As part of a series looking at the history of the most prominent Welsh boxers during World War I, we consider the experiences of Jimmy Wilde.
The great Jimmy Wilde was a fast-rising star at the outbreak of war, having built a fearsome knock-out reputation and claimed his first major title – the European flyweight crown – in March 1914.
The Great War barely caused the ‘Tylorstown Terror’ to break stride in his development and he was able to continue his active and lucrative ring career after the outbreak of hostilities.
On 5 September, 1914, the Pontypridd Observer records Wilde at Hanneford’s Circus, Pontypridd, where he ‘christened’ two lion cubs: “After bestowing upon them the names of Rockingstone and Jimmy Wilde he wished the ‘pups’ good health, remarking that he was not much of a fist at making speeches but better at the other game.”
These were the early days of the war, but as the conflict ground on it does seem that the fighter’s domestic activities and successes led to criticism.
Also, the demands of the western front – coupled with Wilde’s own punching power – may have contributed to the problems he endured in finding suitable opponents at his weight.
He took to regularly fighting much heavier men, a practice that led to his first defeat, a January 1915 stoppage loss to Tancy Lee at the National Sporting Club where the British, European and world flyweight titles were at stake.
I could not persuade authorities that I was physically capable of fighting with the ranks
The Welshman was quickly back to winning ways, though, 12 successive stoppage victories leading him into a successful challenge for Joe Symonds’ British title.
To find such success when the war was causing so much misery caused some resentment. In his 1938 ‘autobiography’ Fighting was my Business, Wilde seems to go to excessive lengths to explain why he had not joined the army by that point in his career.
“The Symonds fight, early in 1916, saw the first 18 months of the war past, and the hopes of an early finish fast dimming,” said Wilde.
“I wanted to join the forces, although offers of fights were coming along fast; for the first time in my life I felt the real ease of money, the thing I had dreamed of in the past.
“Yet neither [manager Ted] Lewis nor [Jimmy’s wife] ‘Lisbeth made any attempt to stop me from trying to join the colours. The desire had gradually grown into a longing, frustrated for a long time by what must have been one of the oddities of the Great War.
“For I could not persuade the authorities that I was physically capable of fighting with the ranks! I tried several times, hung around in draughty doctors’ waiting rooms to take a physical examination, but all to no purpose.
“It is almost impossible for me to believe that it actually happened: even with the Lonsdale Belt my proud possession, I was not passed as fit for active service.”
After going to some length to tell stories of the times he was rejected, Wilde continues: “It was not until a year later that I was ‘taken’, and then for garrison service.
“In between whiles there were the unpleasant attacks from certain people and places: there was even a story in circulation that I had been specially asked to join the Tank Corps, and refused.
“I wonder how many others held up as bad examples to the public and advanced as part of the need for conscription had tried to join up and failed?
Given the horrors faced by soldiers elsewhere, Wilde’s military service seems to have been a breeze
“I was able to help towards the various funds by boxing, attending different shows and auctioning gloves and other things after the fights. Nothing was too much trouble, enthusiasm everywhere was at fever pitch.
“Yet reports kept coming through, of this man’s death, or that one’s serious injuries, fine boxers never to appear in the ring again. It was heart-rending, and worse because of the knowledge that others took the brunt of the fighting. But we just went on.”
Indeed, Wilde describes an extremely busy and successful 1916-17 schedule that included a revenge win over Lee. In December 1916 Wilde was recognised throughout the world as world champion after his crushing win over America’s Young Zulu Kid.
He had followed Percy Jones and Freddie Welsh into the record books to become Wales’ third world champion, but Wilde seems more impressed at having won a Lonsdale Belt outright by defeating George Clark.
The high-profile, lucrative fights allowed Wilde to build his small valleys house into a rich, successful farm, full of animals.
The ever-more-comfortable home life was disrupted after the Clark fight, though, when Wilde was finally allowed to enlist in the army and he was sent to Aldershot to train as a physical instructor.
After passing the training course Wilde began teaching in Sandhurst. Given the horrors faced by soldiers elsewhere, Wilde’s military service seems to have been a breeze.
He described the army turning a blind eye while he paid visits to his wife who lived nearby. What’s more, Wilde was able to stay fighting fit and to continue his professional career in all but name – he boxed in high-profile shows where, rather than being paid in cash, he would be presented with lucrative gifts such as expensive jewellery.
Wilde was part of an elite corps of boxers who served as army physical trainers under captain Bruce Logan. For a time a group of them known as the ‘famous six’ toured Britain taking on all-comers in a boxing booth. The six were ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, Pat O’Keefe, Dick Smith and Welshmen Wilde, Johnny Basham and Jim Driscoll.
Most were eventually posted to France, but this does not seem to have happened to Wilde.
“There were times when I envied [the cadets] their opportunities [to fight in the war], and there were others when I told myself not to be a fool,” said Wilde.
“The war had lasted too long, by the time I went to Sandhurst, for anyone to imagine it was going to be a picnic.”