Philip Barker

A century before Prince Harry devised the Invictus Games for wounded servicemen, soldiers took part in a major sporting event to celebrate the end of the First World War.

An American, Elwood Stanley Brown, suggested a "great set of military Olympic Games". These became known as the "Inter Allied Games" and were held in 1919.

Brown had served in France as Athletic director of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). On October 15th, 1918, he sent a "Proposed athletic programme for the demobilisation period" to Colonel Bruce Palmer.

"Peace, whether it comes tomorrow or many months from now, should find us in a state of preparedness against the inevitable period of relaxation that must be met when hostilities cease," it read.

Brown warned of the dangers of "disorderly physical expression" and insisted "physical action will be the call, games and play.’’

He suggested a programme of "athletics for everybody" and physical pageants "demonstrating to our allied friends, America’s best in sport".

Soon after the war ended in November 1918, Edward Carter, chief secretary of the American YMCA, advised that "speedy action is desirable regarding the whole proposition". Funds were set aside to provide sporting equipment.

Prince Harry devised the Invictus Games, first held in 2014 ©Getty Images
Prince Harry devised the Invictus Games, first held in 2014 ©Getty Images

"All commanders will as far as consistent with military duties ,encourage in every way possible, athletic sports and competitions of all kinds, especially those in which the greatest numbers of participants are actively engaged," said a military order.

James W. McAndrew of the General Staff sent a further communiqué to "authorise all commanding officers to excuse from all military training in excess of four hours per day all of the men of their commands who take part actively each day in any of the athletic sports".

Plans were also pressing ahead for the Inter Allied Games. The name "Olympic" was carefully avoided.

An international advisory committee was founded and met for the first time in Paris on 25th May 1919.

"I ask of your hearty cooperation. Realising the pitfalls which have heretofore always lain in the path of international athletic competitions, we feel that with your cooperation and assistance many of these difficulties will be obviated," said Colonel Wait Chatterton Johnson of the US Army.

This committee included notable personalities including Miguel Ydigoras of Guatemala, later to lead his country. The Guatemalans sent one competitor to the Games, Lieutenant Arthur Aguirre, a sprinter who raced in the 100 metres.

American commander General John Pershing sent out the official invitations.

"I have the honour to invite you to participate in the contests and express the earnest hope that many may do so and that the ties of the much cherished spirit of comradeship which have sprung up from the gallant joint efforts of our forces on the battle field may be even more closely cemented," the invitation read.

Prince Harry's concept has rich tradition, with the Inter-Allied Games first held in 1919 ©Getty Images
Prince Harry's concept has rich tradition, with the Inter-Allied Games first held in 1919 ©Getty Images

Those from the defeated nations of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Germany were excluded and were also banned from the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games.

Participation was open to all allied soldiers who had served in the war and the response was positive.

"I am giving orders that every facility be given the armies under my command," said Marshall Petain of the French forces.

General William Birdwood, Commander of the Australian Imperial Forces told organisers: "Every effort will be made to send the most representative athletes in the A.I.F. to compete at this classic gathering of warrior sportsmen.’’

China did not sent competitors but showed their support by donating gold and silver cups and a vase.

US President Woodrow Wilson presented a bronze sculpture by Alfred-Desire Lanson which depicted the successful return of Jason after his quest for the golden fleece.

Brazil, Siam (Thailand) and Japan did not sent athletes because of the distances involved but despatched messages of encouragement.

Three nations which participated didn’t even exist at the start of the war. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hedjaz were so unfamiliar that French seamstresses were employed to make up their flags. Hedjaz, now part of Saudi Arabia and Oman, sent a small delegation with Arab thoroughbred horses and camels and also gave exhibitions of sword dancing.

Twenty-six sports were planned. Cricket was included as a courtesy to expected entries. 

It was ‘’given up when the three Dominions decided not to enter teams against each other." American intercollegiate football had also been envisaged but this too was dropped for lack of entries.

A bayonet competition was also considered because it had been part of the training for soldiers but it was decided that there "could be no satisfactory manner of judging such a competition" and the committee rejected it.

Grenade throwing events were in. They "created considerable discussion and attracted much interest during their progress".

Newspapers of the time also noted that France "will be particularly strong" in the event.

In fact it was eventually won by an American army chaplain, Captain Fred Thompson, with a distance of 74.929m, billed as a world record.

Most other sports were "standard events usually held in great meets and in no way reflected the gigantic contests fought out on the battlefields of the Western front".

Even so, organisers claimed a "varied and intensely interesting series of competitions" were on the programme.

The centerpiece was to be the Pershing Stadium. This was on the outskirts of Paris in le Bois de Vincennes near Joinville le Point.

It was built specially for the Games. The concrete structures were completed by American troops at a cost of 450,000 French francs. A further 150.000 French Francs had been set aside for equipping the stadium.

A number of traditional sports were on the programme at the 1919 Inter Allied Games ©AOC
A number of traditional sports were on the programme at the 1919 Inter Allied Games ©AOC

No charge was made for tickets at the events. Information booths were set up in "all prominent points" in Paris. For the official participants free Ice cream and other dainties were on offer.

President Wilson and French Premier Georges Clemenceau were unable to attend the opening but "approximately 90,000 filled every possible seating space, overflowed on the grounds or stormed in vain outside the circular walls in efforts to get a glimpse of the ceremonies inside", according to organisers.

The band of the Garde Republicaine led a grand parade with representatives of the French military schools of St Cyr and the Polytechnic. An American colour guard carried the stars and stripes and a French guard of honour escorted their battle standards. French President Raymond Poincare and General Pershing made an inspection on the field.

The parade of around 1,500 athletes was led by France and the United States brought up the rear, before the sport began the following day.

Speculation that the French boxing champion Georges Carpentier would compete came to nothing despite reports that had been in "active training since the armistice was signed".

The boxing did feature America’s Eddie Eagan, who won the middleweight division. The following year he took light heavyweight gold at the Antwerp Olympics. In 1932, he also won gold in bobsleigh, the first Summer and Winter Olympic champion.

American boxer Eddie Eagan, right, was among the participants at the 1919 event ©Getty Images
American boxer Eddie Eagan, right, was among the participants at the 1919 event ©Getty Images

Another American, heavyweight Bob Martin - described as a "green" boxer - won his title by "terrific hitting and his ability to coordinate muscle and mind". It took him only one minute and thirty six seconds to stop Australian champion Captain Gordon Coghill, a fighter who'd been expected to win.

On the athletics track, Charley Paddock of the USA completed the sprint double. The following year Paddock won 100m Olympic gold.

Rugby Union took place at the Stade de Colombes. Three teams entered - the US, Romania and France.

The French beat the Americans but the match was a close one. England, Australia and New Zealand did not send teams; they also snubbed the Olympic rugby tournaments in 1920 and 1924.

France won the team event in golf. Arnaud Massy, the first French winner of the Open Championship in 1907, demonstrated his mastery of matchplay to win the individual competition five and four.

Entries had included two British players Aubrey and Percy Boomer but they were disqualified for arriving late. Despite this setback both enjoyed careers as professionals later in the decade.

The Belgians beat France to win the water polo. In their team was one Lieutenant Victor Boin. The following year in Antwerp, Boin, a fine all-round sportsman who also fenced, became the first man to speak the Olympic Oath.

Swimming was at the Mare de St James, a lake in the Bois de Bologne. "Tents were erected for dressing rooms and other comforts were arranged for the swimmers", according to officials, who added "this was probably the most picturesque setting ever for a swim meet".

The outstanding performer was Norman Ross, a second lieutenant in the United States Air Service.

He won the 100m freestyle, 100m backstroke, 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle. It was little wonder that he was given a standing ovation by the crowd and departed with a collection of trophies, many of which had been given by the French President Poincare.

At the Olympics the following year, Ross won three gold medals.

Arnaud Massy, the first French winner of the Open Championship in 1907, led France to team glory in Paris ©Getty Images
Arnaud Massy, the first French winner of the Open Championship in 1907, led France to team glory in Paris ©Getty Images

The legacy of the Games to the city of Paris was the stadium in which they had taken place.

In the terms of the deed, the stadium was to be "for the sole use and exclusive benefit of the people of France".


International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Pierre de Coubertin, concerned about reviving the Olympics after the war, described the Inter-Allied Games as "extremely useful and showed that muscular value and sporting enthusiasm were not on the decline".

Elwood Brown was, he said, "a keen advocate and champion of Olympism", and Brown was invited to speak to the IOC session the following year in Antwerp.