Review: ‘The Army Isn’t All Work’: Physical Culture and the Evolution of the British Army, 1860-1920, by James D. Campbell

This is the text of the pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, Review: ‘The Army Isn’t All Work’: Physical Culture and the Evolution of the British Army, 1860-1920, by James D. Campbell, International Journal of the History of Sport 31 (9) (2014): 1194-96. There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.

The recent public kerfuffle between English education secretary Michael Gove, Tony Robinson, and various academic historians on the ‘meanings’ and popular-cultural interpretations of World War I form an appropriate backdrop during which to read US Army Col. James D. Campbell’s monograph. Tony Mason’s and Eliza Riedi’s recent Sport and the Military: The British Armed Forces 1880-1960 name-checked Campbell’s PhD thesis on the development of a physical culture within the British Army as being one of the few analyses of how the British armed forces utilized sport within their ranks. Now Campbell has released his work in book form. It allows historians an opportunity to gain some unique insight into the creation of such a regimen from someone who is an experienced soldier.

The book is organized largely chronologically. Campbell sees the development of gymnastics, sport and other exercises within the military as taking place within five main phases during the period 1860-1920. 1860-1880 marked the first attempts at incorporating gymnastics into the Army’s regime, complete with the employment of the Army Gymnastic Staff. But these attempts were nevertheless rudimentary, and not necessarily intended for enlisted men. The next phase of development (1880-1908), however, saw sport incorporated into the training of the rank-and-file to a greater degree, and marked a point at which sport was used instrumentally by the Army to solidify its relationship with its subjects. The phase of 1908-1914 marked a rapid drive towards standardization in training, but these improvements would nevertheless prove unable to meet the realities of wartime. The Great War marked a considerable change in the way that regimental sport was regulated; and, by the end of the conflict, the physical and rhetorical line between more rigorous sports and training for war had been considerably blurred, especially in such areas as bayonetting. The epilogue of the book examines the creation of the Army Sport Control Board. Campbell’s research is based mostly within the training manuals of the period covered by the book, as well as regimental newspapers and periodicals, and his knowledge allows him to be able to paraphrase larger passages, and use shorter quotes effectively. At no point does the reader believe that the author is speaking about a subject of which he has no personal experience.

While one can acknowledge that the book is a decent starting point for delineating the specific development of physical culture in the British Army, it is not the deepest examination. It would not hurt Campbell to be more critical about the relative successes of regimental sports in achieving physical results on the battlefield. He does not question the intrinsic purpose and mission of the Army, and perhaps it is up to readers’ individual political judgments to decide whether or not this is a flaw. Effectively, however, this is an account of the military without militarism. Campbell writes in accessible prose; non-military readers thankfully do not have to wade through needless jargon, and the book is fairly concise. It is nevertheless clear, however, that Campbell expects his readers to make leaps along with him, at least in terms of certifying the effectiveness of the Army’s training and sport programmes. One does not question sport’s role in boosting morale, or creating a sense of esprit de corps and corporate identity within the Army’s units. But when Campbell states that, when the Army introduced superior physical training to the Indian Army during the 1890s, and along with it character building and training techniques ‘proven to be successful in Britain’, no measure of how this success was achieved is given (91). More controversial is his analysis that ‘sport had no real negative effect on the combat performance of the Army, either in [the Second South African War] or in 1914’ (78); but the results in either case would seem to dictate that sport and training did not have a positive enough effect to achieve victory. Campbell here is using qualitative measurements, rather than the quantitative ones needed: i.e., the territory held, the political results achieved, and (crucial for the purposes of keeping score) the number of enemies killed through such preparation. This is the cold calculus of war, and there is a considerable danger inherent in not discussing the explicit nature of the military profession.

In his defence, Campbell’s audience might be skewed towards military historians, who understandably may have different interests than the readership of this journal. Nevertheless, aside from an acknowledgement of Mason and Riedi, the only sports historian of considerable repute to appear in the footnotes is J.A. Mangan. This is problematic in one part because Mangan’s theories of the seemingly one-way diffusion of British sports culture have recently come under heavy attack. Accordingly, Campbell’s examination of the British Army’s relationship to sport in India leads to conclusions which seem dated. It is an India where the subjects do not use British sports to fight back against colonizers. This, while Campbell does acknowledge that Raj culture was a two-way street, especially with the British Army’s adoption of polo. But on the social and economic history end, many of the major texts – including those of Richard Holt, Wray Vamplew and Tony Collins – are left unacknowledged. When Campbell mentions that professionalism thrived in regimental sports during World War I, one is desperate to hear what is going on in the rest of British society, and intrigued to hear more about this development that seemingly subverts the Army’s purposes in using sport and physical training. Campbell’s lack of references to the Volunteer Force, and only a fleeting mention of its successor the Territorial Army, does not acknowledge that citizen soldiery’s leisure programmes were, within the social context in certain communities, driven from below. Is it not possible that a generous sports (rather than strictly training) regime was allowed by the Army because ‘sport’ proved a more attractive selling point to potential recruits than ‘war’? The post-WWI Army poster that provides Campbell his title indicates something of a soft sell was going on here. In this poster, and in an impressive variety and quality of photographs chosen by Campbell, gender performance is left largely undiscussed.

Most monographs based on PhD theses are usually overstuffed, but Campbell’s could use a little more meat. Here, he has written a volume that aims to detail how the British Army developed an effective training programme that helped it succeed in battle. He has very much succeeded in showing how the Army went about doing so, and the characters involved in steering the Army towards a more professional grounding in terms of both its rigour and its allowance of a sporting culture. But its successes still need to be established. There is also a necessity for dialogue with other sports and leisure historians, as well as the need to acknowledge that some will see sport’s historic links with military organizations as paradoxical and occasionally problematic.

Matthew L. McDowell

University of Edinburgh

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