Going for Gold – Britain’s sporting ambitions and the 1916 Berlin Olympics that never was

The English 4 x 100 metres relay team who won gold medals at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. From left to right: D. Jacobs, H. M. Macintosh, W. R. Applegarth and V. D'Arcy. Note the high-waisted shorts and T-shirts emblazoned with a Union Jack. Date: 1912

We are living through a gold rush.  At the time of writing, Team GB has scaled the Olympic Games medal table to reach the dizzy heights of second place.  We’ve dominated the rowing and cycling; there have been medals in track & field, equestrian events and sailing.  More have rolled in from gymnastics and diving – sports where we were once, if not the underdog, then barely a contender.  We can boast Goliaths of sport – Farah, Kenny, Trott, Murray, Ennis-Hill – sports men and women who are the ones to beat, not those who might be in with a chance.  For those who remember Atlanta (one lone gold – Redgrave and Pinsent in the men’s coxless pairs), the Rio Olympics is watched from sofas around the country with a mix awe, nail-biting anticipation and a faint nervousness that we might wake up and find it is all a dream.  Whatever our final position, Britain’s athletes have kindled a renewed sense of national pride.  But while nobody can deny their achievements, there is one factor that has enabled and then assured success – money.  After Atlanta, funding for elite sports increased ten-fold, a long-term investment that has paid off.  Talent has been nurtured and enhanced with the best that money can buy.  It has been estimated that each British medal win costs £5.5 million.  Funding is withdrawn from sports that fail to ‘medal’.  Behind the scenes, it’s a brutal business, but when a Brit wins gold, we are all reaping the feel-good rewards. Perhaps it’s easier to feel the Olympic love when Team GB is excelling?

Javelin thrower, 1913

Away from the Olympics, the media are already declaring that 2016 is one of the worst years in recent times; terrorism, political instability, the displacement of millions of people fleeing war, all this and more have made our modern age seem much less safe than it was twenty years ago.  And yet this exhibition of human endeavour, the greatest sports show on earth, presents the world at its very best and, for one fortnight at least, gives us all a glimmer of hope.  Another year considered the worst of times was 1916.  A century ago, nobody gave much thought to the Olympic Games, which would in fact have been held that summer in Berlin.  Looking through our archive, there is some fascinating commentary on the Olympic phenomenon in The Bystander magazine.  Launched in 1903 as a sister paper to The Graphic, The Bystander was a society magazine featuring a mix of cartoons, political satire, society gossip, travel, transport – and sport.  In August 1914, just a fortnight after the outbreak of war, The Bystander was commenting on the irony of an Olympics held in Germany.

Opening of the stadium in Berlin, Germany, intended as the venue for the 1916 Olympic Games. Due to the First World War, the Games were never held. Date: 1913

‘In the light of what is happening now it is almost comical to reflect that not so many weeks ago preparations were on foot for the holding of the Olympic Games in Berlin.  I can picture the cynical smile with which those “in the know” in Germany must have watched these preparations.  It is quite conceivable that they were allowed to go on as part and parcel of a gigantic scheme of bluff.  We may even derive some comfort from the reflection that bad as the war is for everybody it will do sport at least one good turn by putting a stop – perhaps for good and all – to its chief bugbear.

The Bystander has always been a consistent scoffer at the Olympic Games, and in sticking to this attitude it has in reality voiced the opinion of the majority of British sportsmen.   The Olympic Games were going to do all sorts of things; in particular they were going, through the medium of sport, to bind the nations of the world together in indissoluble ties of friendship.  It looks like it doesn’t it?  When the British Olympic council in its preliminary report on the Games at Stockholm lamented pathetically at thefailure of the general public of the United Kingdom to take the Olympic Games seriously, it was unconsciously paying a well-deserved tribute to the sagacity of the said general public.’

The general public, not being so blindly optimistic as the British Olympic Council saw that these games, so far from leading up to good fellowship, seemed peculiarly adapted for the production of bad blood and bickering even between countries possessing a common language and origin, and whose athletes are normally upon the best of terms with each other.’

The Bystander’s unusually virulent opinion about the Olympics can be traced back to beyond the hostilities of 1914.  The Games of 1912, held in Stockholm, were a disaster for Britain.  After topping the medals table at the 1908 London Olympics, bagging three times as many medals as the runner-up, the USA, 1912 saw Britain drop to third.  It may sound like a good effort to us today, but USA and Sweden dwarfed Britain’s medal tally.  The USA gained 25 golds to Britain’s 10. While Britain’s total medal haul was 41, Sweden won 65 and the USA won 64.  What followed was a sporting post-mortem in The Bystander more akin to the football punditry we see decipher England’s failures after each international tournament today.

1912 Stockholm Olympics

In its 12 February 1913 issue, F. A. M. Webster, Founder and Honorary Secretary of the Amateur Fields Event Association, picked apart the reasons in an article entitled, ‘Why We Failed At Stockholm’.  The programme of events was a major issue with emphasis on field events and the deletion of cycling (an omission that would certainly affect our medal tally today).

“The real reasons why we do not excel in these particular sports,” admitted Mr Webster, “are, firstly, because they are in most cases very difficult to learn, requiring a deal of practice and unlimited patience, and the young Englishman of to-day prefers sprinting, which is easy to learn; secondly, and, I think principally, because for years the sports-promoting bodies in this country have rigidly set their face against field events on the ground that they take up too much time and the public do not care to watch them.”


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Frederick Annesley Michael Webster was in fact, one of the great pioneers of 20th century athletics, writing numerous books on sport, coaching, becoming director of studies at Loughborough School of Physical Training and tirelessly campaigning to have field sports given equal recognition.  His son, Dick Webster, would become a successful pole-vaulter who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Webster senior had a fight on his hands to encourage interest in field sports.  The response to Britain’s poor performance at Stockholm had led many to suggest they withdraw from the Games completely – that competing but then losing was ‘beneath our dignity.’  Britain’s Olympian representatives had exposed a chink in their country’s armour and that wouldn’t do.  In 1912, Britain still had its Empire.  Its greatness was nurtured on the sports fields of its public schools.  For British sporting prowess to be exposed as so seriously lacking was, in the minds of many, an embarrassing reflection on the country’s diminishing national virility.  It was probably too much to bear for some.  However, the reactions generated seem closer to those of a spoilt child.  The Bystander, following the conclusion of the Games wrote in August 1912:

“Thousands of English sportsmen will thank Mr R. C. Lehmann* heartily for his spirited suggestion that we should withdraw from future participation in the preposterous Olympic Games.  The attempt on the part of Sir A. Conan Doyle and others to make the Olympic Games the test of our sporting efficiency, and to impose the Olympic standard upon our athletes, will be resented as tyrannical. We want only one standard, and that is the British one, in which the thing to be done is not merely to win the game, but to play it like a gentleman.  If we cannot impose our standard on the rest of the world, then let the rest of the world make its own.”

* Liberal M. P & secretary of the Amateur Rowing Association, who had written an article in the same magazine calling for withdrawal from the Games

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Such spoilt, elitist thinking makes uncomfortable reading.  The Bystander, which rarely reined in its strident opinions, supported the unflinching assumption that Britain SHOULD win; that everyone else should play by British rules, and play sports that the British traditionally were good at.   Rather than playing ‘like gentlemen’ these forthright views serve only to expose some British enthusiasts as bad sports.   Thankfully, its views on the subject were often more light-hearted.  F. A. M. Webster himself was given towards a more balanced diplomacy:

“How can we possibly withdraw from these great international gatherings, following upon our disgraceful performances at Stockholm?  Moreover, is there not also a certain political significance attaching to the next Games at Berlin?  Surely the German people would look upon it as a direct affront if we held aloof from the Games for which they are making such strenuous preparations.  Also, it will not do for us to be beaten again as we were beaten last time, especially in Germany.”

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His concerns over the Games in Berlin were tied in tightly with the belief that Germany, along with the USA, was beginning to compete with and in some instances, overtake Britain on the world stage in manufacturing and trade.  The naval arms race that had been building between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the First World War only made the restoration of national prestige via a display of renewed sporting vigour all the more essential.  Britain’s closest sporting rivals were the USA, Sweden and Finland.  Germany, at the time didn’t come close.  Here was an opportunity to trounce the opposition and prove national potency.  A special committee, including among others, staunch patriot Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was formed to raise funds and steer a co-ordinated training programme for the next Olympic Games in Berlin.  Several aristocrats were roped in to add their voices in support including the hugely wealthy Duke of Westminster who was nominated as chief fundraiser. The notion of a team incorporating all countries in the British Empire was mooted but eventually dropped and an appeal for subscription to raise £100,000 to train a British team worthy of the Berlin Olympics was greeted with derision in some sections of the press.  The Bystander for instance, a champion of sports in which the ‘gentleman amateur’ took part, would have sneered at the idea of trying to buy victory.  Others viewed specialisation as the antithesis of British sportsmanship.  Being a good ‘all-rounder’ was a quality most admired.  But for many, the restoration of British sporting pride was more important.  The Telegraph wrote, ‘it is an affair of honour for this country,’ adding of the ‘deplorable effect’ failure would have.  Nevertheless, the British public failed to support the appeal.  By September 11th 1913, only £7000 of the £100,000 target had been raised.  Today it is difficult to understand such apathy, especially when we know how essential Lottery funding and government grants have been in enabling British athletes to devote their time to training.  But it is worth remembering that Britain’s own sporting calendar in the years leading up to the First World War included fixtures such as Wimbledon, rowing at Henley and cricket at Lord’s which were far more deeply entrenched in the British psyche than the Olympic Games.  The latter was regarded by many as a new-fangled gimmick dreamt up by a Frenchman (albeit based on the games of ancient Greece).

Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, 1912. Sukaniomi, Saaristo, Peltonen, the winner of throwing the javelin .. Date: 1912

Of the fund’s failure, The Bystander wrote in its best ‘told you so’ tone in September 1913:

‘Heartiest congratulations to the British public on their latest use of the gift of Apathy.  Never has it been shown in a better cause than in the contemptuous refusal to subscribe the hundred thousand demanded – rather inconsiderately, if I may say so – by the Duke of Westminster and others for the Olympic Games.  The habit of rushing into the Press for public money had previously aroused protest in a number of quarters, even when, as in the case of Capt. Scott, there was public interest in the background.  In the case of the Olympic Games, there is not only no interest, but there is general sentiment against.  If the national athletes are not fitted, of their own accord, to make a proper show in Berlin or anywhere else, then let us lose the pots and be done with it, or withdraw like gentlemen.  There may be a case for the subscription of public money to the general cause of promoting an athletic renaissance, but such a proceeding will take a very much longer time than lies between us and the next Games.  Any success “bought” at Berlin by mere money will morally not be worth the paper on which the cheques have been written.’

The idea of paying to win seemed to particularly irritate.  What would they have made of today’s shameless injection of cash into British sport?  But the irony that most sportsmen in Britain a century ago were those who had the financial means and leisure to spend time participating was lost on The Bystander which went on to claim ardently:  ‘The whole idea is not only wrong-headed, but sweepingly pernicious, and one to be fought tooth and nail by those who have any desire or hope of keeping English sport clean and undefiled.’

By January 1914, the Special Committee, having singularly failed in their fundraising, was disbanded.  And by July that year, with the heightening crisis in Europe, it was becoming increasingly uncertain that there would be an Olympic Games in Berlin at all.  Instead of proving their abilities on the sports field in Berlin in 1916, thousands of British (and German) sportsmen found themselves playing the so-called ‘Greater Game’on the battlefield.  The fierce debates and efforts towards Olympic reform were rendered pointless and proving national superiority through sporting prowess had quickly become an inconsequential notion.  There were bigger battles to win.

Finding Rupert Brooke – a forgotten photograph album at Mary Evans

Mary and Hilary Evans spent more than fifty years collecting the material that now comprises the library and we’re often asked by visitors what proportion of the analogue archive has actually been scanned. A finger in the wind guesstimate might find us suggesting 15-20%, but the truthful answer to this is we don’t really know.  But what we do know is that it is still possible to unearth incredible treasures containing images that have never made it near a scanner.  While it’s frustrating to find ‘perfect’ pictures hidden away, the fact that we are still lucky enough to experience that sharp thrill of discovery more than compensates.

Image copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library
Cuthbert Grasemann in his rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge University (Picture number 11107622)

A case in point is a photo album recently discovered neatly filed and catalogued along with others, but apparently untouched for some years. The stained, green binding was fairly unpromising but inside is a superb collection of photographs dating from the late 1890s to the 1930s.  The picture that particularly caught our eye at first was the interior of a Cambridge student’s room in 1911.  Written above it in ink were the words, ‘My rooms.  K. 5. New Court Trinity College Cambridge. 1911’. It may be Cambridge but even so, the room itself is unlike any student digs we might imagine today.  Ornaments are neatly arranged on the mantelpiece of a large fireplace, the walls are adorned with landscapes, and a collection of ukuleles and lutes. Above the picture rail what looks like a hand painted border shows a maritime landscape that includes St. Michael’s Mount.  A small occasional table is draped with an art nouveau style tablecloth on which are placed framed photographs, presumably of family members.  An elegant seat is enhanced by a rather beautiful looking peacock cushion, and the inhabitant of the room sits in the window, a pet cockatoo perched placidly on his knee.

Pupils and teachers at Fretherne House Preparatory School around 1900. From an album owned by Cuthbert Gasemann who is seated 2nd row, third from left. Date: c.1900
Fretherne House Prep School.  Grasemann is middle row, third from left, seated. (Picture number 11107606)

Further investigation soon confirmed that the album belonged to a ‘C. Grasemann’, the student in the picture. He features in most of the album’s other photographs which neatly chart his life and career from boy to man in a series of evocative images, many of which are excellent quality, printed in a generous 10” x 8” format.  The earliest picture, from 1899, is a group photograph from Fretherne House School (a prep school in Welwyn Garden City up until the Second World War).  Two more of Fretherne House take us up to 1904 as which point C. Grasemann became a pupil at Rugby School.  Another photograph shows him cross-legged in the front row of W. N. Wilson’s House.

Members of the Officer Training Corps band at Rugby school in 1905. Top right of the picture is Cuthbert Gasemann, who appears to be holding a tenor horn. This photograph is one of a number in an album compiled by him. Date: 1905
Members of the Officer Training Corps band at Rugby school in 1905. Top right of the picture is Cuthbert Gasemann, who appears to be holding a tenor horn. (Picture number 11107611)

Every boy is annotated in miniscule, spidery writing.  At Rugby, he was in the OTC band, playing the tenor horn by the looks of one photograph.  He was also in the school orchestra and when he went up to Cambridge, became a rower, a sport well-documented in the album.  Not only are there pictures of Grasemann’s rowing crew in action, but there are some beautiful views of Henley Regatta around 1911.

Rowing crew from a Cambridge University college, 1911. Date: 1910
Grasemann’s rowing crew.  He is seated middle row, second from right. (Picture Number 11107618)


Together with photographs of college balls, society dinners, winter sports and a fancy dress party in Switzerland (even one of the famous skating couple Mr and Mrs Edgar Syers) these are images that take us back to that extraordinary pre-war era when a young man of Grasemann’s fortunate circumstances would have had the world at his feet.  Except the world was about to slide towards catastrophe.

Grasemann’s war saw him gazetted on 10 June 1915, joining the Royal Engineers as a Lieutenant. The only wartime pictures in the album are a couple of his marriage to Irene Statham on 19 September 1916, while another photograph of him in uniform with a friendly dog arrived with the message, ‘As we can’t come we send our photo’.  All leave had been cancelled.


Keen to find out more about who C. Grasemann was, some internet sleuthing revealed he was Cuthbert Grasemann (1890-1962) who after the war became the Public Relations and Publicity Officer for British Railways (Southern Region). Armed with this knowledge, some of the later photographs begin to make sense – one charming photograph of the South East and Chatham Railway Travelling Ticket Inspectors Garden Allotment Prize Giving in Catford in July 1922 for instance, or an annual dinner given to staff of the Superintendent of the SE & C Railway.  Another shows him accompanying Sir Malcolm Campbell as he meets the driver of the Bluebird steam train emblazoned on the front with ‘Welcome Campbell’ (presumably this coincides with one of Campbell’s land speed records in the Bluebird – possibly in 1927). One gathering from 1925, an annual reunion dinner of the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers, indicates how he progressed along his particular career path.   He was also the author of two books, ‘English Channel Packet Boats’ in 1939, and ‘Round the Southern Railways Fleet’ in 1946; clearly his job overlapped happily with an enduring personal interest in transport.

Sir Malcolm Campbell shakes hands with the driver of a steam engine with a special plaque on the front reading, 'Welcome Campbell - The Bluebird Special'. Also in the picture, far left, is Cuthbert Grasemann, PR and Publicity Officer for Southern Railways. Presumably he is the one responsible for this meeting. Date: c.1927
Sir Malcolm Campbell shakes hands with the driver of a steam engine with a special plaque on the front reading, ‘Welcome Campbell – The Bluebird Special’. Also in the picture, far left, is Cuthbert Grasemann, PR and Publicity Officer for Southern Railways. Date: c.1927 (Picture number 11107639)

Even without the detective work to uncover his personal story, the photographs in Cuthbert’s Grasemann’s album are a haunting and redolent memento of a lost era. Turning the pages, L. P. Hartley’s opening lines of ‘The Go-Between’, ‘the past is another country’ spring to mind. Especially in the case of the early photographs, this is pre-war Britain as it once was for a privileged few.  One can’t help wondering about the fates of so many of the boys and men in those photographs.  Who made it through the war, and who didn’t.

But there is one more thing that makes this album doubly interesting. Two photographs document a visit to Rugby School by Lord Roberts on 16 February 1906 where he inspected the Rifle Club, an early version of the school’s Officer Training Corps.  Cuthbert Grasemann, who would have been 15 or 16 at the time, can be seen in his bandsman’s uniform standing in line near the back.  In charge of the corps, standing at the front is one 2nd Lt Rupert Brooke.

Lord Roberts, former Commander-in-Chief of the British Army and recipient of the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny, visits Rugby School in February 1906 where he inspects the school's Rifle Club (OTC, Officer Training Corps). The officer in charge of the corps is 2nd Lieutenant Rupert Brooke, poet, who would die in the Aegean during the First World War. Date: 1906
Lord Roberts visits Rugby School in February 1906 where he inspects the school’s Rifle Club (OTC, Officer Training Corps). 2nd Lieutenant Rupert Brooke can be seen standing at the front. (Picture number 11107612)

Brooke is one of Rugby School’s most famous alumni. His father was a housemaster there, and at the time of Lord Roberts’ visit he would have been 18.  Academically gifted, sporty, and with renowned good looks, he would go up to Cambridge in autumn of that year, having won a scholarship to King’s College.  One of the most famous of the Great War poets, the tragedy of Rupert Brooke’s death, from an infected mosquito bite on a French hospital ship in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Skyros on 23 April 1915 caught the public imagination.  Shortly after his death, his poetry collection, ‘1914 and other Poems’ sold 160,000 copies.

With three years separating them, it is unlikely Grasemann was on very close terms with Brooke, but it is clear that he was aware of his significance. Underneath the photograph in which Brooke’s handsome profile is unmistakable, Cuthbert Grasemann has unusually included Brooke’s Christian name in his annotations.  It is probable this album was compiled a number of years after Brooke’s death by which time his name had entered into Great War mythology; a fallen warrior, a ‘young Apollo, golden haired’ as described by the poet Frances Cornford.

Did Mary and Hilary ever notice Brooke’s existence among these photographs? The fact that the entire album has never been catalogued or scanned suggests not; a natural oversight in a collection that numbers thousands and thousands of individual items.  Only on closer examination did I myself notice the picture and it is finds like this that make Mary Evans such a unique place to work.  How they acquired the album in the first place is unknown.  Papers relating to Cuthbert Grasemann are held at the National Archives and the National Maritime Museum.  It seems strange that this album of such exquisite personal photographs should have been sold.  A small pencil inscription on the inside front cover suggests it was bought for £20 – quite possibly some years ago.  Whatever was paid for it, we believe the contents are simply priceless.

Too see a wider selection of photographs from the Cuthbert Grasemann album click here

All images copyright © Mary Evans Picture Library.  Please contact Mary Evans Picture Library is you would like permission to reproduce any of our pictures.