By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
One of the most popular spring events in the late Victorian camp was the Aldershot Military Tournament, held annually in April or May from 1884 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
Sporting events had been common in Aldershot since the founding of the Camp. Initially these had been unit sports arranged by the individual battalions or regiments, but as early as 1861 there was an Aldershot Camp Athletic Sports meeting open to the whole division. As the Army Gymnastic Staff (the forebears of today’s Royal Army Physical Training Corps) had been formed in Aldershot only the year before, the local Sheldrake’s Aldershot Military Gazette announced the event with the expectation that “the effect of gymnastic instruction will be strikingly apparent at the meeting”. At these early meetings the events were mainly the standard races and field events we would recognise today, such as foot races both flat and over hurdles, and field events such as throwing the hammer and putting the shot. However there were some events which were more specifically military, such as the 300 yards race in heavy marching order, and also more light-hearted races, such as a wheelbarrow race and bucket race (over 50 yards, the carriers of the two fullest buckets to get prizes, “holding allowed, but no pads”).
Parallel with the athletics meetings, from 1863 the Gymnastic Staff held an annual “Grand Assault at Arms”. This was a demonstration of skill-at-arms, and included events such as ‘sword versus bayonet’, ‘single sticks’, and fencing with foils and broadswords. The events were largely demonstrations but with a competitive edge. At the first event in 1863 it was reported that a single-stick bout between two NCOs ended quickly when one participant received an accidental severe blow to the leg and had to retire. His place was quickly taken by another competitor, but after a few minutes a number of other men ran into the arena and a mêlée ensued which “caused great merriment” to the spectators. Similarly the boxing display had two corporals who sparred with each other for a while, but then six or eight other competitors rushed into the ring “and a mêlée instantly took place that drew forth loud laughter and applause from the assembly”. To add to the entertainment in the intervals between events there was music from the bands of the 60th Rifles and the 87th Royal Irish Fusiliers.
With the popularity of the Assault at Arms events, in the 1870s the Annual Athletics Meeting was extended to two days and a number of the combat events added. In 1877, for example, after a first day of track and field events, finishing with the popular Tug of War competition, the second day included skill-at-arms events such as sword (mounted) versus bayonet (dismounted), ‘Tent-pegging’ and ‘Cutting lemons’. Tent-pegging was a cavalry sport, in which pegs were placed in the ground at various intervals, and riders with lances galloped along the line and attempted to spear a peg and carry it away. In ‘Cutting lemons’ riders used their swords to slice through lemons set on poles while galloping at speed.
The first national “Grand Military Tournament and Assault-at-Arms” was held at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, on 21-26 June 1880. Although the first event was not a commercial success the organisers persisted with holding annual events, each growing more popular and profitable. By 1883 it gained royal patronage and was renamed “The Royal Military Tournament”. To avoid lengthy heats at Islington for the numerous competitions, the organisers decided that each district in the Army would be encouraged to hold its own annual tournament and the winners of these events would compete at Islington for the national prizes. A number of bronze medals were offered to the local Commands, and the District tournaments became known as the Bronze Medal Tournaments.
The first Military Tournament in Aldershot was held on Friday 23 June 1884 in North Camp. The Tournaments had no athletics events, which remained in the Annual Athletic Meeting, but they quickly became the premier events for the skill-at-arms competitions. Extended to two days, the Aldershot Military Tournaments were immensely popular with units in the Camp and with the general public. Of all the district Bronze Medal tournaments, Aldershot quickly became recognised as the most prestigious, ranking second only to Islington.
The now familiar combat sports were regular fixtures, including sword versus bayonet, sword versus lance, bayonet versus bayonet, lance versus bayonet, etc, plus the ever-popular tug of war, tent-pegging and lemon-cutting. To these were added the cavalry sports of ‘Cutting at Turks’ Heads’, in which dummy “heads” were placed on uprights to the right and left of a rider who galloped down between them cutting at each as he passed, and ‘Tilting at the Ring’, which was similar except that instead of “heads” there were rings suspended from hooks, which the rider attempted to carry off with the point of his sword.
A team event open to all units was pitching tents. Each team had five men and one NCO. The competition started with the tents and poles in bags on the ground, which the men had to unpack and put up as quickly as possible. After the tents had been inspected there was a second leg in which the tents were taken down and packed back into the bags.
Other competitions allowed the various arms to demonstrate their specialist skills. For the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and Army Service Corps there were driving competitions, the artillery with gun teams and the others with wagons, in which the teams had to negotiate a course of tight gates and turns either at the trot or at the gallop. For the Royal Engineers there was a bridge building competition between two teams of 16 men and one NCO, who had to construct a bridge as quickly as possible. The finished work was inspected to ensure it was properly built before being dismantled in the second part of the race. On the competition’s first appearance in 1884 the winning time was 8 minutes and 15 seconds to erect the bridge and 6 minutes 20 seconds to take it down. For Scottish regiments there were competitions for Highland Dancing (the Sword Dance) and the Highland Fling. In 1902 a specialist competition was added for the Army Service Corps, who had to pack wagons and saddlery as if for embarkation. The two best ASC companies from Aldershot and Woolwich went on to the final at Islington where a highly attractive prize of £40 was on offer for the winner.
Military bands played in intervals throughout the day, and the public particularly enjoyed some of the more ‘spectacular’ events, such as the ‘Balaclava Mêlée’. This was another cavalry sport, in which two opposing forces were dressed in masks and round helmets, on top of which was a white or red paper plume. On the starting signal the players rode at each other armed with sticks and attempted to knock off the opposing side’s plumes. The team which lost all its plumes first was the loser. The Navy and Army Illustrated reported that the mêlées “provide the spectators with several minutes’ genuine amusement”. For the infantry there was a similar game, but the “riders” were on the shoulders of their comrades and armed with mops covered with either flour or soot: “This procedure produces a series of studies in black and white which are hailed with general laughter.”
An event open to any mounted troops was ‘The Victoria Cross Race’. This had originated in India and was first run in Britain in 1885, when the Royal Artillery in Aldershot included it in their Sports Day, and it soon became a popular event in the Military Tournament. In the race several riders attempted to pick up their “fallen comrades”, represented by stuffed dummies, and return with their “comrade” to the start. They had to negotiate various obstacles and jumps on the way to the dummy and on the ride back, and throughout the “enemy” fired blank ammunition in an attempt to distract men and horses, and to make the whole event more entertaining for the crowd. As the Aldershot Military Gazette reported in 1902: “The greater the excitement and the greater the risk, the greater too is the appreciation of the onlookers”.
Aldershot enjoyed its annual Tournaments and was proud of the fine record of local men in the national Royal Military Tournament in London “where the Aldershot champions usually succeed in holding their own … and gold medals and nice money prizes usually come back to Aldershot from the Hall”. The Tournaments came to an end with the outbreak of war in 1914. When the Royal Tournament in London was revived in 1919 its character changed away from the old skill-at-arms competitions to more emphasis on displays and demonstrations, evolving into the Royal Tournament familiar in more recent times.
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 007, April 2016/May 2016
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.