Canadian Expeditionary Force (22) Canadian Army Gymnastics Staff

Canadian Army Gymnastics Staff

Canadian Army Gymnastic Staff

The Canadian Army Gymnastic Staff was a small cadre of specialists who provided training to the personnel to become the qualified instructors in physical training, bayonet fighting, recreational training and remedial gymnastics for the Canadian Army Overseas. The school, this was originally located at Shorncliffe but later moved to Bordon. All instructors had previously been wounded in the field. The cap and collar badges were worn only by the instructors at the school and not by their students, a uniform has been noted with a collar badges also worn on the shoulder straps. A larger size badge was also worn as a sleeve badge over the chevrons by sergeant instructors both at the school and by the NCO graduates. During the course of the First World War, a total of 1,300 Officers and 2,966 Other ranks attended courses provided by the Canadian Army Gymnastic Staff.

Captain Thomas Bellasyse Colley lead the Canadian Army Gymnastics Staff in 1918, and wrote the War Diary during this time.

Army Gymnastic Staff, BEF Sgt B A McDonnell, possibly on the on the staff at No 1 RGA Officer School Trowbridge, June 1917. GS Staff Instructors (SIs) wore the AGS badge and were posted from unit to unit, as well as taking turns at the central gymnasium (at Aldershot) training Assistant Instructors (AIs), who then returned to their parent units to assist the resident AGS instructor.

AIs were trained at Aldershot at said central Gymnasium and, provided they passed the course and thus were 'qualified', returned as AIs, wearing their own cap badges, but employed in the unit Gym to maintain the fitness of their unit's personnel.

When the Swedish system of physical training (PT) was introduced into the British Army in 1906 changes were made to the methodology applied to physical training programmes. Heavy training systems gave way to the use of lighter and more varied combinations of PT equipment. High-ranking Army officers, medical officer's, civilians who were interested in physical education, and health promotion organizations, all welcomed the new system with enthusiasm. The Official ‘Manual of Physical Training’, which complemented this process was produced by Major Charles Moore and published in 1908. The manual was so well thought of in Holland that it was translated into Dutch and used extensively. The bitter opposition to any form of change or science and thought at this time, along with the unpopularity of Physical Training generally, began to give way to almost universal approval. The new system was used throughout the 1914-18 war and the post war period, proving that it was technologically and psychologically sound and as up to date as possible in those days. In 1907 an officer instructor was added to the staff at the HQ Gymnasium at Aldershot and official recognition was given to boxing instruction. There followed a period of growth and development in all aspects of physical training.

When war began in 1914 all instructors were recalled to their parent units and a skeleton staff of 15 was left at the AGS School in Aldershot. However, this was soon recognised as a great mistake; as a result they were called back to physical training duties in units, where they originally served as instructors. There was a high demand for more AGS Instructors, which resulted in an increase of staff to over 2,299 from a pre-war total of 72.

Colonel V.A. Couper, Rifle Brigade, who had been Inspector up to the outbreak of the War, had the task of recreating the AGS with 80 NCOs. During the war period over 2,000 officers and 22,500 NCOs trained as assistant instructors. Amongst them were many famous sportsmen such as Boxers ‘Jimmy Wilde’ and Bombardier ‘Billy Wells’.

In 1916 general PT schools were established in France and Instructors served in all theatres of war including Italy, Salonika and Mesopotamia. At that time ‘Bayonet Fighting’ was considered to be the most important physical training skill taught by Staff Instructors.

In March 1916 Major R.B. Campbell of the Army Gymnastic Staff, a former army middleweight boxing champion, was sent to France with fifty-one instructors for two months to set up demonstrations at the base camps of Etaples, Rouen, and Le Havre. The group was later transferred to the Third Army School at Flixecourt and in May 1916 relocated with them to Auxi-le-Chateau. Early in 1917 the Physical and Bayonet Training School moved to St. Pol and became a permanent part of the BEF's establishment. The School put on short courses for junior officers and NCOs who would then return to their units as P&BT instructors.

Campbell became notorious for his bloodthirsty lectures on the "spirit of the bayonet." His influence in cementing the place of sport in the BEF has gone less remarked upon. Campbell was a vocal believer in the link between sport and war ("What qualities prevail in games?" he asked in a lecture in 1915, "Physical fitness, executive action, and confidence--the three essential qualities for war"). Several famous professional boxers became Sergeant Major and Sergeant Instructors at St. Pol, including Johnny Basham, Jim Driscoll, Jimmy Wilde, and the British heavyweight champion Billy Wells. In September 1916, the P&BT staff were given overall responsibility for organizing sport and providing the appropriate equipment in the BEF. Funding for sports gear, amounting to 20,000 [pounds sterling] by January 1918, was raised by the Expeditionary Force Canteen, "largely from the Dripping Fund." In December Frank Starr, who had been running a campaign in the Athletic News for sports organization at the front, joined the staff as assistant to the Superintendent of Physical and Bayonet Training in France, with the temporary rank of Captain and responsibility for organizing "Recreational Training." Courses were given on sporting organization and ideology, and Starr encouraged the establishment of competitive structures where they did not already exist. He was particularly keen on promoting boxing and football, and a system of team boxing was introduced to encourage mass participation and "playing for the side."

In October 1918 Lt Col R.B. Campbell became Inspector and it is interesting to note that the Third Army, which was the first to fully appreciate physical training and bayonet skills training, was to make such a firm and magnificent stand against the German advance in 1918. During the war 33 members of the AGS were killed in action and many others were wounded and subsequently decorated for their outstanding courage. (Frogsmile)

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