For soldiers in the First World War, sport was a way for them to escape the horrors of the battlefield or the monotony and dreadful conditions of prison camps. Sport was a part of soldiers’ lives, yet it is a subject not often touched upon in the various accounts of the Great War.
Floris van der Merwe’s book Sporting Soldiers goes a long way to change this.
The book primarily deals with South African troops’ sporting and leisure activities in German South West Africa, German East Africa, Great Britain, Egypt, Palestine, Gallipoli and France. There is also a comprehensive chapter on prisoners of war, particularly in Germany.
As stated in the introduction, “this publication is firstly a research report for the National Research Foundation, but a limited number of copies will also be published.” Indeed, the book is rather academic in origin but is readable enough.
The heavy use of primary sources and first-hand accounts as well as the extensive number of photos, illustrations and drawings bring the soldiers’ sporting activities to life and make it easy to relate to their experiences.
van der Merwe has written widely on sport history and has published two dozen books over the last 35 years and this deep background is clearly evident in the book.
Mainstream military historians have largely ignored the significant role at and behind the front line as well as in prisoner of war camps that sport played. Sporting Soldiers goes a very long way to remedying this situation and van der Merwe has done a sterling job examining this almost forgotten aspect of the First World War.
Floris van der Merwe
Sporting Soldiers: South African troops at play during World War I
FJG Publishers 2012