From the front line to Olympic medals - Jack Beresford: An Olympian at war

20 June 2019

Jack Beresford’s experiences during the First World War shaped his future illustrious rowing career. At the Munich Olympics in 1936 he became the first of only five British Olympians who have won medals of any colour in five consecutive Games. This record was not surpassed until Sir Steve Redgrave won 5 Golds at Sydney in 2000.



His son, John Beresford, was moved to produce a lasting memory of and tribute to his father, by assembling the letters he wrote home from his post as infantry officer in the Line in 1918. This is the story Jack never wrote; the one he had talked about writing for many years before his death.

A vivid story unfolds from Jack’s letters as he arrives in France at the start of the German Spring Offensive of April 1918, which threatened to break through to the English Channel with disastrous consequences for the Allies.

The letters are revealing for what they do not say. Jack was writing to anxious loving parents and was determined to shield them from the worst details of what he was confronting.

An extract from the book:

3rd April 1918. G Infantry Base Depôt, BEF, France

I had quite a good time at Folkestone, had ham and eggs for lunch at the Queen's. Went on board just after 1. Three transports went all together with destroyers, a submarine chaser and airships as escort. We had a fine passage over very calm. I saw some French torpedo boats and various other cargo boats all camouflaged, they looked weird.

Had veal and ham pie and ginger ale on board and when we landed had tea at the Cafe Maritime we left the port at 5 and went to where I am now in a motor lorry. 15 of us with our kit.

When we arrived it was drizzling slightly but as the camp is on sand hills it is very dry. I am in a tent with 3 other fellows in my regiment. Nearly all the French kiddies wear French army caps, they look funny little beggars. I have seen a lot of Chinese Labour Corps. They wear all sorts of weird kit, blue coats & whatever they can get hold of.

Will you please send me out 1 pair of pyjamas, my brogue shoes and my revolver pouch (on the washstand) as I find I shall need them after all. I am in quite a comfortable mess and the tents have wooden floors. 2 beds of a type in my tent, we tossed for them and I won so I shall be very comfortable.

With best of luck to you all.

Your loving son,

Jack.

PS. I shall not be going into the line for a while, so don't worry.


Monday 15th April 1918. BEF, France

My dear Mother and Father,

Yesterday the dugout I slept in was done in, a shell drove into the earth underneath it and exploded blowing the concrete floor up to the iron roof and wrecking all the wire netting beds except mine luckily. I was not in at the time. The old Hun shelled us with 5.9s and 8 inch continuously for 4 hours.

One shell hit the remains of the house above & brought most of it down onto our dugout. We got covered with dust but that was all. I was Duty last night at Batt H.Q. sat in a chair all night, it was a bit slow. I took the rum ration round to the boys in “McMahon’s post” at 3:30 this morning. It was great stuff for warming you up.

I got to bed after breakfast this morning until nearly lunch time. The Hun started to shell us at 9:15, carried on till one when he eased up for half an hour to have his beer and sausage for lunch. At 1:30 he was off again. He is a dirty old swine.

This morning about 5 I saw a couple of our aeroplanes machine gunning the Boche. They turned Archies on them and machine guns firing luminous bullets. It was quite a pretty sight and very interesting.

[…]

The Hun has made a mess of this part of the country. It is very flat and covered with small trees and fruit trees all of which are dead and smashed about very badly. The ground is covered with shell holes and especially the roads. Of the houses there are only one or two bits of walls left, the rest are just piles of bricks. On coming up to the village the first thing you see is a limber and one mule (dead) upside down in a shell hole in the middle of the road.

It is a weird noise hearing our heavy shells going along overhead. They sound just like big goods trains rumbling along at about 60mph, if you can imagine one doing that speed. The Boche crumps come with a whistle and hell of a bang and your hair sort of lifts on end for a second owing to the rush of wind and the ground fairly shivers. Then down come the stones and earth, that about describes them.

The little shells are nothing, they come whizz, bang, before you know where you are but the big ones you hear coming. This morning I saw a big shell hit a tree and cut it clean in half.

The other day a Boche came into one of the Scottish posts and gave himself up. He was smoking a cigar, saluted the sentry and said, “it’s bon to be a prisoner, I was one in Russia before”.

Thanks very much for your letter Dad dear, it was very welcome and came this morning. Are my letters being censored and have you guessed where I am? Tell me if so, as your letters are not censored.

Well goodbye for the present,

Your loving son,

Jack.


21st September 1918 German Line

My dear Mother and Father,

We are very fit and well, everything going A1. At present it is damned near open warfare we are fighting as we have now cleared Jerry’s first system of defence and there is a gap of a mile or so to meet his next system of defence. In this area there are a few strong points with belts of wire about 20 yards deep round them, also a few pill boxes.

My platoon has dug little slits about 6 foot long and 3 feet deep in which they lie, we are very comfortable and fit and everyone is in great form, especially as Jerry is going under so quickly. We have never been on this ground since 1914 and now he is gradually falling back from it.

We have got little bivvies (shelters) in the bottom of a deep dried up ditch. It is quite a sporting life, especially as the old Boche does not know where we are, you see all our positions are camouflaged.

Today we have been sending crowds of little white propaganda balloons over Johnny. Four of our fighter planes having nothing to do, began diving at one and firing, they soon put it out, it was damned funny watching.

I am awfully fit now. I have not even got a coat up with me yet I am very warm at night. I have a sandbag of souvenirs with me, but I seem to lose them as quick as I get them as we are constantly on the move.

Best of luck to you all,

Jack.

In October 1918, Jack was shot by a machine gunner in broad daylight in the shin and carried to safety. After he returned home he borrowed a dinghy and rebuilt his strength by rowing it in the estuary and along the coast.

This – and the injury that put an end to his budding rugby career - started an even more incredible journey to the Olympics, where he would end up beating the German team at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin – as Adolf Hitler watched.

The rest of Jack’s letters and his remarkable story to Olympic victory is available on the Saga bookshop 





The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.