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Feature10 Nov 2018

Armistice Day: Remembering the athletes who died in the First World War


The start of the men's 5000m at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, including eventual winner Hannes Kolehmainen (left), bronze medallist George Hutson (three from left) and silver medallist Jean Bouin (four from left) (© IOC)


To An Athlete Dying Young
By A.E. Housman

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high. 

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.


In 1912 in Stockholm, the men’s 5000m made its Olympic debut in spectacular fashion as Finland’s Hannes Kolehmainen and France’s Jean Bouin staged a stirring duel in which both broke the former world record by 25 seconds. Kolehmainen eventually triumphed by just 0.1 of a second. But within six years three of the top six finishers in that race, young men in their prime on that golden day, would be dead, all casualties of the Great War.

Hannes Kolehmainen leads the 1912 Olympic 5000m final from Jean Bouin and George Hutson


Silver medallist Bouin, France’s first great distance runner, who had set world records over both 3000m and 10,000m in 1911 and won the International Cross Country Championship (precursor to the World Cross Country Championships) in 1912, would die just two years later by friendly fire.

Bronze medallist George Hutson, regarded as the most promising British distance runner of his generation, was killed just five weeks after war broke out. Sixth-place finisher Alex Decouteau, a First Nations runner from Canada, died in the Battle of Passchendaele in October, 1917.

By the time the guns fell silent, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, some 40 Olympic track and field athletes were among millions killed during the war. Countless others would have competed in athletics at some level during their youth.

They were some of the best and brightest of their generation, representing countries as diverse as Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Australia, Hungary, New Zealand, Serbia and Ireland, and we remember them on the centenary of the end of World War I.

Noel Chavasse


Their number included the only man to win the Victoria Cross for bravery twice during the First World War, Noel Chavasse. He graduated from Oxford University with First Class Honours in 1907 and represented Britain in the 400m at the 1908 London Olympics before embarking on a medical career. Like Decouteau, he died of wounds inflicted in the Battle of Passchendaele.

Two Olympic gold medallists were also among the dead by November, 1918.

Wyndham Halswelle won the 400m in 1908, becoming the first Briton to win a full set of Olympic medals, having won silver in the 400m and bronze in the 800m in 1906. Henry Macintosh was a member of the winning British 4x100m relay team in Stockholm, aged just 19. The former president of the Cambridge University Athletics Club, he would die in the second Battle of the Somme in 1918.

Wyndham Halswelle wins the 1908 Olympic 400m title


Two of Britain’s best all-round athletes, Alfred Flaxman and Henry Leeke, were also killed. Flaxman died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, having competed in the high jump, discus throw and javelin at the 1908 Olympics, and won British titles in the hammer and pole vault. Leeke competed in the shot put, discus, hammer and javelin in 1908.

Kenneth Powell, one of a number of Cambridge University stars who lost their lives, was arguably Britain’s finest all-round sportsman, excelling as both a sprint hurdler and a tennis player. He competed in both sports at the 1908 Olympics and in the 110m hurdles in 1912. He played in the Wimbledon tournament eight times, reaching the doubles final in 1910 and the singles quarter-finals in 1913.

The man recognised as Germany’s first world-class track and field athlete, Olympic medallist Hanns Braun, was another who fell. He won a silver medal with the 4x400m relay team in 1908 and returned in 1912 to win the silver medal in the 400m and the bronze medal in the 800m. He became a fighter pilot and died in an air collision over France.

Hanns Braun (nearest to the camera) takes the silver medal in the 400m at the 1912 Olympic Games


The winner of the 1914 Boston Marathon, an Irish-born Canadian and 1912 Olympian, Jimmy Duffy, died a year later in Belgium, the same day that the 1915 edition of the Boston Marathon was held.

Another Irishman, Paddy Roche, competed for Great Britain in the 200m at the London Olympics but missed the final by one place. He was awarded the Military Cross two days before his death in Baghdad. The man who beat him to the last place in that 200m final, George Hawkins, shared his fate.

Hawkins was coached by Sam Mussabini, who would later guide Harold Abrahams to the 100m gold medal at the 1924 Olympics, their story immortalised in the movie Chariots of Fire.

Hungary lost two Olympic medallists. Lajos Gonczy was a triple Olympian in the high jump, having won bronze in 1900 and silver in 1906. Dual Olympian Istvan Mudin won silver in the pentathlon and bronze in the discus in 1906, and was awarded four medals for courage before his death in 1918.

They were young and strong and brave but the war did not spare them. Their deaths are an enduring reminder of the terrible cost of the global conflict that ended on Armistice Day 100 years ago.


Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup. 

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.


Nicole Jeffery for the IAAF

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