Olympic rowing star killed on first day of Somme

John Somers-Smith would have made his father proud. He followed in his dad’s footsteps to become a successful athlete, winning a rowing gold at the 1908 Olympics. Somers-Smith, a captain in the London Regiment, was killed on the first day of the Somme.

Somers-Smith Sr had been a runner, twice winning the AAA half-mile title. His son, born in 1887 in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, was Captain of Boats at Eton College. At Oxford University he rowed for Magdalen College in the coxless fours that won two Henley races in successive years: the Wyfold Challenge and Visitors’ Challenge in 1907 and the Stewards’ Challenge and the Visitors’ in 1908.

From Oxford to the Somme

That year Somers-Smith, born in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, was also stroke of the four that won coxless Olympic gold at Henley as the GB team swept the board, winning all four events.

He was working as a lawyer when war came and joined the 5th London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade), winning the Military Cross as a captain in 1915 at Ypres. He was killed aged 28 on the first day of the Somme at Gommecourt. His body was never found and his name is on the memorial at Thiepval.

One of Somers-Smith’s crewmates in the gold medal-winning boat, Duncan Mackinnon, also lost his life in the war, killed in action at Langemarck, Belgium, in October 1917. Somers-Smith’s brother, 2nd Lieutenant Richard, who had rowed for Oxford in two Boat Races, died aged 31 as he tried to rescue his sergeant from a collapsed trench at Hooge, Belgium, in June 1915.

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100-­year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to John Somers-Smith or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.


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