The outbreak of the First World War saw a massive expansion of the Armed Forces, with hundreds of thousands of men enlisting in a wave of patriotic enthusiasm. The new recruits were drawn from all sections and classes of society and included many professional and champion sportsmen. Large numbers of these were to find themselves transferred to the Army Gymnastic Staff (AGS).
AGS Instructors were responsible for the physical training of recruits and maintaining their effectiveness in the field. The rapid expansion of the Army necessitated a corresponding increase in their own numbers, with many likely candidates identified on the basis of their having a background in sport and physical education.
The ranks of the AGS were soon swelled with an influx of professional sportsmen, none more so than boxers. As an active and martial sport, boxing had long been one of the most favoured games practised by the Armed Forces. Regular bouts at all organisational levels were held throughout the War, including in operational theatres, where they were viewed as an important means of maintaining fitness and strengthening the morale of troops. Amongst these were numbered some of the most famous Pre-War boxing champions such as Billy Wells, Heavyweight Champion of Great Britain, Jimmy Wilde, Flyweight World Champion and Jimmy Driscoll, former Featherweight World Champion.
Many of these formed part of the personal entourage of Colonel R B Campbell CBE, DSO, Assistant Inspector of Physical Training and commander of the AGS in France. A powerful and charismatic figure, Campbell was famous for touring the line to deliver inspirational lectures on the use of the bayonet.
His entourage would accompany these speeches with frighteningly-realistic displays of bayonet fighting. Sparring in pairs and armed with naked steel, they would demonstrate how to attack and parry using a variety of fencing and unarmed combat techniques. These demonstrations were credited with significantly maintaining the morale and fighting spirit of troops.
The boxers and martial-arts specialists of the AGS also provided practical lessons for troops, teaching men the techniques needed for hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Captured German trench weapons were studied by these experts and counter-attacks devised to nullify their impact.
When not so engaged, many of the champion boxers continued to practise their sport and naturally formed the nucleus of the highly successful Army Boxing team which competed throughout the War. Their greatest success came in the month after the Armistice, when a celebratory Boxing tournament was held between the Armed Forces of the British Empire and the American Services.
The tournament was held at the Royal Albert Hall in London over the 11-12 December 1918, with 68 pugilists forming nine teams representing the British Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy/Marines, U.S Army, U.S Navy, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Individual bouts were fought over eight different weights, with competitors winning points for their respective teams.
Amidst great public interest, a strong U.S Army team finished second with an aggregate total of 39 points. The runaway winners with 50 points however, was the British Army team. They were presented with a magnificent specially-made shield, the King’s Trophy, by HRH The Prince of Wales in recognition of their triumph.
The British Army team comprised Sgt (S.I) J Percival D.C.M, M.M AGS, Sgt (S.I) N.H McCormack AGS, C.S.M.I D Smith AGS, Sgt (S.I) J Miller AGS, Sgt (S.I) J Basham AGS, C.S.M.I J Driscoll AGS, Q.M.S T Evans Royal Scots, Sgt (S.I) J Wilde AGS, Capt H Bruce-Logan Assistant Superintendent of Physical and Bayonet Training, Sgt (S.I) J Fullerton AGS, C.S.M.I W.T Wells AGS and was managed by R.S.M.I E Dent AGS.
The King’s Trophy is still awarded today to the winners of the British Army Boxing Association Inter-Unit Team Championship.