The Great Game

For the British recruits of the Great War, war was sport and sport was war.

By Caroline Alexander

In 1977 I spent what was to be the first of three summers at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, working out in blurring near-hundred-degree heat at the U.S. Modern Pentathlon Training Center, opened that year for the first time to women. Modern pentathlon is a composite competition, devised in 1912 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, to mirror the prestigious pentathlon centerpiece of the ancient games. The eccentric selection of modern events, however—show jumping, épée fencing, pistol shooting, swimming, and cross-country running—was predicated on the belief, already anachronistic in 1912, that these were the skills a good soldier should possess. In my day, the majority of American male pentathletes, as well as a sprinkling of the inaugural group of women, held rank. The indelible military cast of some memories of this time now seem surreal, such as practicing cavalry drills on the parade field, or shooting, dueling style, at the range. “How you score is between God and your conscience,” our marine-sergeant coach would say. America’s most conspicuous modern pentathlete was the twenty-six-year-old West Point graduate George Patton, who came in fifth at the event’s premiere in 1912, having performed poorly in the shooting.

The equation of sport with war, or more dangerously, war with sport, is universal and enduring, but occasionally lurches into particularly sharp focus. As is made clear in The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898, Evan Thomas’ new book about the easily avoidable steps that led to the Spanish American war, personal fixations on exercise and competitive strife morphed with appalling ease into national policy.

The Football Players, by Henri Rousseau, 1908. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York.

The Football Players, by Henri Rousseau, 1908. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York. 

“In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the young men of the upper and middle classes took to sweaty gyms, lifting weights and tossing medicine balls,” Thomas writes. Although manifested in very different ways, this susceptibility to sports mania was shared by three of the key figures directing America’s rush to war with Spain. Henry Cabot Lodge, the influential senator from Massachusetts, had been “a frail boy and, though he tried, never very adept at games,” reading books of tales of derring-do as a substitute for action. For William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of the war-mongering New York Morning Journal, sports could be counted on to sell papers: one of the first big stories he had commissioned when taking over the Journal had been the annual Princeton-Yale football game. When the battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor by what was trumpeted as enemy action but was probably an accident, Hearst, with shrewd understanding of the potent sports-war equation, had “proposed recruiting a regiment of giant athletes—heavyweight boxers, football players, and baseball sluggers—to overawe the pitiful Spaniards.”

The last man in Thomas’ triumvirate is 
Teddy Roosevelt
, whose devotion to manly sporting activities is too well known to require much amplification. As a young boy suffering from myopia and asthma, “Teedie” heaved himself into a regime of weightlifting, mountain climbing, and boxing, the bloody details of which he reported proudly to his father. Blood was an important aspect of Rooseveltian sport, hence the organization he founded in 1887, the Boone and Crockett Club, whose membership was limited to men who, in his words, “had killed with the rifle in fair chase.” The club’s purpose was “to promote manly sport with the rifle.” The distance between “manly sport with the rifle” and the perceived sport of war was perilously short. Roosevelt’s own ardently desired military blooding was achieved with his eventual command of the First U.S. Voluntary Cavalry, the eccentric “Rough Riders,” whose exploits in the battle for San Juan Heights in Cuba were both significant and overplayed by the press and later by himself. The volunteer regiment was top heavy with sporting men, including an America’s Cup yachtsman, reputedly the best quarterback who had ever played for Harvard, a steeplechase rider, a “crack” polo player, a tennis player, and a high jumper.

Informing Roosevelt’s sporting ethos was the belief, widely prevalent at the time, that without physical strife America would lose her frontier spirit to effeteness. In an 1896 speech that Thomas characterizes as a “paean to the ideal of sports as preparation for war,” Lodge urged his Harvard classmates to consider that the “time given to athletic contests and the injuries incurred on the playing field are part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world conquerors.”


I n England itself, whose shining empire seemed to testify to the imperial destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race, the fears for the inferiority of the nation’s fighting men had some empirical basis. An inspection conducted during the Boer War of 1899–1902—in which Britain had not performed particularly well—revealed the alarming fact that based upon measurements of chest size, height, and weight, a full 30 percent of its volunteer recruits were “unfit”; the average height of the British Tommy was only five foot six. In Britain as in America, sports were seen as an antidote to this racial degeneracy, and yet, for all their striking common ground, British and Rooseveltian sporting values were directed toward very different ideals of manhood. As befit the rough-riding frontier ethic, American athleticism was about being stronger, clobbering the competition, blood lust—in Roosevelt’s words, letting “the wolf rise in the heart.” The cult of British athleticism, on the other hand, was about playing games.

One great reason why many children abandon themselves wholly to silly sports and trifle away all their time insipidly is because they have found their curiosity baulked and their inquiries neglected.

—John Locke, 1693

The fountainhead of this particular brand of the sports-war equation was undoubtedly the British public school, whose values and moral ethos prevailed throughout English society from the Victorian era well into the aftermath of the Great War. “The schools’ secular trinity,” according to one scholar, “was imperialism, militarism, and athleticism.” The centrality of athletic games had not arisen naturally but was very much the product of a determined reformation of a failing educational system: the weak masters were often incapable of controlling their entitled and high-spirited charges. Riots, rebellions, strikes, mass displays of disobedience—and at Eton an attempt to blow up one of the school houses with gunpowder—were standing features of early Victorian public-school life. One future headmaster, who had been schooled through the reforming period of the late 1870s, while at Eton recalled the transition there from “open barbarism” to “something like decorum.”

Games did more than keep boys too busy and too tired to cause trouble; they also fostered team tribalism and school pride. When an outstanding team or individual athlete won both the adulation of his schoolmates and the approving recognition of the master, a bond was formed between boys and authority. The first symptom of games mania, as one observer recalled, “was the taking over of games by the clergy as a proper theme for the pulpit”: one sermon preached to boys at Exeter indicated that the performance of the school’s cricket team had been displeasing to God.

Complementing a classically oriented curriculum that celebrated the imperial militarism of the revered ancient world, athletic games strengthened the British race, giving young boys the physical training to become hardy servants of the empire, as intrepid missionaries as well as soldiers. A good captain of the first eleven would undoubtedly make a good officer. Games taught a chap to play straight and not “offside.” “[A] truly chivalrous football player,” as it was put in Marlborough’s school magazine, “was never yet guilty of lying, or deceit, or meanness whether of word or action.” This insistence on the decency and “straightness” of the young athlete bolstered the attendant belief that just as the soldier-athlete was invariably decent, so too was his imperial cause. “In all this war there is nothing for us to be ashamed of,” Sir James Yoxall, an MP and educational reformer declared at the outset of the First World War. “We fight for honor. You know what honor is among schoolboys—straight dealing, truth speaking, and ‘playing the game.’ Well, we are standing up for honor among nations, while Germany is playing the sneak and the bully in the big European school. Germany must be taught to ‘play cricket.’”

Blind Man’s Bluff, by John L. Krimmel, 1814. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

Blind Man’s Bluff, by John L. Krimmel, 1814. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois. 

That the apogee of this sporting faith would overlap the years of Europe’s most catastrophic conflict is one of the many ironies that render the Great War so very pitiable and tragic. By 1914 it had been a long time since the English people as a whole had experienced warfare at first hand. Even the Boer War, in which 22,000 British troops died, had taken place safely out of sight, in faraway South Africa. As Richard van Emden points out in Boy Soldiers of the Great War, “Britain’s colonial conflicts had been described but not seen, drawn but hardly photographed.” At the same time, however, they were covered in the written press: the stories of thrilling conquests playing out in the exotic places of the empire—on the veld, in the East—that streamed in to fill British newspapers and, most particularly, Boy’s Own Paper, portrayed war as a romantic and glorious adventure. By van Emden’s estimate, the number of underage British boys who enlisted in the Great War was well in excess of a quarter of a million. Henry Newbolt’s 
“Vitaï Lampada,”
 with its relentless refrain of “Play up! Play up! And play the game,” made clear the continuity between athlete and soldier. One youth recalled a picture that was hung in his nursery showing “a boy trumpeter with a bandaged head, galloping madly through bursting shells for reinforcements.” Played “straight” and not “offside,” war was the very best of games. “Dear Lord Kitchner,” wrote one Irish boy of nine years of age, to the secretary of state for war, “I want to go to the front. I can ride jolley quick on my bycycle and would go as dispatch ridder … I am very strong and often win a fight with lads twice as big as myself.” (He received a reply from Kitchener’s private secretary. “Lord Kitchener asks me to thank you for your letter, but he is afraid that you are not quite old enough to go to the front.”)

For applicants of every age, the recruiting process could draw on familiar schoolboy criteria, as van Emden quotes:

“Where were you at school?” one seventeen-year-old applicant was asked by the recruiting officer.
“Eton, sir.”
“In the Corps?”
“Yes sir, Sergeant.”
“Play any games? Cricket?”


W ar was sport. Or so it must have seemed at first. The military exercises alone brought first-rate athletic benefits. “There’s no doubt it did me good,” one veteran recalled of his days of rifle drills and physical training. “What with the open air and exercise, I broadened out, gained confidence, and went in for boxing.” Whole regiments of men, it was noted, with the benefit of good food and hardy exercise, added an inch to their height and a full stone, or fourteen pounds, of weight.

Beyond the training fields, the fiction that this was all a great game was maintained in the trenches. One young soldier recalled how as his battalion advanced, it was cheered, as if in a match, by the First Battalion Black Watch. “You feel like in a race, you’re waiting to start,” he recalled, “waiting for the signal, then the sergeant would shout, ‘Right lads,’ and you’re over the top.”

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world: it gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. The picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.

—Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Of the 1,200,000 British men who joined the Army in 1914 as volunteers, almost half a million had done so through the influence of popular soccer organizations. “Join and be in at the final,” one recruiting poster advertised, while a rugby poster exhorted men to “Play the Game!” And it was soccer that gave the war one of its most indelible and heartbreakingly pointless images: that of a soldier dribbling a soccer ball toward enemy lines. While this sporting feat was enacted in several campaigns, it was Captain “Billie” Nevill’s exploit at the Somme that caught British imagination. As one veteran recalled, when “the gunfire died away I saw an infantry man climb onto the parapet of no man’s land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so, he kicked off a football. A good kick.” The stirring example of such sporting style, for the sentimental public, was made no less potent by the fact that enemy fire had at once cut Billie Nevill down.

When the war ended, Britain had far fewer sporting men. Some 885,000 had been killed outright, and another 1,700,000 soldiers grievously maimed and wounded. One woman recalled a scene toward the end of the war in Brighton, a seaside town to which the injured were sent for recuperation. “The sight of hundreds of men on crutches going about in groups, many having lost one leg, many others both legs, caused sickness and horror. The maiming of masses of strong young men thus brought home was appalling.” Possibly it was these ubiquitous legions of disfigured men that, by their fearful, negative examples, kept the sporting ethic alive. The desire to see whole, healthy young men was painfully strong for a nation desperate to be healed, and sports held sway at public schools into the 1930s, by which time a new generation of chaps had arisen to shoulder the next war.

The association of war with sport is not likely to disappear, given the physicality and competitiveness embedded in the practice of both. More surprising are the enduring associations of sport with war, often occurring in ways that rely on historic memory. Soccer matches played between England and Germany produce a flurry of admonitions for rowdy English fans—no impersonating Hitler, no shouting of “stand up if you won the war,” no goose stepping. When in 2001 England defeated Germany in a preliminary World Cup match in Munich, the British tabloids commemorated the victory with the thundering headline: “Blitzed!”

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