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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: December 2012

4 - The amateur era, 1919–39


The Army Sport Control Board has … been constituted to encourage and assist sport in the Army by eliminating the taint of professionalism and gambling which resulted so often in unhealthy antagonism rather than healthy rivalry … by providing the facilities for universal participation by officers and other ranks; [and] by ensuring that the game is played in the proper spirit for the game’s sake and for the side, remembering that this great war has been won by all from nations to platoons ‘playing for the side’.

Games and Sport in the Army (Issued by the A.S.C.B.), 1919

The inter-war years were difficult ones for the services, especially the army, yet curiously propitious for service sport. For most of the period the armed services remained small, subject to increasing financial stringency, and unclear about the roles they were intended to serve. The Ten Year Rule, laid down in August 1919 and renewed in 1928 on a rolling basis, stated that no major war was to be expected within the next decade. Until it was abandoned in 1932 the services were subject to repeated economic cuts of which the army bore the brunt. The Geddes Axe of 1922 led to the disbanding of twenty-two infantry battalions, while the cavalry were reduced, in part by amalgamations, from twenty-eight to twenty regiments; the national crisis of 1931 brought all servicemen and officers a 10 per cent pay cut. Rearmament began only in 1934 and was hamstrung by continuing uncertainty about the army’s priorities. How far, if at all, should it prepare for a commitment on continental Europe? Or should it confine itself to the ‘limited liability’ of imperial defence? These were not circumstances to encourage a forward-thinking, professional army. For the Royal Artillery, Bidwell and Graham chart a decline from pre-war professionalism and a successful adaptation to the challenges of the Western Front to an organisation that by the 1930s was marked by conservatism, suspicion of innovation and, for officers, adherence to a narrow social code that included ‘an affectation of professional ignorance’. The causes of this deterioration included uncertainty about the Artillery’s future role, understaffing, poor prospects of promotion, and the deficiencies of officer education. One of its main symptoms was the ‘swingletree factor’ – an obsessive interest in horses (the Artillery was overwhelmingly horse-drawn for most of the inter-war period) coupled with a striking lack of interest in gunnery.