The outbreak of war in 1914 prompted the recruitment and training of British soldiers on an unprecedented scale. They all needed to be prepared for one of the deadliest, most gruelling conflicts in human history – here's how they trained
Thursday 14th August 2014
In his new book, Fighting Fit 1914, Adam Culling, curator of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps Museum, explores the equipment and training manuals used to prepare recruits for war, to offer an insight into how the physical instructor kept the British soldier ‘fighting fit’.
Here, writing for History Extra, Culling shares 10 golden rules of fitness for the First World War soldier.
1. Listen to your instructor
The commands given by army gymnastic staff instructors should be followed at all times, not simply because they are senior non-commissioned officers, or because their physique is a clear sign of their prowess at demonstrating physical training. Their experience and valuable knowledge will help guide you, motivate you, and instil a sense of self-belief that you have been trained, not just to be fit, but to be fighting fit!
2. Keep it interesting
Physical training needn’t be boring. It is true that the training tables produced by the army gymnastic staff will become progressively more demanding, so recruits and trained soldiers alike will be pushed to achieve their optimum physical potential. However, time can be set aside during the physical training sessions for games such as Indian club relay-races, wrestling for pegs, and bomb ball, which are not only fun and add a competitive element to training, but also provide practical application of the exercises from the training tables.
3. Don’t run before you can walk
Physical training tables have been developed using scientific principles and in-depth knowledge of human physiology. With this in mind, make sure you do not skip a table and hope to make it up another day. They have been designed to be progressive, and the completion of one table will ensure you are ready to continue with the next, steadily improving your physical development.
4. Be realistic
The amount of time available for physical and recreational training will vary depending on where you are located – those soldiers in the trenches will clearly not have the same access as those in the rear to space and equipment to carry out certain activities. Training tables have been developed to allow these soldiers to perform exercises throughout the day as the opportunity arises. No need to worry though, your instructor will not announce to the Germans when you are exercising! Commands relating to your exercises will be performed by a show of fingers.
5. Training for sport is training for war
Sports and games are the natural way to train for war. Football, cricket, boxing, etc mimic battle, and develop the qualities needed for war. But participation in sport and games should be voluntary, as the voluntary spirit is the spirit of ‘one more effort’.
6. Stick it!
What compels a man in war? The ‘fighting spirit’ of course – but what does this mean? Is it dashing over the top? No, it is ‘sticking it’ – sticking it to the hardships of war, sticking it when you are injured, sticking it when you are sick, sticking it when you’re tired or have heard bad news or are on the back foot.
And how is this fighting spirit indoctrinated? Through a soldier’s participation in games. If you are hit by a punch in a boxing bout, do you bow down and walk away? No, you clench your teeth, hide your feelings from your opponent and fight back. That is the fighting spirit; that is sticking it!
7. Make it count
Physical training and bayonet training, both under the control of army gymnastic staff instructors, are carried out for the benefit of you, the soldier, but more importantly for the soldiers either side of you.
It is essential that a soldier takes advantage of the opportunities to carry out such training, and when doing so, makes every exercise and every attack performed on a bayonet training dummy count.
As the bayonet training manual says, “each dummy must be regarded as an actual armed opponent”, and each armed opponent will become an actual dummy when he meets the British soldier.
As with nearly every aspect of military life, there are times that the soldier will have to improvise to carry out their physical and bayonet training. The exercises compiled in the training tables provide enough scope for an instructor to supplement or improvise the necessary equipment required to carry out the exercise.
When the apparatus cannot be improvised, many of the exercises may be completed regardless. When bayonet fencing rifles are in short supply, use sticks. When no assault course exists, simply fill hessian sacks with straw and soil, and suspend the sack from a rope hanging from a tree. By being resourceful, your training continues.
9. Too sick to train?
At times you may become injured or sick and unable to train. While this may be frustrating, it is important that you adhere to the medical staff’s advice and only conduct exercises that are suited to your current situation. Remedial training tables have been developed to allow those suffering from constipation and slight stomach troubles, for example. The exercises are not severe and can be beneficial, but if there is any question of ulcers or diarrhoea they should not be performed.
10. LISTEN TO YOUR INSTRUCTOR!
This point cannot be stressed more emphatically. The gymnastic staff instructors and assistant instructors are experts in physical conditioning. Their training is scientific in nature, and their knowledge of human physiology and anatomy is second only to medical professionals.
Fighting Fit 1914 (Amberley Publishing) is now on sale. To find out more click here.
If you enjoyed this article why not subscribe to the print edition of BBC History Magazine? Alternatively, subscribe to the magazine digitally – on iPad and iPhone, Kindle and Kindle Fire, Google Play and Zinio.