Royal Navy Field Gun Competition
In 1896 the first ‘all-naval’ display appeared in the programme of the Tournament. This comprised of cutlass drill and gun drill by forty ratings from HMS Excellent. The programme from the 1896 Tournament states:
“The guns are brought in and, after a short march around the arena, are cleared for action and one round is fired. Both wheels are shifted. The guns are then taken round the arena at the double and advance in close order, reversing twice in close order, they then wheel into the centre and salute.”
The display was so popular that it was repeated in 1897 and subsequent years. 9-pounder and 12-pounder guns were used in the displays.
In 1900 following the relief of Ladysmith during the South African campaign, Seaman from HMS Powerful brought a 4.7 inch gun into the arena at the Tournament. On this occasion, the gun was pulled by 4 oxen who were detached from their harness before one round was fired and the sailors manhandled the gun out of the arena to great applause from the audience.
The Naval involvement in the Victorian campaigns usually involved the landing of the Blue Jackets of the Naval Brigade with their ‘portable’ field guns alongside their comrades in the Army. It seems obvious that the Naval contribution to an event organised by the Army would include their famous guns.
In 1903, a party from HMS Excellent introduced an obstacle into their display. The guns and limbers of a four-gun battery were taken over a four-foot wall in the arena at Islington. In 1905, in the centenary year of the Battle of Trafalgar the event was renamed the Royal Naval & Military Tournament. Seaman from HMS Victory (RN Barracks, Portsmouth) introduced a further obstacle in the form of a bridge, too narrow for the guns to be hauled over in the usual manner.The following year, the Tournament was relocated to Olympia in West London. The larger arena allowed the display to be scaled up. In a combined display, Seamen from HMS Excellent and HMS Victory took their guns over two walls and two bridges.
With the displays of field gun drill now a firm favourite with the audiences at the Tournament, the first competition was staged in May 1907. Two gun crews of eighteen men from the commands of Portsmouth, Devonport and Chatham took part in the first competition.
Two crews competed at each afternoon performance. The crews started at one end of the arena and began by negotiating an obstacle of planks fixed at 18-inches above the ground. The guns were reassembled before taking them over a four-foot wall. The crews continued to the end of the arena and fired one round. The course was then negotiated in the opposite direction with the winner being the first crew to cross the original start line. The winning crew was awarded one point; the crew with the most points over the period of the Tournament was awarded a trophy. The winning crew in 1907 was HMS Cambridge, the gunnery school in Plymouth.
The course was changed in 1908 with a ‘chasm’ replacing the plank obstacle. The original chasm was formed by placing two ramps opposite each other at a distance of 7ft 6in apart. This was considered to be an ‘easy jump for an ordinary man’. Crews were not permitted to use any additional equipment to assist in transporting the gun and limber across the chasm.
In 1912 the organisers removed the chasm from the competition in favour of a single ramp which was negotiated on both the outward and homeward legs of the course. The chasm returned in 1913 and was extended to a distance of 30ft. Crews were permitted to use wires, ropes, spars etc to traverse the obstacle. In addition two five-foot walls were rigged at the ends of the arena. Although the chasm was reduced to 28ft the competition remained fundamentally the same throughout the interwar years. Aggregate Time and Fastest Time Cups were introduced in 1924.
Following the Second World War, the first post war Tournament was held in 1947 at Olympia with the addition of a crew representing the Fleet Air Arm. The Royal Tournament relocated for the final time in 1950 when it moved to the larger venue of Earls Court. Crews from Portsmouth, Devonport, Chatham and Fleet Air Arm competed at ‘The Court’ until 1960 when the Chatham Crew withdrew from the competition.
The remaining three crews participated until the final Royal Tournament 1999.