Christopher Warner on sporting figures in conflict
Anthony Wilding was the first tennis superstar. The New Zealander ruled the sport for nearly a decade, bagging four consecutive wins on England’s hallowed lawn courts.
Handsome and charming, Wilding embraced a life full of adventure that also involved racing motorcycles across both hemispheres. Not surprisingly, the outbreak of WWI led him to serve as an officer in the Royal Naval Air Service, Armoured Car Division – a pioneering force that came to be known as ‘The Motor Bandits’.
Born in 1883 near Christchurch, Wilding enjoyed an idyllic, carefree lifestyle on the estate his family called ‘Fownhope’. But Anthony (‘Tony’ to his inner circle) had a deep-rooted wanderlust.
After being accepted to study law at Trinity College, Cambridge, he soon indulged in his two great passions: tennis and travel. Wilding made his Wimbledon debut in 1904, losing in the second round to former champion, Harold Mahoney. The early exit spurred the ambitious Kiwi to dedicate himself to all aspects of the game.
Tennis had been widely considered a ‘gentlemen’s sport’, reserved for royalty and aristocrats. But Wilding, who neither smoked nor drank alcohol, adopted a more proletarian approach.
He combined relentless practice with an extensive fitness regimen that was infused with regular training sessions with former world heavyweight boxing champion and fellow Kiwi Bob Fitzsimmons.
The commitment paid off – and helped revolutionise the sport. Wilding’s improved strength and endurance allowed him to outlast his opponents. In 1906, he won his first Grand Slam tournament at the Australasian Championships (later renamed the Australian Open) en route to 23 singles titles during the season – a record that still stands today.
The following year saw him add a Davis Cup title under the banner of Australasia (Australia and New Zealand). The winning squad included Aussie Norman Brookes, whom he partnered that summer to win the Wimbledon Doubles Championship.
Wilding and Brookes would continue their spirited rivalry before Wilding finally pulled away to become the dominant player of the Edwardian era. His matinee idol looks did not go unnoticed, either: scores of women flocked to his matches.
The powerful right-hander claimed the Wimbledon singles crown every year from 1910 to 1913, and underlined his authority by becoming the first player ever to capture world titles on three different surfaces (grass, clay, and wood) in one season.
Along the way, he earned a bronze medal at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, where he rubbed shoulders with Sweden’s King Gustav.
ON THE COURT AND OFF
Wilding maintained a busy schedule away from tennis: he learned to fly planes, wrote a memoir (the aptly titled On the Court and Off), and worked as a director for the Victor Tyre Company in London. He also pursued his affinity for motorcycles, riding to tournaments throughout Europe on his twin-engine Bat-JAP.
He even found time for romance, becoming engaged to Broadway star Maxine Elliott, dubbed ‘the most beautiful woman in America’. The glamorous couple took up residence at her English country estate, Hartbourne Manor, where they entertained an eclectic group of artists and nobility, as well as former and future British Prime Ministers, Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill.
Meanwhile, Wilding’s reign at Wimbledon finally came to an end in 1914, losing to Brookes in straight sets. The friendly foes resumed their partnership two days later to claim another doubles title at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
The men remained on the same winning side the following month, when Australasia retained its Davis Cup title in the United States. In Pittsburgh, they defeated Germany in a semi-final match on the same day Kaiser Wilhelm II declared war on his cousin, Tsar Nicolas II of Russia.
In less than a week, Britain’s George V joined the royal family feud that plunged the world into war. Oddly, one of the first acts of aggression ensnared none other than the German Davis Cup team. A British warship stopped their vessel off the coast of Gibraltar and interned the luckless athletes for the remainder of the hostilities.
Although Wilding objected to armed conflict in principle, his allegiance to the Crown never wavered. After heeding the advice of his good friend Churchill, now First Lord of the Admiralty, Wilding applied for a commission with the Royal Marines, and was gazetted a 2nd lieutenant.
Almost immediately, his invaluable knowledge of the Continent’s road network and his motoring skills led to a transfer to Headquarters Intelligence Corps as a driver. In a letter to his family dated 16 October 1914, he described his duties in France:
I go out about 5.30am and motor as near to the German lines and outposts as possible and report all information to headquarters. I motor the senior intelligence officer, an awfully nice chap. I cannot tell you any news, as this letter is censored. There are hundreds of motors with machine-guns. Some also with armour, which buccaneer all over the country.
THE MOTOR BANDITS
Wilding’s next assignment would cater to both his driving expertise and trailblazing sense of adventure. The Royal Naval Air Services (RNAS) Armoured Car Section represented an embryonic stage of mechanised warfare – an element soon better known by its codename, ‘tanks’.
Spearheaded by Commander C R Samson, early missions provided reconnaissance and rescue for downed pilots – but successful motorised raids in northern France and Belgium led to an expanded Armoured Car Division (ACD).
The squadrons mainly consisted of stripped-down Rolls Royce touring cars, augmented with boilerplate armour and a rotating turret housing a Maxim-Vickers .303 machine-gun.
In March 1915, Wilding, now a Lieutenant and attached to 2 Squadron under the Duke of Westminster, was given a command of 30 men that included an experimental truck resembling a Naval gunship – replete with a flagmast at the rear.
The five-ton Seabrook Lorry featured machine-guns on all corners and retractable side panels that enabled a mounted Hotchkiss 3-pdr gun to traverse 360°.
Not surprisingly, the weight of the vehicle and its crew made it impractical for trench warfare. It frequently became stuck in shell holes or caught in the mud. Wilding, however, countered the problem in much the same manner he improvised on the tennis court.
The Wimbledon ace constructed an extended, two-wheeled trailer that allowed a QF 3-pdr to be towed behind one of the more agile Rolls-Royce cars. He then tested the added firepower, resulting in the destruction of a German sniper nest inside a blockhouse on the Western Front.
The success of these ground assaults caused inter-service friction regarding jurisdiction over the ACD. Furthermore, the Admiralty expressed disdain for the fledging unit’s unorthodox methods and renegade reputation. This resentment was reflected in a report by Commander Charles Risk:
From their apparent discipline, the variety of so-called uniform as worn by both officers and men, and their unshaven appearance, I am not surprised to learn they are known as ‘The Motor Bandits’, a term which originated in France and Flanders.
Shortly after being promoted to captain in early May, Wilding and his squadron moved to a position near Neuve Chapelle as part of a combined Anglo-French offensive.
The Battle of Aubers Ridge, the British component to the Second Battle of Artois, produced unimaginable carnage from relentless bombardment. The day before the fighting began, Wilding wrote to his friend, Lieutenant- Commander Harry Warden Chilcott:
For really the first time in seven and a half months I have a job on hand which is likely to end in gun, I, and the whole outfit being blown to hell. However, if we succeed, we will help our infantry no end.
On 9 May 1915, after spending ten hours in front-line combat alongside the Indian Corps, Wilding was killed when his dugout took a direct hit from a German shell.
His remains were buried the following day, marked with a cross made from packing-case wood. He would be reinterred after the war at the Rue-des-Berceaux Military Cemetery in Richebourg-l’Avoué, Pas-de-Calais, France.
This article was published in the August/September 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.