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National Army Museum
  • 10.00am - 5.30pm
  • FREE
  • Chelsea, London


Sport and British Army recruitment

Rugby match featuring members of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), c1942

Rugby match featuring members of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), c1942

Rugby match featuring members of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), c1942

A sporting life

The attraction of a sporting life was especially true for officers from the sport-dominated public schools. However, by the late 19th century sport was such a key part of British popular culture that working class men were no doubt equally attracted by the opportunity to exercise their athletic prowess. Certainly, access to facilities and equipment, alongside the amount of time given over to play, would have been appealing to soldiers from both classes.

Sport was a way of making military life more attractive and fitted into the overall improvement in conditions of service that took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The emphasis on sport in attracting recruits continued into the modern era. A 1972 recruitment pamphlet declared: 'You'd have to be a very rich civilian indeed to take part in all the sport available to the average infantryman.'

'Are You Fond of Games?', recruitment poster, 1919

'I joined because I enjoy being physically challenged. I enjoyed sports at school. The Army came in to do a "look at life" sort of day and I really enjoyed it and thought I'd like the physical side to it.'
Sergeant Chris Barnes, 3rd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (Duke of Wellington's), 2011


Sport certainly had an influence on officer recruitment to the Indian Army. The availability of activities such as polo, at a price that made them affordable to most officers for the first time, was a key factor in the appeal of that force.

Cheap ponies and cheap grooms in India made the sport accessible to infantry and artillery as well as cavalry officers. This, and the official encouragement of the sport as an ideal training for war, meant that almost every barracks and cantonment in India had a polo field.

The Queen's Own Corps of Guides polo team, 1905


The formation of the 'New Armies' during World War One (1914-18) allowed footballers to enlist en masse in 'Pals' battalions. Clapton Orient (now Leyton Orient FC) were the first English Football League club to enlist together. Following the example of club captain, Fred Parker, around 40 players and staff volunteered.

They joined the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, which was known as the 'Football Battalion' and soon went on to attract players from other clubs.

Footballers of 17th Battalion, The Duke of Cambridge's Own (Middlesex Regiment), 1915

This photograph depicts several players from the battalion, including Richard McFadden of Orient (seated centre) who was awarded the Military Medal before being mortally wounded during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Standing second right is Frank Bullock of Huddersfield Town and England, who survived the war. Edwin Latheron of Blackburn Rovers and England stands second from the left. He was killed at Passchendaele in October 1917.


This was a sport in which various balancing acts were performed on a 13-feet-high teak pole set in the ground.

It was one of several traditional village pastimes kept up in the Indian Army's Maratha battalions during active service.

The Marathas were one of India's so-called 'Martial Races' and the British went to great lengths to recruit them into the Army.

Maintaining ancient Maratha sports, like Malkam and wrestling, was no doubt a useful recruiting tool.

Members of the 5th Mahratta Light Infantry playing Malkam, 1937


Certain British Army regiment's excelled at specific sports. This was used to recruit individuals who favoured these pursuits. The Duke of Wellington's Regiment (West Riding), for example, was enhanced by the recruitment of officers and men with a flair for rugby.

Indeed, 11 international players, seven English, one Irish and three Scottish, have served in the regiment. Since 1914 over 50 players from 'The Dukes' have been capped for the British Army in matches against the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Today, its successor unit continues to attract rugby players.

Regimental rugby, 1950s

Regimental rugby, 1950s

‘There was a company commander at Sandhurst who was in charge of recruiting officers into this battalion, and... being a rugby player - and it's a rugby regiment - I was captain of the Sandhurst rugby team and that was my destiny!'
Captain Andrew Bond, 3rd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (Duke of Wellington's), 2011

A positive image

Another way in which sport has aided recruitment is by raising the profile of the Army in wider society. By playing against civilian teams and competing in civilian contests, Army sportsmen projected a positive image of military life to potential recruits.

Army participation in equestrian events like show jumping, horse racing and tent-pegging also provided soldiers with the opportunity to enhance their training while mixing with society.

An officer of the 15th/19th King's Royal Hussars at an eventing contest, 1945

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