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Remembering the fallen athletes from both world wars

With the Commonwealth Games now in full swing, we commemorate those who had their ambitions cut short by war.

It won’t surprise you to hear that among the huge numbers of men and women whose graves we care for, we find stories of athletes, swimmers, footballers and runners. Those who died in the two World Wars were often in the prime of their life and shared the same hopes, dreams and interests as we do today. Many were keen sportsmen and women, and some had the potential to become elite athletes.

Sporting events played an important role in wartime, boosting morale in both the conflict zones and at home, and giving everyone some respite from the constant pressures of war. You will probably have heard of one of the most famous examples which happened in the winter of 1914 when an informal Christmas truce was declared along many parts of the Western Front – a line of trenches extending from the Channel coast to Switzerland – and games of football started between opposing forces.

Officers and men of 26th divisional ammunition train (army service corps) playing football in Salonika, Christmas 1915, IWM. 

But whilst we hear stories of football matches and cricket games taking place during wartime, there are many stories that were never written, of those events and achievements never realised, those aspiring sporting talents who went to war and never came home.

Gerald Ian Dacres Backhouse

Australian runner Gerald Ian Dacres Backhouse was the leading Australian middle-distance runner in the mid-1930s, breaking the national record for 880 yds.

He represented Australia at the 1936 Berlin Olympics reaching the 800m final. He later became the first Australian to run 1500m in under 4 minutes. He competed in the 1938 British Empire Games (later renamed the Commonwealth Games) in Sydney winning a silver medal for the mile event.

He led the rankings for the mile until he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, sailing to England in June 1941. Sadly, his service was short dying in a flying accident during practice bombing on the 28 December 1941, aged 29.

Sergeant Gerald Ian Dacres Backhouse is buried at CWGC Silloth (Causewayhead) Cemetery, Holme Low, Cumberland, United Kingdom.

Swimming -
David Powell Lindsay

Born in Wellington in 1906, the son of James and Rosa Emily Lindsay, he was educated at Timaru Boys' High School, South Canterbury and later moved to Christchurch.

Dave Lindsay won the New Zealand national titles for the 440 yds and 880 yds freestyle each on five occasions between 1927 and 1934. He competed as a member of the New Zealand swimming team at the 1928 Summer Olympics in the 400 and 1,500m Men's Freestyle events alongside fellow Christchurch swimmer Len Moorhouse.

A lieutenant in the 2nd New Zealand Division in World War II, he was killed in southern Italy during the battle for Orsogna on 12 December 1943, aged 37 when a shell from an Allied 25-pounder fired short killing him and seven other members of his platoon. He was married to Mae Elizabeth Lindsay with two children, Michael and Neil.

He is buried at CWGC Sangro War Cemetery, Italy.

Track and Field -
Alfred Edward Flaxman

Son of a Yorkshire vicar, Alfred Flaxman studied violin at the London Royal Academy of Music.

A talented artist and bodybuilder, he competed in the AAA hammer throw between 1905-14, winning in 1910, also winning the AAA pole vault in 1909. He competed in the discus, shot and was considered an above average boxer and gymnast.

Alfred served in the South Staffordshire Regiment and was held in high regard by fellow officers and the men he commanded. He was killed attacking enemy positions at Gommercourt, France on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

He is commemorated on the CWGC Thiepval Memorial Pier and Face 7B.

Modern Pentathlon -
Jeffrey A. MacDougall DFC

Born in Argentina, eight year old MacDougall came to Britain just after the First World War. He was educated at Malvern College and then Sandhurst where he captained the boxing team.

He was commissioned into The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry in 1932, representing Great Britain in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics that same year. He was later seconded to the Royal Air Force as a flying officer just weeks after his appearance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as the British modern pentathlon champion.

He joined an Army co-operation squadron flying Bristol Blenheims in 1939 rising to squadron leader and winning the DFC for gallantry 'for attacking a German airfield with courage and determination' while attacking Amiens-Glisy aerodrome at night in November 1940.

He was killed in action in December 1942 aged 31 after 22 operational missions and was buried at Reading Crematorium.

Rowing -
Desmond Glover Kingsford MC

Born in Dublin, Desmond Kingsford was educated at Uppingham and Pembroke College Cambridge. Desmond and his brother Annesley were part of the winning Cambridge crew in the 1935 Boat Race.

He also featured in the 1934 and 1936 Boat Race winning crews and was part of the British Olympic eight along with his brother at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished second in the 1937 Henley Regatta Silver Goblets competing for the London Rowing club and was also part of the gold-medal winning eight at the 1938 British Empire (later Commonwealth) Games.

He joined the Irish Guards, later being promoted to Captain. He was awarded the Military Cross leading an attack on a crossroads near Saint-Charles-de-Percy on 3 August 1944 only to be killed a week later at Tilly-sur-Seulles when his tent was hit by a shell.

He was buried at CWGC Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery, France

Athletics -
Noel Godfrey Chavasse VC and bar, MC

Noel Chavasse was a keen athlete representing Oxford at both athletics and lacrosse before competing for Great Britain with his twin brother in the 400 yds at the 1908 Summer Olympics.

After university, Noel joined the medical profession and it was while serving as a doctor in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War that he was awarded the Victoria Cross (twice) and the Military Cross for rescuing and caring for soldiers despite being wounded himself. The Victoria Cross is the highest award for gallantry and Noel is one of only three people to ever be awarded it twice.

He was killed in 1917 during the action for which he was awarded the second of his VCs. His headstone in Brandhoek Military Cemetery in Belgium is unique because it has both of his awards engraved upon it.

His brother Aidan also fell in 1917 and is commemorated at Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. You can read more about Noel and Aidan in our news article Casualties of Passchendaele.

Rowing -
Frederick Septimus Kelly DSC

Born in Sydney, Frederick Kelly first attended Sydney Grammar School, followed by Eaton and Balliol College, Oxford on a musical scholarship.

He rowed for the Eaton eight winning the Ladies' Plate at Royal Henley Regatta in 1899. While at Oxford he also won the Diamond Sculls at Henley in 1902, 1903 and 1905 the latter setting a world record that was unbeaten until 1938. He rowed for the Oxford eight and Leander Club, winning an Olympic gold medal in 1908 as part of a veteran eight.

A gifted musician he became President of the Oxford Musical Club playing numerous concerts and recitals and with the London Symphony Orchestra.

He joined the Royal Naval Division in 1914 as part of the Hood Battalion, landing at Gallipoli where he was wounded. He returned to Gallipoli where he was awarded the DSC for conspicuous gallantry. Lt Cdr Kelly was Killed in France on 13 November 1916 leading an assault on a machine gun post at Beaucourt-sur-Ancre and is buried at CWGC Martinsart British Cemetery, France.

Swimming -
Cecil PATRICK Healy

Sydney-born Cecil Healy was educated at St Aloysius' College. He was a member of East Sydney Swimming Club and North Steyne Surf Lifesaving Club.

He was an early adopter of the Australian Crawl stroke developing the breathing technique to the side.

A championship swimmer, he first represented Australia in the 1906 Olympic Games in Athens, winning a bronze medal in the 100m freestyle. He won gold in the 4 x 200m relay at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm where he won silver in the 100m freestyle, sportingly protesting the American swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku be included in the final after a team disqualification as Cecil felt he was the better swimmer.

The two became friends, Cecil inviting Duke to Australia, who brought his surfboard along introducing the sport to Australia.

When war broke out Cecil joined the Australian Infantry. He was killed in 1918 at the age of 36 while clearing out German machine gun nests in Peronne, France. He is buried in GWGC Assevillers New British Cemetery on the Somme, France.

Boxing -
Ernest Osborne Herlen

Born in Star City, Saskatchewan in 1918, Ernest Herlen (or Ossie as he was known) started boxing at the age of 15.

During the 1930s Ossie excelled in his chosen sport, becoming Saskatchewan Lightweight Champion in 1937 and Welterweight Champion in 1938, also becoming Welterweight Dominion Champion in Winnipeg that same year. Between 1937 and 1938, he was also Vice President of the Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Club.

Of his 33 fights, Ossie won 27 of them, 12 by knockout, and in his nine years of boxing, he was never knocked out.

He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and carried on boxing taking the Toronto Garrison Championship in 1940.

Sadly, Ossie died aged just 25, in June 1944 and is buried in Saskatoon (Woodlawn) Cemetery in Canada.

His achievements are still remembered today and he was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 1977.

Athletics -
Eric HENRY Liddell

Not everyone we commemorate served in the Armed Forces. Civilians who died as a result of enemy action in the Second World War are remembered on a roll of honour in Westminster Abbey in London.

One of the names is that of Eric Liddell, perhaps one of the most famous athletes of his generation, who was the 400 yds champion in the 1924 Olympics and was immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire.

Eric was born in China and sent to school in England. At Edinburgh University he developed into a top class sportsman, winning seven caps on the wing for Scotland in rugby football, but it is for his athletic prowess that he is best remembered.

A deeply religious man, Eric returned to China to join his father as a missionary in 1925, but in March 1943 he was interned by the Japanese and died in captivity at Weihsien Internment Camp two years later suffering from an inoperable brain tumour, overwork and malnourishment.

Golf -
Pamela Espeut Barton

Pamela Barton was born in Barnes, London in 1917 and made her first public appearance on a golf course in the 1931 Girl's Open Championship.

In 1934, aged 17 she won the French International Ladies Golf Championship. In 1936 she took the British Amateur Ladies followed by the US Women's Amateur, the only woman to hold both British and American Open titles. She was also a member of the British Curtis Cup team in 1934 and 1936.

At the start of World War II Pamela joined the London Ambulance Service as a driver during the Blitz. She transferred to the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1941, one of the many women who played important roles in the Second World War, Pamela became a radio operator with the rank of Flight Officer.

Pamela died in a flying accident accident in November 1943, when she was only 26 years old and is buried in Margate Cemetery in Kent

Football -
Walter Daniel John Tull

Walter Tull was born in Folkestone, Kent in 1888 of Afro-Caribbean descent. On the death of his father, Walter was brought up in the Bethnal Green Methodist Children's Home and Orphanage

A talented footballer, he signed for top amateur side Clapton in 1908 and Tottenham Hotspur in 1909. He then moved to Northampton Town in 1911 for a 'substantial fee'.

Walter joined the Footballers Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, fighting on the Italian Front between 1917-1918 being praised for his 'gallantry and coolness'. He later becoming one of the first commissioned officers of mixed descent in the regular British Army.

Walter sadly died aged 29 in 1918, whilst leading his men into battle near Favreuil, Pas-de-Calais, France and is commemorated on the CWGC Arras Memorial.

He had also signed in 1917 to play for Glasgow Rangers after the war.

Our cemeteries and war memorials are filled with the names of those who had their futures taken from them.
As you settle down to watch this year’s games, join us in continuing to remember those men and women who lost their lives during the two World Wars.

Tags Olympics Remembrance Commonwealth Games