October 18 – Sports and the First World War
First World War Centennial Speaker Series

First World War Centennial Speaker Series
Stephen Brunt and Bob Weeks
Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame
Winnipeg, MB
October 18, 2018

On October 18, 2018, Stephen Brunt of Sportsnet and Bob Weeks of TSN spoke with assembled guests at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame about the important role of sports and entertainment during the First World War.

As a contributor to our new publication They Fought in Colour from Dundurn Press, Stephen Brunt has written:

“Art and sport are part of what defines us as human, even when faced with inhuman conditions. During the First World War, on the front lines and anywhere else where troops were assembled, trained, or taken to heal, games and entertainment emerged organically in the most dire circumstances imaginable. We want to play; we want to sing and dance and be entertained; we want to laugh and cry and cheer and interact as an audience. That’s true even near the battlefield.”

He spoke to guests at our event about why the military would have encouraged soldiers to play sports and games while they were overseas:

And they played many different types of sport while in the military. A makeshift game of cricket, a rugby match: these were common for many of the British troops and Canadians at the time. Football (soccer to most North Americans these days) was the most popular pastime on both sides of the lines, and only needing a ball and some goal posts certainly made it easy to create a match.

Brunt writes: “The Canadians and the Newfoundlanders were certainly familiar with those British games, but they also brought with them sports that were distinctly North American — baseball, whenever someone could round up a ball and bat and gloves, and in wintertime, if there was ice, if there were skates, a game of shinny would inevitably break out, providing both some much-needed fun and a reminder of home.”

Nova Scotians returning to camp after a game of baseball, Feb 1918. Library and Archives Canada / PA-002464. (modified from the original). Provided by The Vimy Foundation. Colourization by Canadian Colour.

Many Canadian athletes of the early 20th century enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and went overseas to join the fight. Six of these outstanding athletes had already represented Canada in the Olympic Games by the time the war broke out. Bob Weeks discussed their potential motivation and highlights Alex Decoteau in particular:


Learn more about Alex Decoteau in reading his service file from Library and Archives Canada.

Alex Decoteau, courtesy of the Saskatchewan Public Archives.

On Dominion Day during the last year of the war, fifty thousand Canadians assembled for sporting events at Tincques, fourteen miles west of Arras, in northern France. It was the Canadian Corps Championships of July 1, 1918.

A view of the grounds from an aeroplane, Tinques. Canadian Corps Sports, France. July, 1918. Library and Archives Canada / PA-003237

Engineers had put together a stadium, VIP platform, and theatre stage. Many distinguished guests attended, including Sir Robert Borden, General John J. Pershing (Commander-in-chief, American Expeditionary Forces) and the Duke of Connaught, with Lt.-Gen. Arthur Currie as the Honorary President of the event. The Canadian YMCA provided the equipment and décor, and catered the refreshments for the non-officers. The events of the day included more traditional sports competitions – foot races, baseball, boxing, lacrosse and tennis – as well as more unusual and fun events: pillow fighting, sack races, and tug-of-war.

The winners of the baseball game, Canadian Sports Championship Meet. July, 1918. PA-002836 Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada.

Stephen Brunt looks at other forms of entertainment during the First World War as well, writing:  “Music was also an important diversion for troops during the war. In addition to the formal military bands, if a soldier could play an instrument or was blessed with a fine singing voice, his comrades would call out for a tune. As with athletes, some of the best professional musicians were in uniform during the war, and their talents were particularly sought out.”

“In 1917, near Vimy Ridge, ten members of the Canadian Army 3rd Division got together under the direction of Mert Plunkett, and “The Dumbells” were born. The name came from the 3rd Division’s emblem, a red dumbbell symbolizing strength.”

The Dumbells entertained Canadian troops during war with music and comedy, and enjoyed such popularity that they continued touring for years after the war ended as well. You can catch a glimpse of what their musical comedy entailed by watching a tribute performance from Soldiers of Song, based on the original works of the Dumbells.

Discussion questions

– The Olympic Games is mentioned multiple times here. Athletes would have travelled to other parts of the world to compete against other countries in sports. Contrast this with their experiences travelling overseas to fight a war. Both war and the Olympics are often discussed through a lens of ‘nationalism’. Would there be a similar pride in one’s country? How would this change from a sporting competition to a war?

– Do you agree with Bob Weeks’ suggestion that athletes enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to be heroes? Why or why not? What does it mean to be a hero in wartime? What does it mean to be a hero in times of peace?

– This page contains photos that have been colourized. Use the Vimy 100 in the Classroom guide on ‘Photography in the First World War‘ to analyze the photos and the addition of colour.

– Sports helped keep soldiers in good physical condition, and helped with physical therapy as they recovered from injuries. Why would music and comedy have been important to soldiers?

– Why was it so important to his fellow soldiers that they recover the silver watch of Alex Decoteau? How do you imagine that they felt being able to send it home to his mother?