Welsh boxers in World War I

Considering the varying histories and experiences of the leading Welsh boxers during World War I, the conflict having erupted in a true golden era for the sport in Wales.

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

The rich, varied and, at times, horrific experiences of Welsh boxers in the First World War reflect both the vibrancy of the country at the time and the glory of the sport in a true golden era for Welsh pugilists.

The heavy industry of south Wales coupled with the diversity and militancy of its workforce was a potent, explosive mix that would burst out onto the world stage in many unexpected forms.

Boxing was undoubtedly one of those forms of expression, and it was a sport that had a tightening grip on the nation.

‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll was the pride of, not just the Welsh, but the entire British boxing scene, the darling of the National Sporting Club and a man whose classic, upright style epitomised everything that the country valued in the noble art.

Freddie Welsh (centre) prepares for a transatlantic trip

Freddie Welsh (centre) prepares for a transatlantic trip

If ‘Peerless’ Jim was coming towards the end of his career when the war started, the ageing hero seemed to have paved the way for an even more glorious generation.

1914, the year that the Great War started, had finally – after many near misses – seen Wales secure its first world champion in Percy Jones, and he was soon followed by the second, Freddie Welsh.

Jimmy Wilde and Johnny Basham already appeared likely to follow in those footsteps, while the likes of Llew Edwards, Fred Dyer, Eddie Morgan, Dai Davies and the Rossi brothers – Francis and Walter – also awaited their opportunities.

World War I would have a varied and profound impact on the lives and careers of all these men.

Some of the more prominent pugilists were able to continue their ring careers at home, with varying degrees of disruption.

The rise of Wilde, for example, continued almost unchecked and his role as a fitness instructor in the army does not seem to have been overly onerous.

Fred Dyer

Fred Dyer in military uniform

Basham’s fitness and exhibition work for the military seems to have been more taxing and – whilst he was grateful for the privileges he gained in the army – the war may well have stopped him from becoming a world champion and from forging a lucrative career in the States.

Freddie Welsh, as individual as ever, quickly took his newly won world title to the US where he would remain for the rest of the war, a route also taken by title-hopeful Morgan.

Dyer and Edwards continued their careers through the war years in the States and Australia and – while their experiences appear comfortable – each faced losses in their own way.

In simple numeric and financial terms, author Alex Daley says that there were around 8,000 fights a year in the UK in the build-up to World War I.

Trench warfare on the western front

Trench warfare on the western front

This dropped to around 4,000 a year in 1915-18, then climbed to 7,000 in 1919-25, before peaking at close to 20,000 in 1930, meaning that this golden generation of Welsh fighters missed out on a booming sport in some of the peak years of their careers.

If none of the boxers here were unaffected by the war the true losers were, of course, those sent to fight in the front line.

How many obscure Welsh boxers shared the fate of Caerau’s Dai Roberts?

The little-known welterweight was a prominent sportsman in his day who had fought Wilde and Basham, sparred with Freddie Welsh, and helped in Willie Ritchie’s corner on the night that Welsh took the American’s world lightweight belt. Roberts was killed by a shell in France in July 1917.

Unlike Roberts, both Davies and Jones made it home from the western front. But the injuries they suffered there affected them badly and, in Jones’ case, ended his service, career and, ultimately, his life.

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