By Graham Healy
One of the many well-known cyclists killed in action during World War 1 was Tom “Jeb” Gascoyne. Although he was from England, Gascoyne ended up fighting for the Australians in France and Belgium.
He had started bike racing back in 1893 and would go on to set a number of world records, including that for twenty-five miles, which he covered in fifty-seven minutes and eighteen seconds in 1896. Gascoyne also held the world record for an unpaced flying start quarter mile with a time of 25 seconds.
In 1900, he competed in France, where he finished second in the Grand Prix de l´UVF. The following year, he travelled to America, where he competed at Madison Square Gardens. He also managed to beat the famous Major Taylor twice at the Boston cycle-track.
Gascoyne was originally from Chesterfield in Derbyshire, but in his twenties he moved to Australia with his young family in search of a better life. He gave up cycling for a time, but took up the sport again in 1907, and competed in the Sydney Six-Day race amongst other competitions.
The Gascoyne family originally lived in New South Wales before moving to Preston, a suburb of Melbourne. In February 1916, at the age of thirty-nine, Gascoyne signed up to fight for his adopted country. When he enlisted, Gascoyne indicated that the majority of his pay should be paid directly to his wife, Linda, and their young family.
He was assigned to the Twenty-First Battalion, which had been formed the year before. After an intense period of training at Broadmeadows, Victoria, they were shipped to Europe. Gascoyne had missed out on the fighting at Gallipoli, where the Twenty-First had landed at ANZAC Cove.
The battle had finished just a month before he signed up. By the time Gascoyne joined, the battalion had moved on to France, where they would be the first Australians to commence operations on the Western Front. Their first action was at the Battle of Pozières, northeast of Amiens.
In just seven weeks of fighting, the Australians would suffer twenty-three thousand casualties, including six thousand, eight hundred dead. It was a similar number to the total deaths at Gallipoli over eight months.
Australian historian Charles Bean would say that the Pozières ridge “is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.” Gascoyne was one of the fortunate ones to survive the battle. The following year would see the Twenty-First in action at Bullecourt, south of Arras; later in the year they would redeploy to Belgium, to the Ypres Salient.
On October 4, 1917, a German counteroffensive began near Ypres. The intention of Operation Hohensturm was to capture the area around the village of Zonnebeke. Gascoyne, who had been a corporal in the Twenty-First Battalion, was among those who sought to defend the area.
The exact details of what happened during the battle are unclear, but unfortunately Gascoyne was killed in the action on the day that the operation commenced. His body was not found. Ten years after the battle, in 1927, the Menin Gate was built in Ypres as a memorial to the missing British and Commonwealth soldiers from the Ypres Salient.
A total of 54,896 men had their names engraved on the monument. Such were the numbers of men missing in action around Ypres, it was found that as vast as the Menin Gate was, it wasn’t nearly big enough to hold the names of all missing soldiers and the Tyne Cot memorial was also built to remember the missing.
The name of Tom Gascoyne appears on the Menin Gate memorial in Panel 93. It may not be there forever, however. Every year around Ypres, bodies of missing soldiers are found, often during construction work. The authorities try to determine who the person is through the use of DNA; if they succeed, a military funeral is held, and the man’s name is removed from the Menin Gate. There is always a slim chance that Gascoyne’s body might be found someday, and that he can be given a proper burial.