- Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces, 1880–1960
When I began my own study of the United States military’s sports programs I was virtually alone in considering the implications of the armed forces’ sponsorship of such programs both for the morale and entertainment of the troops and for the impression such sporting activities might make on a civilian population. I am happy to report that there is now a sophisticated and fascinating study of the British military’s sports programs as they evolved over almost a century of activity at home and abroad. What Tony Mason and Eliza Riedi have done in Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces 1880–1960 is provide their readers with an analysis of the types of sports embraced within the military, where those sports were played and under what circumstances, and how those sports reflected larger issues in British society. Using a wide variety of sources, including memoires, soldier and sailor newspapers, training manuals and unpublished analyses of organizations such as the Army Athletic Association and the RAF Sports Board, Mason and Riedi have clearly established [End Page 518] the central role that athletic activities played during soldier and sailor down time throughout the British Empire.
Mason and Riedi identify one essential contradiction in how commanders viewed sport. Most officers firmly believed that playing sport was good for its own sake and as a way to teach values such as fair play while others argued that sports provided crucial physical and mental training for war. These two ideas existed uneasily side by side at least through the end of the Second World War. Mason and Riedi explain that as sports were becoming modernized in the mid-nineteenth century, interest in games within the armed forces grew as well. When the British military became concerned about problems of recruitment and retention at the end of the century, sport, along with better food and better accommodations, was identified as a crucial component of every soldier’s life. To encourage enlistment the British army developed several football teams. The Royal Engineers even joined the Football Association and participated in the FA Cup.
For Mason and Riedi, the sporting world of Imperial India has particular significance. Although football rapidly drew the attention and support of other ranks, officers turned to polo, hunting and horse racing. But those officers who spent most of their time, money, and energy enjoying equestrian events eventually began to draw criticism for their failure to concentrate instead on becoming better soldiers. Even so, those officers insisted that hunting, racing, polo, and pig-sticking were activities that did, in fact, provide them with significant military skills.
During the Great War sport became a refuge for the hundreds of thousands of soldiers behind the trenches. The Army turned to sport to keep them entertained. For the Army, military sport demonstrated the difference between the “unsportsmanlike” German enemy and themselves. Promoters of sport within the armed forces also saw athletic competitions as a way to encourage unit cohesion and loyalty. And contests between military and civilian teams were used for fund-raising and the recruitment of more men for the cause. In summing up the effect of World War I on the British military’s sports programs, Mason and Riedi argue that after the war the previous casual, unofficial approach to athletic activities had been transformed. From 1918 forward, sport programs for officers and other ranks would be dominated by those who firmly believed in the value of amateurism. To that end, commanders emphasized the need for mass participation and de-emphasized the development of elite athletes.
During World War II military sport was again used to entertain men stationed in the United Kingdom waiting to be deployed. Now, British authorities recognized the advantage to unit cohesion from the assignment of professional players as Athletic Physical Training Officers throughout the forces. After the War, because of National Service, other professional athletes serving in the military found their commanders willing to accommodate their training and competition schedules...