THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

05 September 2019

A librarian’s death on Lake Onega - Roger James Chomeley

The British Librarians’ memorial at the British Library records the names of 142 persons who died during the First World War.  Two died after the signing of the Peace Treaty at Versailles on 28 June 1919.

Captain Roger James Chomeley M.C. of the Cheshire Regiment died during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.  The Allies began to withdraw their forces from North Russia in June 1919, but it was a long, drawn-out process.  Chomeley was drowned on Lake Onega on 16 August 1919, aged 47.

Steam tug Azot captured from the Bolshevik forces on Lake Onega  1919Steam tug Azot captured from the Bolshevik forces on Lake Onega, 1919 © IWM (Q 16793)

A naval court of inquiry reported:
‘Captain R. J. Cholmeley was on board the Russian steamship Azod, one of the lake flotilla, on Lake Onega, and on the night of August 16, 1919, he was washed overboard while overhauling machine guns which were required for action at daybreak the following morning.  The vessel was heavily laden, and there was a very heavy sea, hence this imperative duty was most dangerous.  The court considers that Captain Cholmeley sacrificed his life in the execution of his duty’ (Brisbane Courier 20 February 1920).

Studio photograph of Roger James CholmeleyRoger James Cholmeley, lecturer in Classics, The University of Queensland, c1910?  Fryer Library Photograph Collection

Roger James Cholmeley was born at Swaby, Lincolnshire in 1872, the son of the Rev. James Cholmeley and his wife Flora Sophia. He studied at St Edward’s School in Oxford, before gaining an open classical scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, graduating in 1894.  He afterwards taught at Manchester Grammar School and the City of London School.  Roger married Lilian Mary Lamb in Oxford on 12 August 1896.  They had one daughter Katharine Isabella born at Wimbledon in 1903.

Having already served with the East Surrey Volunteer Corps, Cholmeley enlisted in the Imperial Yeomanry at London in March 1900.  He served in South Africa until June 1901. He obtained a commission and, on his return to the UK, continued to serve with the volunteers and the Territorial Force.

In 1901 Cholmeley published his edition of The Idylls of Theocritus.  He returned to South Africa in 1905 to take up a post as professor of Latin at the Rhodes University College at Grahamstown, where he also acted as librarian.  In 1909 he moved to Australia, teaching classics at Scotch College, Melbourne.  In 1911, he was appointed to a lectureship in classics at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, combining teaching with sorting out the University Library.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Cholmeley once again offered his services.  He was initially employed as a military censor in Australia, a post using his considerable knowledge of French, German, Russian, Dutch, and Greek.  He was rejected by the Australian authorities for active service, so in June 1915 he sailed to the UK where he obtained a commission in the Cheshire Regiment.  Chomeley wrote the preface to a revised edition of his Theocritus on the voyage over, lamenting the war’s interruption to scholarship.


Cholmeley's preface to his new edition of The Idylls of TheocritusCholmeley's preface to his new edition of The Idylls of Theocritus shelfmark 2280.d.10 Noc

Despite his age, Cholmeley served with the 13th (Service) Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment on the Western Front, being wounded twice.  In September 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions as brigade intelligence officer.

After the Armistice, Captain Cholmeley was posted to Northern Russia.  In expectation of his return from military service, the University of Queensland promoted Cholmeley assistant professor of classics, but he died before he could take up the post. 

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
Damien Wright, Churchill’s secret war with Lenin: British and Commonwealth military intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20 (Solihull: Helion, 2017), pp. 75-85.
Ian Binnie, 'Captain Roger James Cholmeley, MC', Moseley Society History Group
The Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 20 September 1919, p. 9
Brisbane Courier, 20 February 1920, p. 2
J.M.S., 'Roger James Cholmeley', The Classical Review, 34 (1920), pp. 76-77
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), The Idylls of Theocritus (London: George Bell & Sons, 1901).
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), Principiorum Liber (London: Edward Arnold, 1910).
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), The Idylls of Theocritus, new ed. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1919)
Albert C. Clark, Journal of Hellenistic Studies, XLI (1921), pp. 152-154