Consider this: Conspicuously placed outside the Olympic Stadium was a statue of a "competitor" executing a difficult athletic throw. The figure (shown here), however, is not an athlete, but a Belgian soldier. And, he is not launching a discus or a javelin, but a hand grenade. Many of the competitors and medal winners at Antwerp had seen combat during the war. A transitional event held the previous year prepared many of these warriors for their move from the battlefield to the arena. After the Armistice, the victorious Allied armies had millions of troops with nothing to do. In the spirit of keeping the men busy and out of trouble and to help them start the transition to civilian life, sports programs sprung up in all the military camps. By January 1919, arrangements were made for a competition in Paris modeled on the Olympics, hosted by American commander General John J. Pershing. Eighteen nations competed in these Inter-Allied Games. Sprinter Charlie Paddock and swimmer Norman Ross would be gold medalists at both Paris and Antwerp. Inter-Allied light heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney would later defeat Jack Dempsey for the world heavyweight championship. By one estimate, almost 10% of the competitors at Antwerp were veterans of these games. A year later, the athletes and the world were ready for the return of the Olympic spirit, but the war was not yet forgotten. MH
How Antwerp Got the Games
Here are some very informative sources about Antwerp, the war, and the 1920 Games
A Brief History of Antwerp
The Olympic Oath
We swear that we are taking part in the Olympic Games as
loyal competitors, observing the rules governing the
Games and anxious to show a spirit of chivalry for the
honor of our countries and the glory of our sport.
The Olympic Flag
These five rings represent the five parts of the world now won over to the cause of Olympism and ready to accept its fecund rivalries. What is more, the six colors thus combined reproduce those of all nations without exception.
Olympics historian Steve Harris has provided us a sampling of participants in earlier Olympics, who were
casualties in the Great War. A full list of Olympians killed in the war can be found HERE.
When Did the Games Begin?
When the Olympic Games began is not known. Their origin lay far back in the shadows of time. Several peoples of Greece claimed to have instituted such games, but those which in later times became famous were held at Olympia, a town of the small country of Elis, in the Peloponnesian peninsula. Here, in the fertile valley of the Alpheus, shut in by the Messenian hills and by Mount Cronion, was erected the ancient Stadion, and in its vicinity stood a great gymnasium, a palæstra (for wrestling and boxing exercises), a hippodrome (for the later chariot races), a council hall, and several temples, notably that of the Olympian Zeus, where the victors received the olive wreaths which were the highly valued prizes for the contests.
Gold Medal for Antwerp Champions
It had been a top-level decision to go ahead with the
Games in Belgium. The "generals" had spoken, now
the sportive "soldiers" had to march once again. The
practical problems were forbidding. There was simply
nothing available, except the will (of some) to push
forward. Of course, money was the first major
problem. It was not just that the organizing committee
lacked funding. Belgium was then going through a
period of galloping inflation, which made it very
hard to calculate realistic budgets. And so much
remained to be done. There was no Olympic
Stadium, to mention just one obvious point. Some of
Belgium's sportive infrastructure survived
the war years, but the swimming pool, the tennis
lawns, the boxing and fencing arenas, etc. would all
have to be renovated and refurbished. Finding
accommodations for the athletes was another tricky
task in an impoverished country that was experiencing
a post-hostilities housing crisis. All this was solved in
one way or another, partly on borrowed money and
with a lot of improvisation "à la Belge."
The stadium was finished in time, if only two months before the opening of the Summer Games. The most striking feature of the Olympic Stadium was the "imperial," neo-classical entrance gate (a temporary construction, made of cheap materials, but few people knew that at the time). In front, a statue by Albéric Collin was placed. Not of a classic discus thrower, but of a Belgian soldier throwing a hand grenade. The accommodation problem proved harder to solve. Some of the athletes would have to sleep in city schools, others in military barracks. The poor Dutch had to stay onboard a small vessel, the Hollandia, which was moored at an Antwerp dock. The 1920 Games were not exactly the most luxurious or comfortable in history.
Local publicity for the Games suffered immensely from a shortage of paper. A great poster campaign was planned, but it was never realized. The official poster for the summer games (one version shown above) was designed by local artist Martha Van Kuyck. It showed a classical discus thrower, more or less wrapped in national banners and posing in front of the Antwerp skyline, featuring the city's great pride, the gothic spire of Our Lady's Cathedral. The poster was not precisely a "state of the art" design. In fact, it was very old fashioned, still breathing the atmosphere of the Belle Époque, the period during which the leading sportsmen of Antwerp had started thinking of "their" Games. If anything, the occupation had not really revolutionized their taste. Anyway, local propaganda for the Games was so lacking that when several prelude athletic events were held, a Belgian newspaper wrote: "Friday evening (April 23rd), at nine o'clock, the Olympic games are supposed to begin. How many Antwerp citizens are aware of this?"
The opening ceremony of the VII Olympiad took
place on 14 August 14 1920. It began with a religious
service in Antwerp's impressive gothic cathedral.
The entire Olympic family gathered in a Catholic
prayer house to listen to the admonishing words of
a cardinal of the Church. Many military delegates
from the Allied and neutral countries were present
as well, and the memory of the Great War was
omnipresent. The speaker, Cardinal Désiré Mercier,
Archbishop of Malines, belonged in part to the
national Belgian history of the war. During the
occupation he had taken an attitude of staunch
resistance toward the Germans, at times even
embarrassing the "neutral" Pope himself. Yet,
Mercier was not a universally popular hero in his
own country. The French-speaking Mercier
considered the Dutch language, spoken by the
Flemish, Belgium's majority community, as an
inferior tongue, fit only for everyday life but not for
use in science, politics, or diplomacy. His "Olympic"
speech (delivered after he had sung a de Profundis in
memory of the athletes who died during the war)
was entirely in French. That did not go unnoticed
outside the cathedral. It rankled the atmosphere
even before the Games began.
The speech itself clearly, be it obliquely, referred to the Great War once again and not simply in pacifying terms. Before 1914, the Games, the Cardinal told the athletes, had been a preparation for war. History proved the correctness of the provisions of their founder. Today the Games were preparation for peace but also...."against the terrible risks that have not entirely disappeared from our horizon." Mercier urged the athletes to be moderate, disciplined, and prepared to accept authority. All this in order to prevent sports becoming the "brutal, haughty translation of the Nietzschean conception of life." Germany wasn't mentioned by name, but everyone understood the message.
After the religious ceremony, the Olympic family moved to the stadium on the outskirts of the city. After gun salutes were fired, King Albert, wearing his military uniform, solemnly opened the 1920 Games. Just as nowadays, the delegations marched in and paraded in front of the grandstand. When everyone was in, the new five-ringed Olympic banner was raised for the first time in history. Belgian soldiers released white doves to celebrate the return of peace. Another novelty followed: a Belgian athlete, decorated wartime veteran, and prewar Olympic medalist Victor Boin stepped forward, carrying a Belgian flag and flanked by two Belgian officers. He was the first athlete ever to take the Olympic oath. He did it, of course, in French.
And that was it. The Games could finally begin. The press praised the quality of the ceremony but could not fail to notice that the stadium was hardly filled to capacity. In any case, the Antwerp Games had begun.
The Veteran's Big Presence at Antwerp
Joseph Guillemot (1899-1975), French winner of the 5,000-meter race, possibly best
embodied the transition from war to sports for the athletes at Antwerp. Born in Le Dorat,
France, Joseph Guillemot's lungs were severely damaged by mustard gas when he fought in
World War I. Also, his heart was located on the right side of his chest. Despite this, Guillemot,
an athlete of small stature (5'2", 118 lbs.), but with extraordinary vital capacity, won his
regiment's cross-country championships.
Joseph Guillemot Receiving the Congratulations of King Albert
After the Olympics, Guillemot won the International Cross-Country Championships in 1922
individually and led the French team to first place in 1922 and 1926. He won the French
Nationals in 5000 m. on three occasions but missed the next Olympics due to the
disagreements between him and the French Athletics Union. He also held two world records:
2,000-meter (5:34.8) and 3,000-meter (8:42.2). Joseph Guillemot, a pack-a-day cigarette
smoker, died in Paris at the age of 75.
Despite many complaints about the practical
circumstances in which the 2,626 athletes had to
perform (some swimmers saw rats in the pool and the
oarsmen had the feeling they had been put away on
one of the ugliest canals of Europe, to mention just a
few complaints), the sportive agenda was comprehensive. All in all, 154 competitions were held in
different fields, ranging from athletics to arcane
types of archery. Some of the disciplines, like the
folkloristic "tug of war," were included for the last time
in the Olympic program. Soccer and rugby football
were both fully present, but only one rugby match
took place, in which the United States defeated France
for the Gold Medal.
If Olympic records are the standard for quality, the 1920 Games were a modest success. Fourteen new records were established: six in swimming (some of which were also world records), eight in athletics. Bad weather with heavy rains that damaged the new cinder track in the stadium was held responsible for some of the more disappointing results. The Games were dominated by the USA, whose athletes won the most medals. The finest performance was no doubt that of Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi, who won four medals: silver for the 5,000-meter, and gold for the 10,000-meter, and a double gold in cross-country (individual performance and with the Finnish team). Other legendary Olympians whose reputations emerged or were enhanced at Antwerp included Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, and the greatest fencer in Olympic history, Nedo Nadi of Italy, who won six gold medals in the games.
Host Belgium's greatest moment at the games occurred in September when
their team (solid jerseys) won the football championship in a disputed 2-0
victory over Czechoslovakia. The 65,000
fans in and outside the stadium, who
stormed the field afterward, showed
little concern that the losing squad
felt that the referees were "homers".
The VII Olympiad ended on 12 September 1920. Coubertin wrote very flatteringly: "The success of the Antwerp Olympic Games is beyond all expectations. In spite of political, economic and even meteorological conditions which were all against them, the VII Olympiad took place. . . with mastery, perfection, and dignity, in keeping with the strenuous and persevering efforts of the organizers."
Some weeks earlier Coubertin praised the
fighting spirit and resourcefulness of the Belgian
people, "qualities which have become apparent in
peace as they did in the 1914 war." So, the first Games
after the Great War had taken place, and the
Olympic ideal had survived. That is no doubt the
most important fact to be established about them.
As for the "perfection" of their execution,
opinions were divided. Some delegations kept on
nagging about amateurism issues and a lack of
coordination, which were supposed to explain
their disappointing results. The Parisian press was
very severe. One paper wrote: "What a pity that the
VII Olympiad was given to the city of Antwerp because it can be said, that no moral benefit has come from it." Some Flemish newspapers too found that
the elitist organizers had failed. They had
concentrated too much on their favorite
disciplines and neglected the popular sports.
Our principal contributor for this issue, Bert Govaerts (born 1952), is an Antwerp-based journalist. He was series editor for historical documentaries produced by the public television network of Flanders (Belgium) for many years. Under his supervision, a number of documentaries on World War I were produced for Belgian television. Also an author, with our contributing editor Tony Langley, he wrote an illustrated history of advertising during the war titled Kassa! Kassa! and is currently working on a series of biographies on notable Belgian citizens, of which two have been published.
100 Years Ago:
Capt. Frederick Banting, MC
On 31 October 1920, Frederick Banting woke up at 2:00 in the morning in London, Ontario, and made note of his insight that would lead to the discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes. The evening before, Dr. Banting had read an article in the journal Surgery, Gynecology, and Obstetrics, titled "The relation of the islets of Langerhans to Diabetes with special reference to cases of Pancreatic Lithiasis" He wrote in his journal "Diabetus [sic] Ligate pancreatic ducts of dog. Keep dogs alive till acini degenerate leaving Islets. Try to isolate the internal secretion to relieve glycosurea." Later in the day, he called a colleague to explain his idea— that the way to isolate the theorized (but undiscovered) hormone within the pancreas that controlled blood sugar level would be to let the acinar cells secreted from the pancreas to wither, leaving the insulin. Fourteen months later, on 11 January 1922, Banting and his assistant Charles Best, would make the first human test of the extract. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1923 was awarded jointly to Frederick Grant Banting and John James Rickard Macleod "for the discovery of insulin."
Sources: Wikipedia; Banting House
Banting insisted on serving in the Second World War just as he had served in the First. He was promoted from captain to the rank of major. His knighthood transformed his official title to “Major Sir Frederick Banting, MC.” Because of his research, the Canadian government would not allow him to serve on the front lines. However, they urged him to continue his involvement with the National Research Council of Canada. He worked on such diverse projects as treatments for mustard gas, anti-gravity suits and oxygen masks, and biological and chemical warfare.
In February 1941, Banting was given the opportunity to return to England for three weeks. He was sent to review wartime medical research in England, with the possibility of bringing some of this research back to Canada for protection. At 8:30 pm on 20 February 1941, he left with a crew of three on Hudson Bomber Flight T-9449. Approximately half an hour later, the oil cooler failed, leading to the failure of both engines and the radio. The pilot, Captain Mackey, attempted to land the plane on Seven Mile Pond, Newfoundland (eventually renamed Banting Lake). The aircraft clipped the trees and was brought down only metres away from a potentially safe landing place. Two of the crew died upon impact; Banting and Mackey survived. In a last act of service, he managed to
wrap and treat the injuries of the pilot, allowing Mackey to leave the crash site to get help. Banting, wounded and delirious, wandered away from the plane and died of exposure. He was buried in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
As a Researcher Between the Wars
Sources: Wikipedia; Banting House
One of the interesting developments during the post-WWI Centennial period is a convergence of interest in the aerial effort to support the surrounded Lost Battalion of the Meuse-Argonne battle and honor the two aviators, Lieutenants Erwin Bleckley and Harold Goettler, who were killed in that effort and later awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. Their service, truly, was "above and beyond the call of duty." Here's one description of the mission:
On 6 Oct 1918, during the first search for the Lost Batallion, [Pilot] Goettler and [Observer/Gunner] Bleckley thought they had captured a glimpse of the unit. The mission was a terrifying ordeal, and their original aircraft had been grounded upon returning due to damage from heavy enemy fire. Nevertheless, they volunteered for a second, riskier mission using a borrowed DH-4. That mission was to locate, map, and resupply the besieged American soldiers. Their strategy: fly lower and slower to purposely attract enemy fire to pinpoint the missing unit’s position. Tragically, both men died in the attempt.
Lt. Harold Goettler
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On the list of 100 Greatest British Films is a mid-WWII production that sounds like it's a satire of some sort, based on a figure used by cartoonists to personify everything ill-informed, and insufferable about the uppercrust. However, the central character of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Clive Candy, is everything admirable a soldier, a friend, lover, and yes, a British gentleman, should be.
We meet Candy, played by Roger Livesey, in the midst of the Second World War, when he is commanding general of a troop of Home Guardsmen, who have no appreciation for the experience and knowledge their portly leader has gained in the Boer War and, most importantly, the Great War. The film mostly involves flashbacks to his earlier career, when he served on the battlefields with distinction, enjoyed/suffered three different romances (his love interests are all played by Deborah Kerr), and benefited mightily from the longtime friendship of a Prussian officer.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is more a character study than a war film. In his review, I thought Roger Ebert put it best, "The movie looks past the fat, bald military man with the walrus mustache and sees inside, to an idealist and a romantic. To know him is to love him." You might read somewhere that Winston Churchill tried to scuttle the film. That's true, I believe. Winston was dead wrong, though, this film is a pro-British classic. Available on Netflix and Amazon MH
Click on Title to Access Story
Why Belleau Wood [Still] Matters
Hamas Retrieving Ammunition from Sunken WWI Vessel
Jackie the Baboon Served in the Trenches
Review of Internment in Switzerland during the First World War by Susan Barton
42nd Rainbow Division Marks 103 Years of Service
Star Ralph Fiennes on the Upcoming Kingsman WWI Prequel, The King's Man
Germany's Turkish Policy and Genocide
Aftermath of the Great War: The Irish War of Independence
WWI-Themed Roundabout Named Best in Britain
|Thanks to each and every one of you who has contributed material for this issue. Until our next issue, your editor, Mike Hanlon.|