Christopher Warner on sporting figures in conflict
The majority of fighting during the Second Boer War took place across broad grassy uplands known as the veldt. British soldiers battled not only stiff resistance by local guerrilla forces but also harsh climate, with extreme daytime heat followed by freezing temperatures at night. Nonetheless, this distant and hard-fought conflict would provide an unlikely training ground for a future Olympic champion.
Wyndham Halswelle was born in London on 30 May 1882 to Keeley Halswelle, a renowned English illustrator and artist, and his wife, Helen. The boy was also of Scottish descent and military pedigree through his maternal grandfather, Major-General Nathaniel J Gordon.
Halswelle attended school at Charterhouse in Surrey, where the ambitious student showed athletic promise in several sports, including football, rugby, and cricket. He later gained acceptance into the Royal Military College, shifting his focus to becoming a professional soldier.
By the end of the 19th century, southern Africa had become an increasingly volatile powder keg. Descendants of the original Dutch settlers, the Boers (meaning ‘farmer’ in Afrikaans), used effective hit-and-run tactics in response to British colonial expansion. Furthermore, the discovery of gold and diamonds in the region inevitably led to a mad scramble, culminating in bloodshed.
After passing out of Sandhurst in 1901, Halswelle received a commission with 1 Battalion Highland Light Infantry (HLI). He remained with the regiment – known for their Mackenzie tartan and striking nickname ‘Hell’s Last Issue’, derived from their initials – for his entire military career. On arrival in the Boer-held Transvaal, the junior officer rode in mounted infantry operations as part of 19 Brigade under Major-General Horace Smith-Dorrien.
Halswelle stayed on the continent with his unit following the Boers’ surrender in late May 1902. While participating in regimental exercises, he caught the attention of an athletics coach and fellow Scot named Jimmy Curran. Hailing from Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, Curran had a keen eye for raw talent and eventually mentored no fewer than five Olympic gold medallists, beginning with Halswelle.
On returning home with the regiment, coach and athlete began regular workouts at Edinburgh’s famed Powderhall Stadium. The collaboration quickly paid off. With only two years of serious training under his belt, Halswelle had developed into one of the nation’s top sprinters. He benefited from an unusually long stride, allowing him to reel in the competition with a blistering kick finish.
While juggling army duties, the newly promoted Lieutenant Halswelle represented Great Britain at the 1906 Intercalated Olympic Games in Athens, earning a silver medal in the 400m and a bronze in the 800m. He then finished the season in spectacular form, winning the 100, 220, 440, and 880 yards in a single afternoon at the Scottish Championships. The feet-footed soldier continued his progress by setting a British 440-yard record of 48.4 seconds at the AAA Championships and breaking the world record for 300 yards.
At the start of the 1908 season, the only prize missing from his trophy case was an Olympic gold medal – one he would be able to claim on English soil. The quadrennial sporting celebration had been initially planned for Rome, but the eruption of Mount Vesuvius created a financial crisis in Italy, forcing the organisers to relocate to London instead. However, reverberations of a political nature soon followed.
Athletics were held at the stateof-the-art White City Stadium, which had a seating capacity of 68,000. During the opening ceremony, before the competition even started, tensions between the United States and Great Britain began to simmer. The American flagbearer, Ralph Rose, eschewed the customary honouring of the host nation by refusing to lower the Stars and Stripes as he passed King Edward VII in the Royal Box. Rose’s teammate Martin Sheridan famously declared: ‘This flag dips to no earthly king.’
The feud reached its boiling point during the men’s 400m final, ensnaring Halswelle in the most controversial moment of the Games. After setting an Olympic record of 48.4 in his semi-final heat, the Briton stood as the clear favourite among a trio of Americans: John Carpenter, John Taylor, and William Robbins.
Coming off the final bend, Carpenter held a slight lead as the runners charged down the straight. But, just as Halswelle started to unleash his trademark kick, the American swerved wide and deliberately blocked his path. Track officials immediately signalled that a foul had occurred before the runners crossed the finish line, rendering the race null and void.
A lengthy, heated inquiry ensued, resulting in Carpenter’s disqualification for having committed an illegal obstruction. The American coaches insisted their man had merely followed tactics deemed acceptable in meets held back home. However, the admission undermined their efforts: the violation had occurred at the Olympic Games – which was not being conducted under American Athletics Federation rules.
The event was to be rerun two days later in ‘strings’ (separate lanes) between Halswelle, Taylor, and Robbins. In protest, the Americans declined to compete. Thus Halswelle sprinted alone, taking the gold medal in the only walkover (uncontested event) in Olympic history.
Newspaper headlines proclaimed ‘Hallswelle that Ends Well’, but the circumstances left the champion deflated. Shortly afterwards, he made a farewell appearance at the Glasgow Rangers stadium before retiring from competitive athletics.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Halswelle – now a captain – found himself stationed in India. Logistical delays combined with German warships in the Indian Ocean prevented earlier mobilisation, but the HLI landed in France via Egypt in December 1914.
Attached to Sirhind Brigade of the Lahore Division (Indian Corps), the Scottish regiment served beside a mix of British, Indian, and Gurkha units to reinforce the first major offensive by British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
The assault began on the morning of 10 March 1915 and was aided by the first-ever use of aerial reconnaissance photography. Under Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Sir John French, Allied forces pounded German lines with the heaviest concentration of artillery to date.
The attackers managed to breach enemy defences but soon stalled in the chaotic fog of battle. The stalemate allowed enemy forces to regroup in the trenches, setting a brutal pattern for the months to come.
During the battle, Halswelle commanded Company ‘A’ in an attack near Bois du Biez, a wooded area south-east of the village of Neuve Chapelle. The unit faced a series of counterattacks from German forces led by the Kaiser’s eldest son, Crown Prince Rupprecht. As Halswelle made his way through a crowded trench on 13 March, he was struck by shrapnel that had passed through a dead soldier nearby.
Over the next fortnight, the former Olympian received treatment at a French hospital in Boulogne, where he described the war’s untenable futility in a report published later in the Highland Light Infantry Chronicle:
I called on the men to get over the parapet. There is great difficulty in getting out of a trench, especially for small men laden with a pack, rifle, and perhaps 50 rounds in the pouch, and a bandolier of 50 rounds hung around them, and perhaps four feet of slippery clay perpendicular wall with sandbags on the top.
A day after returning to action, a German sniper bullet struck Halswelle in the temple. Medics rushed to carry his unconscious body to a nearby field hospital but could not save him. He would be mentioned in dispatches by Sir John French for gallant and distinguished service. A makeshift wooden cross marked his remains at Neuve Chapelle, before he was reinterred in the Royal Irish Rifles Graveyard at Laventie.
This is an article from the February/March 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.