, the arrangements and boatings for each country were not complete, but rumor and informed speculation suggests that the Australians, of course, are making a strong entry. Nothing would be better for them than to win the King’s Cup again. They will boat a crew that represents all of their nation’s armed forces. Great Britain has been having tryouts and given how strong their recent international results have been, it is likely that their crew will be formidable. New Zealand, another power on the international rowing scene, will certainly field a quality boat. An interesting sidebar is that New Zealand’s 1919 shell, built by Sims of Putney, England, is still in existence, viewable in New Zealand, but not rowable. It had been built by the renowned boatbuilders in Putney in two-and-a-half days for the Kiwi entry at the Peace Regatta and shipped home afterward, where it was a mainstay of club rowing on the Whanganui River until the 1970s. It is being carefully restored.
“It is probably not surprising to anyone that Germany was not invited to the original Peace Regatta.”
Current allies the Netherlands and Germany have been invited to fill out the eight competitors. The Dutch will send an eight from their military academy, as will Canada and France. The U.S. will be represented by men and women from the United States Naval Academy, a fitting celebration in that this is Navy’s 150th year of rowing at Annapolis. The Academy is proud of the fact that in 1920, a crew of midshipmen won the Olympic trials and then gold at the Antwerp Games. That legacy makes them a natural. And there are good-natured murmurings that Navy was awarded this year’s entries because “100 years ago we let Army represent us and they lost.”
The Germans will undoubtedly boat a strong crew. It is probably not surprising to anyone that Germany was not invited to the original Peace Regatta. Wounds, both psychic and physical, were certainly too raw to countenance such a thing so soon after the war.
I can’t wait to see the regatta this summer. We know that FISA is pushing the idea of mixed gender events; I’m enthusiastic about watching them. Henley will no doubt do what it does best, provide a terrific spectacle with pomp and ceremony amidst fantastic competition. One hundred years ago, Henley played a role in healing the wounds of war. This year the regatta will also help make history.
Many thanks to Scott Patterson, an Australian filmmaker who is deep into both a book and a film about the Peace Regatta. Both projects are called “The Oarsmen” more information can be found on both Scott and his dual efforts online. He provided valuable insight and material. Photo credits go to Andrew Guerin who generously shared these images from his extensive collection of Australian rowing history. And thanks to Göran Buckhorn whose blog, “Hear the Boat Sing,” covers so many items of historical import. If you aren’t reading it, you ought to be.
Learn more at www.kingscup.org