As part of a series looking at the history of the most prominent Welsh boxers during World War I, we consider the experiences of Jim Driscoll.
Unlike the majority of the boxers featured in this series, it is arguable that the prime fighting years of the great Jim Driscoll‘s career were over by the start of World War I in 1914.
‘Peerless’ Jim was aged 33 when the conflict broke out and the pinnacle of his career – his ‘newspaper victory’ over Abe Attell in New York – was over five years ago.
Since that high-water mark, the Cardiff man had fought just seven times, winning four, losing two and drawing the other. High living and an aversion to training contributed to the poor health that accompanied his downturn in form.
But the respect that Driscoll’s character had earned and the fame of his ring exploits meant he was a valuable propaganda recruit for the army.
He was drafted into an elite corps of army physical training instructors under captain Bruce Logan. The so-called ‘famous six’ fighters – Johnny Basham, Jimmy Wilde, Driscoll, Bombardier Billy Wells, Dick Smith and Pat O’Keefe – toured Britain, taking on all-comers in military boxing booths.
The period was dramatised in Alexander Cordell’s 1984 novel Peerless Jim, a piece of literature that the author claimed (rather dubiously) was based on “known facts”.
In the book, Driscoll’s character says that the job was “10 times harder than any boxing booth” as the fighters were over-worked, taking on all-comers at all weights, challengers who did not pull their punches and who were desperate to knock-out a famous professional boxer.
“From heavyweight Billy Wells to flyweight Jimmy Wilde, the army wore us out,” says ‘Driscoll’ in the book.
“I served four years during the Great War; during that time I did some 12,000 three-minute rounds of boxing, taking on all comers, all weights, amateur and professional.
“We performed all over Britain, we entertained the troops in nearly every town in France, and for the smallest pay any other professional boxer has earned; less than a shilling a round! But, of course, it was for the beloved country.”
Driscoll was ‘slightly gassed’ in a German chlorine poison gas attack at the start of the second battle of Ypres
The six were eventually split up, although Basham and Driscoll stayed together when they were sent to France.
The two famous fighters avoided the front line as they were based in St Pol, the HQ of the gymnastics staff under Colonel Campbell.
“There were many other well-known boxers there,” recalled Basham. “It was our job to show the boys the right way to do the physical jerks (how they blessed us).
“Time and time again we would make long journeys in the night in order to box an exhibition for some of the boys who had been wounded and who preferred seeing Jim and I do our stuff to taking the ‘number nines’ that the medical officer used to hand out!
“At this gymnastics job I had a fair run round, Amiens, Arras, Albert, Poperinghe, etc, etc, were all visited by Jim and I.”
Driscoll and Basham, both sergeants, were regularly sent to calm upset in the ranks, the troops proving ready to listen to the boxers when MPs could only inflame the heated situation.
The popularity of the two was recalled by author and boxer Norman Clark. In his All in the Game he recalls meeting them in France where he sparred with Basham, Clark praising his opponent’s boxing skills and his jovial character.
The joy and laughter that Driscoll and Basham found amidst the horrors of war-time France seems undeniable, but the conflict also took its toll.
In the Cordell novel, ‘Driscoll’ says: “At least one of [the boxing instructors], and I won’t say who, died physically as sure as if he’d been killed with the tanks at Cambrai; most of us were sent to early graves.
“Eventually my health broke under the strain; a recurrence of my bronchial troubles and an ulcerated stomach sent me back to Britain.”
This affected his bronchial chest and he was laid up in hospital in Arras for a time, suffering asthmatic attacks. The experience is believed to have had a big effect on his health in the post-war years.
After the war, Driscoll defied failing health to return for three more fights, using his skills to keep him out of trouble before ending his career with the bravest of defeats to Charles Ledoux in December 1919.
The great champion died of pneumonia on 30 January, 1925, at the age of 44, and over 100,000 lined the streets of Cardiff for the funeral.