7 November 2018

The high flying hero remembered at the French Open

As the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War approaches, we look back at the life of the aviator and hero who gave his name to the home of the French Open and how the War cut short the lives of so many great tennis players

Roland GarrosOn October 5, 1918, just a few weeks before the end of the First World War, six French planes took off on a mission over the Ardennes, in France.  One of the pilots was particularly experienced. In 1913, he had made the first non-stop flight across the Mediterranean, he had already shot down four enemy planes and he had also invented the first-forward firing machine gun which turned the plane a weapon which could be aimed directly at the enemy. On the October mission, four of the French aircraft were in pursuit of a German plane when a squadron of six Fokker planes suddenly appeared on the horizon. The record-setting pilot and inventor headed for them. He did not survive the attack.    

The pilot was Eugène Adrien Roland Georges Garros (pictured) better known as Roland Garros. He was 29. Ten years later, when the French needed to build a stadium to defend their triumph at the Davis Cup, the venue was named after him.

Ironically, Garros didn’t play tennis. Rugby was his game. But he did have caused to be grateful to tennis. Captured by the Germans in 1915, he spent three years as a prisoner of war.  After several attempts at escape, he met another pilot who spoke fluent German. Together, dressed in German uniforms which they had made themselves, they fooled the guards and got away. They were equipped with a felt hat (the better to effect a disguise) and a map of Germany which they had managed to get sent from France, hidden in the hollow handles of two tennis rackets. 

The aviators returned to Paris to a hero’s welcome and Garros was offered a technical job but he was having none of it. “Of course I am going back to the front,” he told the New York Times. He did however, admit he needed to brush up his skills.  “You know it is like coming back from the grave. One has to learn all over again.”

Garros’s luck ran out in 1918, but he is known as “the first fighter pilot in history”, a would-be concert pianist who fell in love with flying after a trip to the Reims air show in 1909 and died a hero, on the eve of his 30th birthday. 

Anthony WildingAnthony Wilding (right) was a few years older than Garros, just 32,when he lost his life in the war. New Zealand-born and Cambridge-educated, he was the outstanding tennis player of his day. He won four consecutive Wimbledon titles, from 1910 to 1933, two Australian Opens and four Davis Cups. He also had matinee idol good looks. According to his great niece Anna, “He was like a movie star, but on the tennis court. Tennis hadn't ever had anyone like that, with that combination of charm, decorum and adventure. Imagine the Great Gatsby era, but he was the real deal, the toast of society. He stayed with kings and queens and prime ministers.”  

 (The picture above shows the Davis Cup match between the American team - Maurice E. McLoughlin and Thomas A. Bundy -and the Australasia team - Anthony Wilding and Norman. Brookes- at Forest Hills, New York in 1914)

When war broke out, Wilding joined the Marines (apparently on the advice of Winston Churchill), then the Intelligence Corps. In his last letter, dated 8 May 1915, he wrote: "For really the first time in seven and a half months I have a job on hand which is likely to end in I and the whole outfit being blown to hell. However, if we succeed we will help our infantry no end." He was killed by a shell the next day.

In a war which effected cities and what Wilfred Owen called "sad shires" alike, even local tennis clubs were left reeling. Highgate Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club in north London, has a moving tribute to the "exceptionally high" death rate of members of local clubs who died in the conflict.

Its own losses included Bert Richardson of Woodlands Gardens, N10 who had just left school when he enlisted for an elite regiment (for which he had to pay a joining fee). He was killed at Ypres. His body was never found. Shocked by this and so many other deaths, a history of the club, written in 1929 noted:

“The difficulties to be faced and conquered were in themselves testimony to the sacrifice and patriotism of the members who, when they returned home on leave, resorted to the enclosure of the Highgate Cricket Club and found there needed rest, rest, recreation and above all welcome.”

Among those who did return home to the UK was Hope Crisp, who won Wimbledon’s first mixed doubles in 1913, also fought at Ypres. He survived the war but lost a leg. Undeterred, he returned for another go at the Wimbledon doubles in 1919 wearing a prosthesis and, as with all these men, it is impossible not to admire his courage and forebearance.

"It was interesting to see how he managed,” wrote The Times of his match. “He is a strong volleyer and naturally half volleys many balls which a two-legged player would drive. The artificial leg is the right; accordingly service is fairly easy and when there is no hurry, he walks with a fair speed, approaching a run. Other times, he hops. His cheerful temperament makes the game a real pleasure to himself and others."

Main image: New Zealand officers sit waiting to play tennis in the grounds of the officers' rest house at the Chateau La Motte-au-Bois in France. Photograph taken 18 July 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders.