The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, once again, provided the grandest of backdrops to this year’s British Army’s All Arms International Pace Sticking competition.
In the words of one of the competition judges, Warrant Officer Class 2 David Roper of the Grenadier Guards, “The Pace Sticking competition in the British Army is designed to test primarily Sergeants’ Mess members in accuracy, precision and uniformity of foot drill.” Teams of four, consist of the Driver, who commands the team and barks out the movement orders, a right-hand marker and two others.
“The biggest challenge people face when they go down the runway is battling their own inner demons, that big match temperament; you can be as practiced and rehearsed as you like, but actually it is quite a nerve wracking experience standing on Old College square" Warrant Officer Class 2 David Roper of the Grenadier Guards
Teams are marked, for turn out, bearing and crucially how they perform through a series of sequences of marching the length of the hallowed tarmac that is the Academy’s Old College parade square. They march along turning their pace sticks in both slow then quick time alternating from left to right hand along a marked piece of the square known as the runway. All this has to be achieved in perfect harmony with all four pace sticks hitting the ground simultaneously.
WO2 Roper explained just what a pace stick is and how it is used, “A pace stick is designed to measure length of pace – it literally measures the length of a marching pace; it also has other settings on it that allow instructors to measure certain other distances that are used on the parade square; for instance the distance between the heels when troops are stood at ease.” If you can imagine a large walking cane that is split and hinged at one end when opened out forms a triangle. The distance between the two opened ends is 30 inches (76cm) the British Army’s standard length of pace. It has its origins back in Roman times when similar devices were used to measure distances during road construction. The British Army first employed the stick to accurately mark out the distance of artillery guns and it has since been adapted for use on the parade square.
So just what makes a competition winning pace sticking team? WO2 David Roper said, “The panel of judges are looking for the precision in turning the stick and to make sure the stick itself is landing correctly each time as it is being turned down the runway in slow and quick time. We are also looking to make sure that the turning of the stick hasn’t affected the individual’s personal drill – often competitors can concentrate so much on the precise turning of the stick that they forget about the basics.” Speaking of his own experience of competing and winning the trophy he added,
“The biggest challenge people face when they go down the runway is battling their own inner demons, that big match temperament; you can be as practiced and rehearsed as you like, but actually it is quite a nerve wracking experience standing on Old College square out there with many members or you peer group watching, you have to pull it out of the bag and perform on the day.”
Although with only one overseas team taking part due to the pandemic’s travel restrictions it was twelve gents dressed in their bright scarlet tunics and wearing the famous black tricorne hats from the Royal Hospital Chelsea who really stole the show.
Three teams of Chelsea Pensioners competed for the first time. Last year they took part, but simply as demonstration, but this year they were there to compete. 82-year-old pensioner Roy Palmer was the Driver for the Royal Hospital’s C Team, with a combined age of 331 years they were very much the elder statesmen of the day. He said, “I never did anything like this when I served in the Army, I was mainly clerical duties. We’ve done quite a bit of practising, we were here last year as a demonstration team, so this is the first time we’ve actually competed. As the Driver, there is a lot to remember. I have to give the orders to lead the team – they have to do what I tell them, so if I get it wrong, they are all going to get it wrong. We’re pretty reasonable at this and will put to good use a wealth of experience. Our right-hand marker is 86, the next one down in the middle is 84 and a bit of course! And the ‘baby’ of the team is 79!”
This time the senior teams in red and black didn’t feature among the winners, with the Grenadier Guards claiming top spot as ‘The All Arms Winning Team’ and Lance Sergeant Matt Hadfield from the same team picking up the top individual prize as ‘Best All Arms Pace Sticker’.