Dropping oars for king and country

IT’S a chilling statistic.

Of the 15 members of the Warrnambool Rowing Club who enlisted for World War I, five were killed — a mortality rate of 33 per cent.

The savage impact on the ranks of the club’s young men is an example of the unimaginable grief the First World War imposed on Australian communities. The rowers who did not return were E. Artso, R. Chapman, T. Dwyer, L. Gartlan and H. Thompson.

The five are among the 320 Victorian Rowing Association members who died in the war and whose names are recorded on the Oarsmen’s Cenotaph, located next to the Yarra River in Melbourne’s Alexandra Gardens. 

One of the local casualties, Private Harold George “Jack” Thompson, was killed in action in France on July 23, 1918 aged just 18 years and 10 months, having served in both the navy and army.

He was killed at Villers-Bretonneux on the Somme, near the village famed for its recapture by the Australians on Anzac Day, barely two months earlier.

More than 300,000 Australian troops served on the Western Front in the war. About 180,000 were either killed, wounded or missing — about 60 per cent of those who fought.

Prior to joining the Royal Navy, Jack Thompson was employed as a grocer’s assistant by Swintons. 

He was cox of the Warrnambool Rowing Club, succeeding one of his brothers, and piloted his crew to victory in the Colac Junior Fours in 1915. His peers remembered him as a bright, happy and brave lad.

This month’s edition of the Warrnambool and District Historical Society’s newsletter provides details about Jack Thompson’s short life.

He was the fifth surviving son of Mr and Mrs George Thompson, of Lava Street, Warrnambool, and all five sons enlisted for active service. 

Gordon Thompson, an original Anzac, fell in battle at Gallipoli. 

Jack was in the navy when war broke out and was training at Sydney where he won the Coogee gold medal and lifesaving certificate before he was 16 years of age. 

While aboard the Encounter he had an accident that eventually rendered him unfit for further service with the navy. Invalided home and later discharged with an excellent character, he received the Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ badge and a pension for life. But the call to fight for the Empire was strong and, renouncing his pension, he re-enlisted in the army after two months’ rest.

Not yet 18, he returned home to implore his parents for their consent.

He left for England on May 11, 1917, and served with the 23rd Battalion until he was killed, two months before his 19th birthday. 

A wreath-laying ceremony was held in February at the Melbourne Oarsmen’s Cenotaph, on which Harold George Thompson’s name is recorded, to mark its recent refurbishment.

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