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 a conflict on an altogether different scale and intensity that 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 would never return.
Up until quite recently, we knew nothing of the eleven deceased members beyond their names. Enter Ian Mountain, one of today’s active members, who has devoted considerable time and effort to uncovering these men’s wartime identities. As Ian himself readily acknowledges, this is still very much a work in progress. Nonetheless, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of several notable battles, not least Passchendaele, and we thought this an opportune time to share his findings to date.
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 soldiers 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.
Such was the strength of patriotic fervour sweeping the country that the 1st/8th Battalion, POR rapidly became overwhelmed with recruits and a 2nd Battalion had to be formed in September 1914. The POR served in all the main theatres of conflict on the Western Front from 1915-18, sustaining severe losses at Ypres and Passchendaele.
The 1st/8th Battalion 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, aged 38, who died on 25th. His name is listed at the Le Touret Memorial, Festubert.
There would be many false dawns during WW1: to give but one example, a letter from the club secretary to all serving members at the end of 1915 dared to hope that before 1916 was out “Cygnets will have returned to greet the ‘Old Crocks’ (ie: those left behind to run the club)”. It was indeed a false hope. 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 circumstances we have yet to establish. Later in the year, Wilfred Doley, a lance corporal aged 27, expired on 15th September, quite possibly from injuries sustained in a British offensive during the Battle of the Somme.
As the war rumbled on into 1917 and the prospect of any early cessation of hostilities receded, 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. Even so, 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 Valentine, 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 A.B.Thaine was killed on 1st March; and Arthur Rixon, Company Sergeant Major in the London Irish Rifles met his death on 7th April.
The POR were at the forefront of the fighting throughout 1917, suffering exponential losses at Ypres and Passchendaele. The Third Battle of Ypres gained especial notoriety because of its focus, in its latter stages, on the village of Passchendaele, which was 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), C.D.Gibney and Cecil Toms – met their deaths, seemingly on the same day (30th).
Thanks to Ian’s persistent searches on Ancestry, we are fortunate to have two photographs of Cecil Toms which have come to us through a shared family tree, one showing him pre-war as a GPO employee and the other showing him in uniform.
By comparison with 1917, 1918 was relatively kind to Cygnet, with just one recorded fatality – Lance Sergeant Albert Russell, The King’s (Liverpool Regiment) – on 8th May. Nonetheless, as surviving club members reconvened on 18th June 1919 for the first meeting since the war, many must have mourned the fallen eleven.
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 plans to hold a more formal commemoration at next year’s 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