Happy 151st, Herr Lerch, err, Lerch-San
In Japan today is a 100~ strong Alpine-style skiing club named Lerch no Kai, or the Society of Lerch in honor of one Theodor Edler von Lerch, late a general officer in the Imperial and Royal Army of the Austro-Hungarian Kaiser.
Lerch, born 31 August 1869 in Pressberg–now the capital of Bratislava in Slovakia– to a noble family, graduated from the Theresian Military Academy which still trains Austrian Army officers today, in 1891 before a series of postings in Galicia along the Russian frontier. This included the 102nd Infantry Regiment, then on the staff of the 59th Infantry Brigade in Czernowitz, and finally the 11th Infantry Brigade in Lemberg.
Finding a posting to 14th Corps headquarters in Innsbruck as a captain in 1902, he trained with famed Alpine ski pioneer Mathias Zdarsky, who was perhaps Europe’s greatest ski bum in the 1900s, and was a member of the prestigious Internationale Alpen Ski-Verein, then probably the largest ski club in the world.
Following the Russo-Japanese War, then-Major Lerch was detailed to the Austrian military mission (Instruktionsoff) to Japan in 1910, where he remained for two years, specifically requested to train the Emperor’s soldiers in the work of Gebirgstruppe, or mountain troops. This included not only alpine-style climbing but also distinctive single-pole skiing, in the style popularized by Zdarsky and the IAS-V.
Lerch taught the techniques to officers and soldiers of the Imperial Army’s 58th Infantry Regiment of Count Gaishi Nagaoka’s 13th Infantry “Mirror” Division in Jōetsu and in 1911 was the first man on record to ski up Mt. Fuji, to a delighted crowd.
He later toured Japanese troops in Korea and Manchuria, where he no doubt brought his skis along.
The Mirror Division was later tapped to serve in Siberia during the Japanese 1918-1922 intervention there in Russia’s Civil War, as it had ski-equipped infantry, a skill later abolished in 1925 as a cost-cutting measure. Meanwhile, at about the same time, the old single-pole method of alpine skiing was forgotten in Europe.
As for Lerch…
Returning to Austria in 1913, Lerch was made commander of the 4th Tiroler Kaiserjager Regiment (4.TJR), a crack force of alpine sharpshooters along the Italian border and his star continued to rise when war beset Europe. He went on to become a brigadier general, command the 20th Gebirgsbrigade in Albania, then the 93rd Infantry Brigade, and, as a major general, was assigned to the staff of German Kronprinz Rupprecht von Bayern in Flanders in October 1918.
Demobilized in 1919 with the rest of the Austrian army, he wrote and skied late into life. Too old for WWII, he died in Allied-occupied Vienna on Christmas Eve, 1945, aged 76.
A formal portrait hangs at the Austrian military’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna, noting him as the father of modern skiing in Japan.
Nonetheless, in Japan, he is much better remembered.
January 12, the day he began instruction there, is considered “Ski Day” in the country and at least two monuments exist to Lerch, including a 21-foot persona erected in 1960, complete in K.u.K officer’s uniform, bamboo ski pole, and alpine skis, in Jōetsu.
Further, he is still very much alive, in mascot format.