Standing in a forward trench near Bullecourt just before 6.20am on 20 November 1917 the 7th/8th battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers were ready to go over the top in the latest important battle on the Western Front.
They would probably not have known that their attack was merely a feint for a much greater battle to be fought seven miles to the south at Cambrai.
One of these soldiers knew all about the importance of the feint when attacking an opponent, for he had fought over 50 contests in the boxing ring and had achieved considerable success. At zero hour Allan Porter stepped out into no man's land alongside his comrades and advanced towards Tunnel Trench, the objective of the attack. This was to be his final walk.
A hard road
Prior to this the path of his life had taken him along a hard road. Born in early 1892 in Salford, Manchester to Joseph, a bricklayer, and Elizabeth Porter, he was the third of five children. At the age of 17 he commenced a short ring career which, though successful, ended tragically and brutally within only three years, almost costing him his life.
Porter had his first contests in the summer of 1909 for promoter Martin Lane at the Central Boxing Academy in the Palatine Buildings on Deansgate, Manchester. The club moved early in 1910 across the city to Fairfield Street, and it was here that Porter became a favourite. A featherweight, Porter was blessed with exceptionally long reach, the ability to box and with hitting power.
Top of the bill
He was boxing 15-rounders at the top of the bill within fourteen months. Having only lost one of his previous 17 contests, he was matched against Nat Williams of Liverpool in July 1911 in a rubber contest at the old Liverpool Stadium. This famous venue had opened a fortnight before and on the night that Porter made his debut there the top-liner was an international heavyweight contest between George ‘Boer’ Rodel and the legendary Sam McVea. Rodel lasted only 2 mins and 40 secs before being carried back to his corner spark out. The arena was packed to the rafters with 3,000 in attendance and Porter and Williams fought a rugged duel, with both men down in the last round. The decision was given to the local and it met with a mixed reception.
Porter returned to winning ways when he stopped tough Londoner Fred Halsband at the International Hall, Liverpool in his next fight. After a losing 20-rounder against another Liverpudlian, Jim Lewis, at Widnes, Porter returned to the Liverpool Stadium to lose by disqualification to Jack Matthews of Hanley. Matthews was the father of Stanley Matthews, perhaps the greatest footballer of his generation. Jack was a barber who was renowned for the extuberance of his waxed moustache. After a crushing one round defeat at Plymouth to Young Lippo, Porter rehabilitated himself with some good results before he journeyed south to make his London debut in early 1912.
He boxed three times in the capital against very stiff opposition. He made his first appearance at The Ring, Blackfriars when acting as a late substitute against Fred Housego of Paddington. He used his straight left to good effect and despite tiring towards the conclusion of the contest, he well merited his points victory. His win proved popular with the patrons, who had expected this unknown late substitute from the north to take a pasting. George Groves (Canning Town), for whom Porter had substituted, was at this time one of England’s leading bantamweights and a contender for Digger Stanley’s title, and he was matched with Porter at The Ring in late February 1912. Groves was too good for the northerner and the bout was stopped by referee and promoter Dick Burge, after Porter had been knocked down and with one of his eyes slowly closing.
Fight with the Kid
Porter’s third London contest could not have been tougher. He moved across river into London’s East End to take on Ted Kid Lewis at Premierland in a 10-rounder on 16 March 1912. The fight report in Boxing is brief but it suggests that Lewis won easily. Porter then took a four-month rest before returning to action back in his native Lancashire. After outpointing Jim Lewis in a return at Liverpool Stadium, he then beat tough fellow-Mancunian Briney McGuinness and black American Kid Fitzgerald, before taking on Seaman Arthur Hayes at Manchester.
Ten years older than the 20-year-old Porter, Hayes was a top-line performer at this stage of his career and he had contested the British featherweight title in 1910 against Jim Driscoll. To Porter he administered a severe beating, the Boxing reporter stating that ‘From the 5th round Hayes drove Porter from pillar to post and hit him where and when he liked. Porter was certainly game, and persevered against hopeless odds, but the punishment dealt out to him was so heavy as to cause the referee to intervene in the unlucky 13th round, as he was hanging on the ropes helpless’.
A damaging bout
After only ten days Porter was back in the ring to fulfil an engagement at the Liverpool Stadium against George Mackness of Kettering. Mackness had lost his previous five contests and ordinarily would have posed little problem for Porter, but the beating handed out by Hayes had finished him. Within a minute of the start Mackness had Porter pinned in a corner where he inflicted rough treatment. In the second round Porter appeared nervous and by the fourth, after being knocked down, he was ‘none too steady on his pins’. The referee stopped the bout in round seven and Porter was ‘unable to walk to his dressing quarters, owing to having collapsed on his return to his corner. Three doctors were immediately in attendance upon him, and, responding to treatment, he partially revived, but is was thought advisable to have him removed to the infirmary.’ (Boxing)
He later had a relapse and again fell unconscious. He was found to be suffering from concussion and finally came around in the evening of the following day. Mackness was detained by police and charged with causing grievous bodily harm, as he had struck Porter two blows whilst the latter was in a state of collapse. A week later Boxing reported that Porter ‘is still lying at the Royal Infirmary. His progress towards recovery is only slow, and some time must elapse before he will be able to return home. He is in a private ward at the expense of the Stadium’. He was eventually discharged but never fought professionally again.
Five years later, somewhere behind the lines on the Western Front, Porter fought in a six-rounder against Staff-Sgt Clements, a man 20lbs heavier. This, his very last contest, ended in a points defeat. He won 39 of 61 fights and beat some extremely good men along the way. His early promise was unfulfilled, for when he met the very best he was found wanting. Nevertheless he was one of the north’s first-line featherweights at a time when the north had many exellent men at this weight, including Billy Marchant, Nat Williams, Johnny Robinson, Jim Lewis, Jerry Delaney, Tommy Mitchell, Dom Vairo, George Ruddick and Mick Gordon.
As Porter made his way across no-man's land the general attack was proving very successful, as German resistance was minimal. Tunnel Trench was quickly secured and the men pressed on to their next objective. In only one place did the assault encounter any serious opposition; and this was on the left flank, where Porter and his Fusilier comrades suffered great losses due to machine-gun fire from strongly held German emplacements. It took over an hour to subdue this resistance and by that time Porter and many others had ‘gone west’. His body was never discovered and his name, along with those of 34,715 other allied troops who have no known grave and who died in the same sector of the Western Front, can be found on the Arras memorial.
His brief life had been snubbed out in the mud and today Allan Porter is remembered by virtually no-one.
I salute him.
This article was originally published in issue 1 of 'The Old-Timer', a special interest magazine dedicated to old-time British boxing. Issue 1 of 'The Old-Timer' has now sold out, but issues 2-5 are still available to buy and issue 6 is currently in production. To order the magazine contact Miles Templeton.