“This Armistice Day, the Imperial War Museum is hoping to keep alive their memories - and those of millions more who fought in World War One - by publishing 100 portraits of people who served in the war. It will continue to publish additional portraits every weekday until August 2014, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. Nigel Steel, historian at the Imperial War Museum says the project - called Faces of the First World War - will help reconnect people with the 1914-18 generation.”
One of the first 100 faces the Imperial War Museum has uncovered is that of Pat O’Keefe, three times British middleweight and light-heavyweight champion. This BBC article has inspired me to write about the boxers who joined up, as part of Kitchener’s Army, right at the beginning of the war.
We at boxinghistory.org.uk would like to play our part, not only in publicising the Imperial War Museum project, but also to try to locate the photographs of every known boxer who fought in the Great War so we can share them online through our Flickr account.
The photograph accompanying this article shows, from left to right, Dick Burge (the ex-British middleweight title claimant and manager of The Ring, Blackfriars), Ernest Barry (five times world sculling champion) and the aforementioned Pat O’Keefe, British middleweight champion in 1906 and 1914-16, and British light-heavyweight champion 1918-19. Happily, all three men survived the war.
In the September 19th 1914 edition of the sport's trade paper Boxing there appeared, for the first time, a feature entitled ‘War Items’, which referred to a number of prominent fighters who had joined the cause. The following notes, penned in a style evocative of the period, are direct quotes from this article.
- Pat O’Keefe has joined the Territorial Army. The genial Irishman should be an acquisition to his corps if only because of his possession of an unquenchable fund of good spirits even under the most gloomy of conditions. The slogan of the Tommies, “Are ye down-hearted ?” will be quite unnecessary so far as the 21st Middlesex is concerned now that Pat is a unit.
- Cruiserweight champion Dick Smith has attained the rank of Sergeant. A few days ago he was at Portsmouth.
- Boxers have already begun to pay toll to the war. Eugene Stuber, the French middleweight, has just passed over the great divide per medium of a German bullet. A compatriot, Adrien Hogan, will never box again, poor fellow, owing to serious injuries which must incapacitate him from following his profession when the war is over.
- England has also paid part of what promises to be a heavy tribute in the death of ‘Chick’ Rounds of the Manchester Regiment. ‘Chick’ performed with distinction in India, where he won the bantamweight championship, and also annexed the Lucknow belt. He was killed at the Battle of Mons.
- The writer recently met Wally Pack at St Pancras Station, who was on his way to Scotland to join his regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders. Wally expressed a profound conviction that no German bullet would find its billet in him if he went into battle sideways.
- Jack Johnson has given one of his powerful automobiles to the British Government and also offered his services in any other way.
- Billy Nutts the Leicester flyweight, and Sergeant Bancroft, are off to the front.
- Tich Mason and Charlie Lordan, the Lambeth flyweights, have joined the army. The former will get busy if he gets to close quarters with the ‘sauerkrauters’.
- Albert Wheeler of St Luke’s, who fought Joe Bowker in his prime, has joined the King’s Royal Rifles. Albert has been boxing instructor to the regiment for some time, hence it shouldn’t take long to polish him into an efficient soldier.
- Peggy Bettinson has become a special constable.
- Lionel Bettinson has enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment. Lionel’s practice of Physical Culture should help him very materially to endure the rigours of warfare.
- Bill Ladbury and Johnny Condon were both members of the now defunct militia. Their fight to the front is indicative of the strength of the war lust, which is inherent in most of us. Like the lustre of the ring, the call to arms is equally insistent.
Poor Bill Ladbury was killed in 1917 on the Western Front. An ex British flyweight champion, he was one of a number of prominent boxers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Lionel Bettinson survived to pick up the mantle from his father 'Peggy', co-founder of the National Sporting Club (NSC). Lionel ran the major boxing promotions staged by the NSC throughout the 1920s .
Charlie Lordan was badly injured in 1915.
Wally Pack, a top amateur, survived the war and his son became ABA champion in the 1930s and represented Great Britain at the 1936 Olympics.
Quite what became of Jack Johnson’s car is anyone’s guess.
We will remember them.