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100 years on from WWI - How our Olympic soldiers braved the long wait to come home

10 November 2018

AOC: Three members from the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Team made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the war. For those soldiers who survived, the wait to come home was such a long ordeal that an Inter-Allied Games was created and participated in by six Australian Olympians.

The signing of the Armistice on 11th November 1918 brought a long sigh of relief. The war was over, but the focus quickly shifted to demobilisation of a couple of hundred thousand home-hungry soldiers and how to keep them occupied for periods of up to 12 months. 

For the sports loving Aussies, the Paris 1919 Inter-Allied Games was the perfect solution, but it provided much more - an opportunity for soldiers to build bonds with other nations and a chance to build world peace on the sporting field, which would continue on to the 1920 Olympics. 

The Games were effectively a mini-Olympics for the military who had been in WWI. The American’s had an idea to have a big victory athletics festival to demonstrate their friendship for France.  

Six Australian Olympians participated in the Games: Harold Hardwick (Swimming, Stockholm 1912), Stinton Hewitt (Athletics, Antwerp 1920), Billy Longworth (Swimming, Stockholm 1912), Arthur Scott (Rowing, Paris 1924), Ivan Stedman (Swimming Antwerp 1920, Paris 1924) and Ronald Thomas (Tennis Antwerp 1920). 

An Australian Imperial Force (AIF) Sports Control Board was formed, and they recruited ex-Olympian Major Sydney Middleton to the position of organising secretary. Middleton was the perfect choice. He won a gold medal in Rugby at the 1908 Olympics and was a rower at the 1912 Games. He fought in Gallipoli and France and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. 

It was decided sports would take the place of drill and Major Middleton mapped out an extensive sports program which included modified sports like the grenade toss and tug of war along with swimming, athletics, boxing, tennis, wrestling and rowing.

Rowing AIF

In February 1919 a field in Joinville-le-Port in France, which was used during the war as a training camp for soldiers, was identified as a suitable venue. An immense stadium of ferro-concrete was built with the help of the US Army who stepped in when there were delays due to a labour shortage. 

Just four months later, the 25,000 seat stadium was ready and hosted the Games which commenced on June 22. 

The AIF accepted an invitation to compete in swimming, athletics, boxing, tennis, wrestling, rowing and tug-o’-war at the multi-sport Games. 

At the Opening Ceremony in front of a capacity crowd of 90,000 spectators, 1500 athletes from 18 countries paraded around the Pershing Stadium ahead of competition in 19 sports.  

In athletics, Victorian distance star Hewitt, who would later run the marathon at the 1920 Olympics, raced a modified marathon over 16km, but was unplaced finding the distance too short for him. 

In contrast the AIF swimming team was brisling with talent including two Stockholm 1912 Olympians Harold Hardwick and Bill Longworth and a future (1920 & 1924) Olympian Ivan Stedman, while many of the other team members were national medallists in swimming.  

Hardwick had won three medals in Stockholm, including gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay. The star of the AIF team in 1919 would be Longworth, who had in 1912 won every freestyle event at the National Championships, but was suffering from an ear infection in Stockholm and was unable to take his place in the 100m and 1500m freestyle finals or compete in the gold medal winning relay.  

The Inter-Allied Games swimming competition was held on a 100m course in the Boule du Lac Saint James. 

 After plugging his ears with cotton wool and covering them to minimise his ear problems, Longworth was the leading Australian in the pool, placing second in the 400m and 800m freestyle events. He also helped the Australian Team to gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay – the only gold for the AIF.   

Other medallists were Olympians Harold Hardwick and Ivan Stedman, plus fellow Australian soldiers Lewis Solomons, Sydney Springfield and Jack Dexter. 

One extraordinary member of the AIF swim team was Sergeant Albert Barry. An Australian 100 yards swimming champion, who lost his left leg above the knee at Messines in July 1917 while serving in the 46th Battalion. 

At the end of April 1919, the boxing championships were held in Aldershot, with Olympic swimmer Harold Hardwick representing Australia in participating in the heavyweight division. 

Hardwick, who was famous before the War for turning professional to fight leghendary Aussie boxer Les Darcy, won his bout in April 1919 and was named ‘The Ideal Sportsman’ for the tournament. After the war his application for reinstatement as an amateur was rejected.  

In tennis, 1920 Olympian Ron Thomas progressed to the semi-finals in the doubles, as the sole Australian tennis competitor. 

A rowing regatta was held on the Seine on July 17-18, avoiding the dates of the famous Henley Regatta. Seven of the nine members of Australia's victorious 1919 Royal Henley Peace Regatta Team returned to France for the Inter-Allied Games. In a very close final England defeated Australia by just one length. 

Royal Henley Peace Regatta 

After the Great War concluded it was considered too soon to revive the famous Henley Regatta on the Thames, an event which had been held since 1839 and regarded as the major rowing regatta outside of the Olympics and World Championships.

Australian Rowing

Rowing clubs of England hurriedly planned a regatta for oarsmen with restricted events for Allied Armies titled the Royal Henley Peace Regatta. A four-day regatta was held in July 1919 and on Saturday July 5, the premier event for the eights raced for the King’s Cup named after the reigning Monarch King George V. 

Eight crews representing USA, France, New Zealand, Canada, Cambridge and Oxford Universities and two from the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) vied for the cup. In the final, the AIF number one team defeated Oxford by over seven minutes. 

Capt. Disher accepted the King’s Cup from King George V. In 1921 at the Australian Rowing Championships, the premier event the eights for men, and the race was renamed the King’s Cup in honour of the winning AIF crew. 

The team included Stockholm 1912 Olympians Harry Hauenstein and Sydney Middleton, future Olympian Arthur Scott, and a number of highly decorated WWI soldiers. 

You can read more about all the Australian Olympians who fought for their country in WWI, HERE 

David Tarbotton/olympics.com.au

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