“Leather” and the Fighting Spirit: Sport in the British Army in World War I

Research Paper Title

“Leather” and the Fighting Spirit: Sport in the British Army in World War I.


The assiduous and organized cultivation of sport, and what is more important the spirit of sport, has become one of the most distinctive marks of the British Army, and it will be a task worthy of the greatest historians to record what this sporting spirit has done, not only for the British Army, not only for the British Empire, but for the whole civilized world during the present war.

-The Field, 16 March 1918

Sport has provided some of the most abiding images of the Great War. The impromptu football played between British and German soldiers during the 1914 Christmas Truce and the British troops kicking footballs across No Man’s Land at Loos and at the Somme still resonate in the public memory. The deeper history of military sport in World War I, however, is both less dramatic and more significant.

For the British Army the war marked the point at which sport, hitherto widely popular but unofficial in the armed services, became formally integrated into the military system, both as “recreational training” and as an officially sanctioned form of leisure for other ranks. The British example was followed by other Allied forces – by the Dominion armies, by the United States, and, despite considerable initial scepticism, by the French. While sport had been an important part of British Army life since the late Victorian period, the experience of the First World War has been the most enduring influence on the organization and ideology of modern British military sport.

This article traces the process by which sport in the British Army was transformed from a mainly spontaneous and improvised pastime in the early stages of the war into a compulsory activity for troops out of the line by the last months of the conflict. It discusses the relationship between sport and war in the public school ideology of “athleticism,” and examines the ways in which sport was seen to have military utility in improving fitness, relieving boredom, providing distraction from the horrors of war, and building morale, officer-men relations, and esprit de corps.

Finally it demonstrates how the amateur model of sport, promoted energetically but largely unsuccessfully by army sports reformers before 1914, came to be imposed on all British service sports as a result of the war. The article concludes that, while public school beliefs regarding the interrelationship between playing-field and battlefield were largely specious, sport in World War I nevertheless had real benefits both to individual soldiers and to the army as a whole. When, in 1931, General Harington declared that it was “leather”–in the shape of footballs and boxing gloves–that had won the war, he was only expressing in exaggerated form the official recognition of sport’s military value.

Over recent decades, and particularly since the release of documents from the National Archives after 1965, military historians (if not the general public) have begun to move away from the notion of the Western Front as an arena of mud, futility, and military incompetence towards a more considered examination of such subjects as command, control, and communications in the British army. One result of this new work has been to emphasize that not all soldiers experienced the war in the same way. For one thing some 16 per cent of the army were in non-combatant units from the beginning of the war, and this would grow to 33 per cent by 1918. These men fought the war not in the trenches but behind the lines, providing the supplies and services crucial to the military effort. Even those on the front line were not subject to its horrors all the time. Not only was there a rotation system, whereby units went from the front line to the support line, then into the reserve and finally to a rest area, but different parts of the front varied widely in conditions and activity. Some were often quiet, well ordered, and comparatively safe. Dan Todman has reminded us of the routine of Charles Carrington, a junior infantry officer, who in 1916 spent less than a third of the year under fire either in the front line or in immediate support. …


Riedi, E. & Mason, T. (2006) “Leather” and the Fighting Spirit: Sport in the British Army in World War I. Canadian Journal of History. 41(3). Available from World Wide Web: https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-160421573/leather-and-the-fighting-spirit-sport-in-the-british. [Accessed: 18 March, 2017].


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