The Pace-Stick, a historical implement that dates back to Roman times and innovated by an Sandhurst Academy Sergeant Major in the early twentieth century to become an essential tool of British Army Drill instructors and vital for ensuring much of the essential precision in ceremonial activity, despite its apparent simplicity of design, is not an easy implement to master.
Time, teamwork and dedication are needed, to help with that serious purpose, its pioneer instituted a competition.
Over the years that competition, which started out with two teams, one from Sandhurst and one from the Guards Depot expanded. It now has an annual Worldwide Championship and its own traditions. Recently the London Central Garrison held its own Pace-Stick Competition between seven teams, comprised of both retired and serving soldiers, officers and sergeants. Whilst some elements are light hearted it's also a show case for the teamwork, skill and effort of its participants and goes some way to explaining the exceptional quality of ceremonial events.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
London Central Garrison recently rekindled an important tradition of the Sergeant’s Mess by holding the first London Central Garrison Pace-Stick competition since 2017.
The Pace-Stick; two tapering sticks of pliant birchwood (the Legs) on a hinge (the Head) has existed, in some variation since Roman soldiers used an early fixed version to build their roads, one Roman mile equating to five hundred turns of the pace-stick. For them it was simply a convenient means to measure distance.
Likewise for the Royal Regiment of Artillery who employed pace-sticks to ensure the distances between field guns were uniform and precise.
In the first half of the twentieth century at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst the most senior non-commissioned officer instructor, the Academy Sergeant Major, Arthur Brand, decided to incorporate the Pace-Stick as a tool for instructors to check soldiers were the correct distance apart on parade, during drill, and to assist with ensuring soldiers were marching at a full 30-inch marching pace.
Brand created a set of rules and the drill to assure unity and precision amongst Drill Instructors.
He also instituted a competition between The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and The Guards Depot.
From Sandhurst and that early competiton use of the Pace-Stick was promoted throughout the British Army until today where Sandhurst hosts an annual World Championship.
Any colour as long as it’s Birch
The Pace-Stick itself has also evolved, from a fixed distance, the current pace-stick has several settings – nine, twelve, twenty, twenty four, twenty seven and thirty inches to allow Drill Instructors a level of precision and control needed to execute the complicated manoeuvres of modern drill.
Whilst Pace-Sticks are all made of birch for its pliancy, the keen-eyed amongst you may have noticed that they are not all the same colour, over the years Regiments have established particular colours with which the birch is stained.
The Coldstream Guards Pace-Sticks are Light Oak, the Grenadiers favour Rosewood as do the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards Pace-Sticks are Medium Oak, and the Welsh Guards also have a Rosewood colour stain, unless the individual has been to The Guards Depot in which case it is stained Black.
Once stained, each made to measure Pace-Stick is then French polished to make it shine
The Pace-Stick Competition
The modern pace stick stems from Academy Sergeant Major Brand’s innovation and the focus of the competition is on several elements.
Whilst in the original competition there were four members of each team (Frontage) and a Driver, this has since evolved to a Frontage of three and a Driver, so four in total.
Each team of four consists of the following Sergeants’ Mess members: a Driver (of the rank of Colour Sergeant or Warrant Officer Class Two), Right Marker (of the rank of Lance-Sergeant or Sergeant) and two team members (of the rank of Lance-Sergeant or Sergeant).
Upon marching on to the parade ground they will be inspected for their turnout and bearing, from how they hold the pace-stick to the soles of their shoes.
After the inspection, the team following orders from their Driver the team will march in Slow time, that is at 65 paces per minute, with their Pace-sticks set at an interval of 30 inches (the distance of a marching pace) they change the hand which holds the Pace-Stick every 20 paces. After 120 paces they carry the pace-sticks for a further 20 paces before coming to a halt and turning.
It is tradition at this point that refreshments are served to the team, port for the sergeants and champagne for officers participating.
The refreshments are brief but teams have historically competed for the most novel and humourous ways to serve them, at the Worldwide competition at Sandhurst, drinks were in one instance delivered by helicopter.
The London Central Garrison 2023 competition was no exception with one team receiving theirs from an individual riding a dinosaur and another from colleagues dressed as ballet dancers dancing to Swan Lake. After this short pause, the team returns, but in Quick time, at 116 paces a minute.
Each member of the team has their Pace-Stick set at 30 inches, the width of a marching step, and rotates through 180 degrees so that the Pace-Stick begins on one Leg and finishes on the other.
It may sound relatively simple but it isn’t, the greatest obstacle is uneven ground and where an error is made being able to recover swiftly, none of which is aided by having to switch hands, all done in synchronicity with their team mates.
The Pace-Stick competition is a well regarded Sergeant’s Mess tradition, there are light hearted elements, but as with any tradition it has its roots in important skills and valuable lessons.
The lessons learned here are then carried out onto the wider stage, witnessed by the world at the Coronation earlier this year, and everything that came before and follows after, grand state occasions, solemn acts of Remembrance, inspections and drill.
This past year has seen a great deal of ceremonial activity, soldiers have rightly received worldwide admiration for the precision with which that activity has been executed.
That precision is learnt, and practiced at events such as the London Central Garrison Pace-Stick competition, where teams of sergeants demonstrate their excellence through tradition, team work and wielding the pace-stick.
"The Pace-Stick is a vital tool which enables me to do my job with the precision it requires." Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew Stokes
As one of the members of the Judges board, Garrison Sergeant Major Andrew Stokes, himself no stranger to the Pace-Stick put it to those competing, he considers ‘the Pace-Stick a vital tool to enable him to do his job,’ without it, the precision we have witnessed during ceremonial events of the last two years would not have been possible.
Skill and dedication
It is also a tradition that crosses generations, with younger soldiers learning from their elders and vice versa, this year’s competition saw seven teams participating: two from Number 7 Company Coldstream Guards, one from Nijmegen Company Grenadier Guards, another from F Company Scots Guards and one from the Officers Mess of Wellington Barracks. As well as strong representation from the Public Duties Incremental Companies, The Royal Hospital Chelsea fielded two teams of retired soldiers, and it was the Royal Hospital Chelsea A Team which took first place, and a member of the team receiving the LCG Best Individual Pacesticker award.
All teams were praised by the board of Judges, lead by their President, Lieutenant Colonel James Coleby, Commander of the London Central Garrison, who presented the prizes, for the overall high level of skill and dedication displayed by the teams.