IWM Stories: Keeping Fit in a Crisis

Our museums may be temporarily closed, but we’ll continue to send you handpicked stories that resonate in remarkable times for your enjoyment at home. Your support – as ever – is appreciated.


Sport was popular during both the First and Second World Wars. It kept the soldiers fit and active, and was a great way to improve morale both on the front line and the home front.

War was not all work. During leisure time in the Second World War, troops enjoyed participating in entertainment and games. These moments of freedom also offered opportunities for sharing traditions from home.

Sport and physical activity were pastimes that could bring different nationalities together, with competitions between different battalions displaying their nation’s sporting traditions and abilities – from football matches, rugby and hockey, to volleyball and stilt-walking.

Similarly, during the First World War, all sorts of sports were enjoyed by soldiers and civilians alike. Whether it was an official tournament or a friendly kickabout, sports kept people fit and provided a welcome distraction from what was going on around them.

One of the most common pastimes on the Western front was football, as it was easy to set up and the rules were straightforward.

There were also cricket matches, though these were infrequent and brief as it was hard to find even stretches of grass, free from trees.

Rugby and boxing helped to let off steam, and those serving further afield in hot and dusty countries made outdoor swimming a regular hobby. On rare occasions even polo and fencing were arranged when troops were stationed far back from the front lines.

Less conventional exercise played a major role in maintaining troops’ fitness from 1914 to 1918. Cadets in the UK took part in regular military gym classes, held at university indoor tennis courts.

Physical trainers, who had been gymnastics or sports instructors before the war, were assigned to groups of soldiers – and a trend of fitness for wellbeing emerged.

This was baffling to some troops to begin with:

Of course we thought it was very funny at the time… ‘The idea is,’ he said, ‘when you men get out of bed,’ he said, ‘it pumps all the bad air out of you.’  

Percy Webb recounts a discussion about physical training at Bovington Camp in Dorset, which was led by champion boxer Bombardier Billy Wells.

Despite the rigour of maintaining fitness for combat, soldiers also enjoyed playing games and keeping fit in their free time. ‘Sports Days’ were held to give service personnel a break from their duties.

In May 1916, Allied troops stationed near Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece organised a Sports Field Day and officers, soldiers and medical staff were invited to join in.

Due to critically limited supplies, the organisers had to get creative.

They managed to arrange: blindfolded wheelbarrow races, sack races, and even mule riding races. Some soldiers did gymnastic displays, including human pyramids, while others showed their strength in a tug of war.

Some of these activities are still played at school sports days today – but many are a too little risky to try at home!


Exploring our online collections is a great way to hear and learn more about our stories. What’s more, you might stumble upon some tips for how to cope with life during lockdown!

Click the link below and discover a video guide to staying fit at home.




IWM’s collections include thousands of items that bring to life stories of conflict from across the globe.

As a charity, your support in helping us tell these stories is as appreciated as ever.


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