Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces 1880-1960

January 20, 2011

George Orwell once suggested that sport was war minus the shooting. In contemporary times, media reports frequently use militaristic language to describe sporting contests, and we often see reference to troops and battles in these accounts. Yet despite the prevalence of such terminology, current events cannot fail to remind us that for many men and women there are real wars taking place.

Much has been said about the value of sport as a means of preparing soldiers for battle. In Sport and the Military, historians Tony Mason and Eliza Riedi have produced a detailed account of sport in the British armed forces from 1880 to 1960, and show how military sport was about much more than teaching skills to be applied in combat.

They acknowledge early on that the Army occupies more of a focus in their study than the Navy or Air Force, partly as a result of its size and status, but also because more of the records of its sporting organisations have survived than those of the other forces. As the son of a former Army physical training instructor, with a brother in the armed forces, I was interested to learn more about the development of sport in this environment.

There are, of course, many subjects that warrant investigation in such a study, and we are given insights into the place of sport in prisoner of war camps, its centrality in developing regimental identities, and its function during the years of national service. While many military histories' silence on the role of sport suggests that it has traditionally been considered frivolous or irrelevant, this book argues for its importance in military life in relieving boredom, building morale and improving fitness.

Sport offers a window on society and a means of engaging with broader societal issues. The discussions surrounding social class in this text are particularly illuminating. Rugby union, for example, was an officers' sport when introduced to the armed forces, and class distinctions were often reinforced through military sport more generally. The authors offer useful examples of the social capital attached to sport, where soldiers who were talented sportsmen sometimes received preferential treatment and were excused from some everyday duties. Regimental or national pride was at stake in sporting contests, and defeating rival teams took on great importance.

Mason and Riedi also offer engaging accounts of various individuals who would be labelled, in today's sporting discourse, "characters". This includes the Marquess of Exeter, who was a serving officer when he won an Olympic gold medal in 1928, and who topped a newspaper poll of the day listing the 10 most popular men in Britain. A number of other fascinating figures appear, with stories of heroism and sacrifice juxtaposed alongside humorous tales of military life.

This is an interesting read for those with any connection to the British military. It is a meticulously researched account that sheds light on a hitherto largely overlooked subject. It is also a tale of how much the nation changed over the 80 years that the book focuses on. The Duke of Wellington did not claim (as is widely believed) that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but it is clear that sport has long played a valuable role in the British armed forces.

Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces 1880-1960

By Tony Mason and Eliza Riedi. Cambridge University Press 298pp, £55.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9780521877145 and 1700740. Published 4 November 2010

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