"The army isn't all work": Physical culture in the evolution of the British army, 1860-1920


“The army isn’t all work”: Physical culture in the evolution of the British army, 1860-1920

By James Dunbar Campbell

PhD Dissertation, University of Maine, 2003

Abstract: Between the Crimean War and the end of WWI the British Army underwent a dramatic change from being an anachronistic and frequently ineffective organization to being perhaps the most professional and highly trained army in the world. British Army physical culture was a central part of that transformation. It acted as a significant bridge between the Army and its parent society, over which flowed ideas and values in both directions. An investigation of the Army’s physical culture provides an excellent means of gaining a clear understanding of how this transformation occurred.




This dissertation does two primary things: First, it documents the origins and development of formal physical training in the late Victorian Army, and the ways in which the Army’s gymnastic training evolved into what was perhaps the most important building block of the process of making a civilian into a fighting man. Second, it assesses the nature and extent of British military sport, particularly regimental sports, during the Victorian period and through WWI. During WWI the pre-war programs of physical training and command-sponsored games acted as a powerful means of assimilating the Commonwealth’s civilian-soldiers. and then ensured that they were physically and mentally prepared for the rigors of fighting. Additionally, these same programs had been used since the middle of the nineteenth century to improve the perceived military effectiveness of Britain’s imperial troops, and to inculcate them with the same ethos of athleticism that was a seminal part of the British Army’s philosophy of training and leadership.

The role of sport and physical training in the process of remaking the Army between 1860 and 1920 is only a small piece of the whole, but a critical one. British Army physical culture before and during WWI was an integral part of the Army’s modem and highly effective training program. Much of current research on both WWI and the period before has tended to emphasize the unprepared and unprofessional nature of Britain’s army; my research not only suggests the contrary, but that sport and physical training in the Army were major contributors to the Army’s effectiveness throughout the period.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Maine

About Early Modern England