Percy Jones’ 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 Percy Jones.

Trench warfare on the western front

Trench warfare on the western front

The Great War story of Wales’ first world boxing champion, Percy Jones, is one of the most tragic in the country’s sporting history.

The Porth flyweight had claimed his epoch-making title in January 1914 with a 20-round points win over Bill Ladbury at the National Sporting Club.

As a prominent, popular and skilful fighter, Jones now looked well set to capitalise on his title and reap the rewards for his efforts in battling up from his mining background.

After the Ladbury bout, Jones fought five more times before the outbreak of war, but his progress was hampered by weight and injury problems.

The nadir came with a May 1914 stoppage defeat to Joe Symonds, where Jones was only able to keep his world and British belts because he had weighed in over the flyweight limit at 8st 8lbs.

The struggling champion continued his professional career after the start of the war with a low-key September 1914 win in Abertillery, before an October showdown with Scottish great Tancy Lee at the National Sporting Club.

Again, though, Jones failed to make the weight, and he was stripped of his titles. The fight went ahead at a catchweight, with Lee claiming a 14th-round stoppage win.

Jones, in consequence of failing to do the weight in his last contest with Tancy Lee, has joined the army

Jones was only aged 21 at the time and there is little reason to believe that his weight problems would be anything other than a blip in a stellar career. But with his star on the wane, when he joined the forces he was sent to the front line.

This contrasts with the treatment of some of Jones’ prominent boxing contemporaries, the likes of Jimmy Wilde, Jim Driscoll and Johnny Basham. They seem to have benefited from their high profile when it came to recruitment, the army capitalising on their propaganda value by using them as fitness instructors and to put on shows for the troops.

On 9 January, 1915, the Pontypridd Observer carried the following report: “Percy Jones, the 8st champion of England and Wales who in consequence of failing to do the weight in his last contest with Tancy Lee, has joined the army.

“On Saturday he presented himself at the Recruiting Station and was attached to the Glamorgan Bantams Battalion (17th Service Battalion) of the Welsh Army Corps. By his lead many other boxers may also come forward.”

Jones did box four more times in 1915 and twice in February 1916. These seem to have been low-key army barrack shows, although the highlight was an October 1915 win over his old foe Ladbury at New Cross Baths.

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

But Jones was on the front line at the 1916 battle of the Somme, where he was gassed and wounded in the leg.

He refused to take a stretcher and dragged himself back to safety, but the mud got into the wound and left him with blood poisoning.

On 29 July, 1916, the Pontypridd Observer carries the following letter from Captain Arthur E Grant of the 17th Welsh regiment of the BEF in France:

“Sir, I have just seen me a copy of the Porth Gazette out here, dated 15 July, 1916, that there is a rumour current in Porth that Percy Jones (ex-flyweight champion) of Porth, who is a sergeant in the 17th Welsh Regiment, has been killed. I am glad to say that there is absolutely no truth in this rumour. Percy Jones is still alive and well.”

But Jones’ leg injury required nearly 30 ultimately unsuccessful operations; in 1918 the leg was finally amputated.

The fighter never fully recovered and was recorded as being in a somewhat pitiful state as he was presented as a hero to Welsh post-war boxing crowds. With his weight reduced to just 4st 2lbs, Jones died of trench fever on Christmas Day, 1922, one day short of his 30th birthday.

Ladbury, the man who Jones had stripped of his British, European and world crowns, had pre-deceased him. The New Cross man was killed while serving in France in 1917, aged just 25.

*I’m grateful to local historian John Stone for providing the contemporary newspaper references to Jones

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