Formations In The Fens: Four Footnotes About Skating Soldiers

From America to Norway, from China to the great war on skates between the Dutch and the Spanish, tales of soldiers taking to the ice have been a constant throughout skating's colourful history. Today, on Skate Guard we'll be looking back at four vastly different accounts of skating soldiers!

In his 1892 study "Skating As A Recreation", John Moyer Heathcote noted that on January 1871 on the River Ouse in North Yorkshire he commanded the 1st Hunts R.V., a corps of two companies, to perform military drills on the ice. He recalled, "I ordered a parade without rifles or side-arms, but with skates, and more than half of the strength of the corps responded to the summons. The men 'fell in' single rank, and except when in 'skirmishing order,' joined hands. 'Formations of line from column,' 'column from line,', 'counter-marching' and light-infantry movements were executed with admirable precision and rapidity." Unpredictable weather conditions prevented Heathcote from further experiments with military skating.

"The First Lincolnshire Rifle Volunteers Taking A March Down The River Witham On Skates"

In the fen country of Lincolnshire County, rifle volunteers trained on skates at the Stamp End Loch and the River Witham in the winter of December 1860 under Captain Commandant A. [Arthur] Trollope. What a name! The January 19, 1861 issue of "The Illustrated London News" noted, "The three companies composing the 1st Lincolnshire Rifles drew up in line on the Witham, in the presence of an immense crowd of spectators assembled, despite the piercing cold, to view the novel sight. After the companies had been duly told off (and proved) by their commanders, the word 'Fours - Right!' was given, and the whole, led by their respective covering-sargeants, and flanked by their officers, started at a good steady pace, and proceeded several miles down the river, the inequalities of the ice requiring, as in a road march, the different evolutions of diminishing and increasing front, either by forming subdivisions and sections, or by proceeding in file, or in single rank, as the exigencies of the case required. The whole were very creditably performed. When some miles down the river, and where the increased width permitted, the corps were wheeled, formed into line. After being several hours on the ice, attaining an average speed of fourteen miles an hour, they were dismissed, invigorated, delighted with the novelty of their drill." The commonality between both of these experiments were the wheel formations, which technically would have been like an extremely early predecessor to the synchronized skating pinwheel.

Skating in Hyde Park, circa 1787

The final description of nineteenth century military skating in England we'll look at involves an actual simulation of combat that took place on the ice of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park in 1861. More than six thousand soldiers participated in this drill during an ice party similar to The River Thames Frost Fairs, "The Illustrated London News" noted that the soldiers, "many with lighted links and on skates, took up their positions at the east end, and formed themselves into processions, being headed by a brass band. After going through several feats of skating, they turned back to about midway of the bridge leading to the Albert-gate and the Royal Humane Society's receiving house, when some military manouevres were gone through in the shape of attack and defence. The first performance was a discharge of twenty-one maroons, after which a regular cannonading commenced from the south side of the Serpentine, which was carried out by chasserons being thrown alight across the river across the north shore; these were followed by a continuous shower of rockets, Roman candles, and other smaller description of fireworks, which lasted for several hours. The defensive party kept up a similar fire." The following day, a procession of three hundred skaters with lamps on their shoulders skated a procession and later, quadrilles were performed on the ice as a grand finale.

Engraving from William Belch's "Rural Scenes", 1825

The fourth and final tale we will explore today isn't actually of a skating soldier but instead of a skating Red Cross worker in the early twentieth century. Over a nine month period from October 1912 to July 1913, bloody conflicts known today as the Balkan Wars raged in southeastern Europe between forces from The Ottoman Empire and Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. An estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people died during the Wars but more lives were perhaps spared by yes, you guessed it... skating. In a letter to the "New Zealand Herald" published on September 27, 1935, a Swiss skater visiting Auckland recounted how - as a member of a Red Cross unit travelling with the Serbian army - he was dared to give a skating performance during a rare truce between the Ottoman and Serbian fighters on a river near Manastir Vilayet, which is now divided between Albania, Macadenia, Kosovo and Greece. The incident was described thusly: "One day, Mr. Corthesy said, he was feeling restless and somebody dared him to leave the line and go out on the ice on his skates. He accepted the challenge. He donned his blouse, which bore the red cross of his service, and put on his hat with its red cross badge. Then he fixed his skates to his boots and glided out on to the frozen river. The Serbian soldiers had ceased firing by arrangement, but the Turkish troops continued to shoot until they realised the extraordinary and harmless nature of the skater's appearance. Slowly the Turkish fire died down and then ceased, and a welcome quiet reigned while Mr. Corthesy cut figure eights and sped up and down the ice in a variety of skating evolutions. 'Perhaps the Turks were too astonished to fire,' he said." Unfortunately, I wasn't able to track down primary sources alluding this tale from Mr. Corthesy but if true, it is certainly an astonishing tale.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":