Freddie Welsh’s Great War: Welsh boxers in World War I

As part of a series looking at the history of the most prominent Welsh boxers during World War I, we consider the experiences of Freddie Welsh.

Freddie Welsh (centre) prepares for a transatlantic trip

Freddie Welsh (centre) prepares for a transatlantic trip

Obduracy and single-mindedness were characteristics always associated with Freddie Welsh, and they had helped him rise to the very pinnacle of the boxing world by 1914.

“I can’t say that I ever worried much about what people thought or said of me,” Welsh had said after his controversial 1910 fight with Jim Driscoll. “I have never been able to bow down to rules and regulations.”

Those same characteristics would be evident in the war years as the Pontypridd great took his own path, one that kept him out of the British forces and led to criticism of the fighter in his home country.

Welsh’s long, tireless pursuit of the world lightweight crown had finally been rewarded at Olympia on 7 July, 1914, when he outpointed Willie Ritchie to become Wales’ second world champion.

If his skills had already earned widespread acclaim and significant reward, with the title now in his hands the world was his oyster. But just 21 days after his night of glory, that world was plunged into the chaos of war.

The champion was lucky to get back to this country before the English government grabbed him and sent him to the front

Initially the changes that would be wrought by the conflict may not have been fully understood.

On 8 August, 1914, the Pontypridd Observer reported on a local boxing show in Tonypandy where the visiting Welsh was greeted as a hero as he spoke of his plans to tour the UK fighting exhibitions before returning to the United States, where he had fought for most of his career.

Stage appearances were a tradition for new world champions, and Freddie fulfilled dates in Liverpool, Weston-Super-Mare, Aberdare, Ferndale and Tylorstown.

Further dates were curtailed, though, and it has been estimated that the war cost him over $50,000 in European music hall engagements alone, while a planned series of fights in Britain were now out of the question.

In fact, the new champion would never again fight on this side of the Atlantic – all his remaining bouts until his eventual retirement in 1922 would be in the States or Canada. Unlike contemporaries such as Johnny Basham, Welsh’s profile in the States meant he would not be short of career opportunities away from the European carnage.

The Pontypridd Observer report would suggest that there was little initial criticism of Welsh’s decision to return to the US, but later press treatment – on both sides of the Atlantic – would seem to view his choice with a knowing, somewhat judgemental air.

As quoted in Andrew Gallimore’s excellent book Occupation Prizefighter, in July 1914 Sam C Austin wrote in New York’s National Police Gazzette:

Freddie Welsh will probably sidestep the glory of serving with the British colours in the pending difficulty, and may soon be expected back in America, where the somewhat belated profits to be accrued from his championship victory over Willie Ritchie awaits him.

“Freddie may be counted upon to tackle all the aspirants for the lightweight title if the money is in sight, but first he will put in a few weeks on the American stage. Then there will be three weeks or a month to get in shape after his early life, so chances are it will be well along toward the spring before the new lightweight boss gets into action again.”

Welsh was fortunate enough to use a personal connection with a manager of the White Star Line to secure first-class passage to New York on the Olympic for him and his family at a time when millionaires were forced to travel in steerage.

On 28 August the US sports writer Bat Masterson wrote: “The champion was lucky to get back to this country before the English government grabbed him and sent him to the front to aid in whipping the Germans.

“Welsh, if he could shoot with a rifle as he can with a boxing glove, would make a splendid soldier, and it is surprising that the English government let him get away without giving him a chance to show what he could do with a gun.”

Other US sportswriters called the new champion a coward.

Nevertheless, he made a successful series of stage appearances and was back in the ring in October, then embarking on a remarkably extensive series of fights that saw him exploit the ‘no-decision’ rule and milk as much money out of the belt as he possibly could.

This certainly led to criticism in the States, while at home Welsh’s career was – understandably – low on the list of people’s priorities.

Freddie flirted for a while with dreams of martial distinction

The 25 December, 1915, edition of the Pontypridd Observer carries a prominent report of a local fight card headlined by 14-year-old Frank Moody, and on the same page buries the line that: “Freddy Welsh registered another win to his numerous victories last week.” The latter would seem to be world champion Welsh’s 13 December ‘no-decision’ bout against Jimmy Murphy in Philadelphia.

The USA entered the war in April 1917, a month before Welsh would finally lose his world title in a knock-out defeat to Benny Leonard.

Shortly before that bout the champion wrote to the governor of New York offering his services in running boxing shows ‘at which I will meet contenders for my title and turn the receipts… over to a fund to equip a [sportsman’s] regiment [for overseas service]’:

“If the regiment is organised I am, of course, ready to serve in any capacity. The United States is my adopted country. I have lived here for 15 years; my wife and two children are American, and I feel that the entrance of America into the war is the call to arms for every man who, like myself, has been given an opportunity to earn a living in this great country.”

As related by Gallimore, after losing to Leonard, Welsh contemplated returning home to join the British army.

On 12 September, 1917, Boxing mocked: “Freddie flirted for a while with dreams of martial distinction, and even threatened to prance in our midst as a rough-riding colonel.

“But he has yielded, it is to be supposed, to the arguments or persuasions of Mrs Welsh and has decided he can serve humanity better by building up the potential fathers of the armies of the future than by exposure of his own person to the undiscriminating bludgeon-work of the Hun.

“Freddie is prudent, and we thank him for being so; for although we cannot but doubt that his mental equipment would enable him not only to shine in lethal war, but might also prove of considerable value to the Allied course, we could only consent, with serious shivers to the imperilling of such a precious life as his.

“Even if Fred were to ride forth as the greatest military leader in history, we yet have others, possibly less ingenious, but nevertheless, we venture to hope, sufficient for our needs; while it is very certain that, unless we can preserve the Welsh Wizard as a model for at lease a generation to come, we shall have to regretfully consent to a sad decay in the science and exposition of defensive pugilism.

“Domestic influences and arguments must have been the main factor, of course, for Freddie announced his intention of treading martial paths, and is the last man in the world to go back on a personal announcement – in spite of his susceptibility to pressure – and the pressure to which he would have to submit in his hesitation between war and peace must have been severe enough to crush a mountain lion…

“Who is there to blame him for remembering that he is the father of a family when so many single young Britons have sought the safer path of emigration – before the Conscription law came into force?”

Welsh did, though, go on to enlist in the US army, where he was consigned to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, helping rehabilitate wounded soldiers.

According to one military report, “he seemed particularly adapted to that kind of work and the hospital physicians often expressed astonishment at his accomplishments in getting the convalescents on their feet again after they had been given up as hopeless cripples.”

Welsh also helped to organise boxing tournaments, training the fighters and working as a referee.

In fact, the army service seems to have distracted Welsh from the failings of his later years in the ring, and the severe problems he would face as a businessman.

Such troubles would plague his short, unhappy later years, and he would be found dead in his Manhattan apartment in 1927 at the age of 41.

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