Welcome to this month’s Guest Spot which I’ve decided to take a slightly different path with. I shall be inviting guests to write a feature article on something or someone that interests them from the Great War. And I’m very delighted, despite him being from Crewe ( It’s a long running joke between us!), to welcome my good friend Conor Reeves . Conor is someone who’s embraced various aspects of history from an early age and he was even I believe the youngest Battlefield Guide for Leger battlefield tours at just 15 years old!! He’s gone on to do many great things since including a war memorial garden at his old school, he’s currently studying history at Oxford & recently he became the sub editor of the new Great War Group journal. I’ll let him introduce himself below but I wish to extend to him my warmest of welcomes to Great War Reflections
I was really humbled when Wayne asked me to contribute an article for this month’s Guest Spot on Great War Reflections (thanks for having me and assuming I’ve got something interesting to say!). I’ve been enjoying the blog so much over the last few months – I’ve got some quality acts to follow but I will do my best.
He’s asked me to start by telling you a little bit about myself before writing up a short article based on some of my research interests, so that’s exactly what I’ll do.
I’m in my early 20s and I was born in the North West of England. I’ve been interested in history since I was just 9 years old. In fact, one of my most enduring primary school memories was teaching a class of younger students about the Second World War. There were a few embarrassing hiccups (I taught them that the war began in 1937…oops!) but otherwise, I think I did a reasonably good job. I continued to be interested in history and when I was around 11 years old an English teacher recommended I read a book that turned out to be pretty formative for me. For those of you who don’t know, Private Peaceful is a 2003 Michael Morpurgo novel for older children/ teenagers which follows the story of a young Tommy’s First World War on the Western Front, culminating with the Battle of the Somme. Although it plays on some quite clichéd tropes, it did introduce me to many important themes which have re-appeared time and time again in the subsequent decade and is a wonderful way to introduce young people to the First World War.
Knowing I was interested in ‘the wars’, when I was 13, my parents offered to take me on a ‘once in a life-time’ trip to the Western European battlefields of my choice. At the time, it was a toss-up between a tour of the 1914-1918 Western Front and the legendary battlefields of the Battle of the Bulge. Little did they know at the time but, far from satiating my interest, it added fuel to the fire. Visiting the famous sites that I’d only ever read about before felt like entering a world dreamt up by a favourite author, only infinitely more emotional and affecting as each place was charged with the memory of sacrifice. As soon as I was home from the first trip, I was thinking about the next. In the time between, I began to look at the Great War history that lies amongst us. I was vaguely aware that once a year, on Remembrance Day, a school teacher would read aloud a list of names of those former pupils who had died in the two world wars. I decided that they ought to become more than just names. As a result, I embarked on a (still ongoing) research project which has seen me uncover relatives, photographs, letters and details pertaining to the lives and deaths of all of these men.
When the time came to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I knew that I wanted to be the first member of my family to go to University. I played around with the idea of war studies or military history as stand-alone subjects but I was again and again advised to study general history. This was some of the most useful advice I have ever received. As a History student at the University of Oxford, I’ve been able to study topics from the legacy of Romano-Britain to globalization in the 21st century. Although this means I’ve not been able to study the First World War as often as I’d have liked, I have been fortunate enough to study papers on the global nature of the war and I am currently completing an undergraduate dissertation on boxing and the First World War. The variation of theme and subject has greatly added to my ability to study the Great War. Now, almost a decade and more than a dozen visits since I returned from the old battlefields (in which the founder of this blog played an important role during the earliest!), my interest is stronger than ever and I visit the Old Front Lines as regularly as circumstances allow which always aids my studies. My academic and non-academic WW1 interests have expanded as a result of my study and battlefield trips. My main interests are the 1/7 Cheshire Regiment, 1 July 1916, masculinity, literature and, of course, sport and the war.
Anyway, that’s me! Below you’ll find a short article I’ve written which tells the story of a young boxer whose story I discovered whilst carrying out research for my undergraduate thesis. It recounts the life of Jerry Delaney. I hope you find it of interest!
P.S If perchance you happen to have any sources pertaining to Boxing in the British Army during the Great War then please get in touch (@InThatRichEarth). I’m particularly interested in diaries, memoirs or letters which mention boxing in training in England or behind the lines on the Western Front but I’m interested to hear any recommendations you may have.
‘I’m here to fight Germans’: Jerry Delaney’s war
With its densely packed, crowded rows of housing, the Broomfields area of Bradford was a tough place to live for its Edwardian inhabitants. This hard and sometimes dangerous setting bred generations of correspondingly tough working class families which made up 99.2% of the population. Amongst those were the Delaneys, an immigrant family originating from Tipperary, Ireland. Consisting of eleven boys and four girls, they had their fair share of tough Broomfields men and a number of the brothers channeled their attributes into the sporting ring as boxers, known collectively as ‘the fighting Delaneys’.
One of these, Jeremiah, or ‘Jerry’ as he was better known, was a particular pugilistic talent. At 5ft6 and ‘[o]f light frame’, newspapers declared him ‘almost ladylike in his appearance’. ‘At a guess,’ they wrote, ‘a boxer was almost the last thing you would have taken him for’ but, they revealed, ‘see him in the ring and it was a different proposition’. His ring IQ, powerful left hand and nurtured resilience more than made up for his lack of physical presence and by 1914 he was a very promising, unbeaten light-weight boxer of 9 st 9 lb. In fact, so good was he that he was widely tipped to fight and probably beat Freddie Welsh, the current British champion at the weight. It is certainly true, as others have recently observed that the ranks of Britain’s light-weight division were far from swelling – probably limited to around four genuine contenders – but it was largely agreed that he was the best of the best. Whilst a 1915 edition of The People cautiously asked ‘If not Delaney, then who have we in England more entitled to dispute the champions titles?’, some went as far as to say he was the ‘best prospect in the world’
When war was declared, however, the Broomfield boy was within reach of, but still devoid of his British and now world-title opportunities. Welsh had won the world championship less than a month before the conflict started and once again moved to America in search of big fights and bigger money. Welsh’s refusal to enlist led to widespread accusations of cowardice in the British press. Welsh refuted these criticisms, declaring ‘I can do far more for my country out of the trenches than in them’. He may very well have been on to something. Boxers played an important role both in and out of the armed forces. They fought in exhibitions to entertain troops, encouraged enlistment and raised large sums of money in charity boxing matches or by auctioning their gloves. Given the martial nature of the sport and the linguistic markers it shared with war, however, boxers were held to represent the perfect soldiers. The majority of Britain’s best boxers enlisted and those who did not were thus accused of cowardice or greed. These men who ‘shirked’, it was thought, were born to fight and continued to fight for money, whilst fathers, sons and brothers left factories and offices to fight in ‘the big fight’
No such criticism could be levelled at Jerry Delaney as the press celebrated his decision to turn down a lucrative offer to fight in Australia in order to join up for ‘a private’s pay’. In doing so, he represented the apotheosis of English patriotic masculinity, foregoing the selfish financial incentives and corruption which worried so many critics of modern boxing. As a well-known fighter, Jerry joined hundreds of fellow athletes, amateur and professional in bolstering the ranks of the newly-formed 23rd Royal Fusiliers (1st Sportsman’s). Undeterred in his quest for official recognition, Jerry remained very active during the war, fighting professionally several times in London and Liverpool and requesting his increasingly well-deserved clash with Welsh. Following respectively convincing and unexciting wins at the National Sporting Club over American Jack Denny and Londoner Willie Farrell (a second win during a rematch), the conflict and Jerry’s service commitments actually served to intensify the boxing community’s calls for Welsh to do the right thing and give the enlisted man his chance. Delaney himself stepped up his campaign, arguing quite prophetically that he might be sent away to war before he got the opportunity that he had so patiently earned.
During his military training in Essex, the boxer exploited his battalion’s symbiotic relationship with sport. He was able to make the most of the unit’s facilities and gain special dispensations as an elite athlete whilst his talent was greatly in demand for many exhibitions of sporting skill which kept his comrades entertained. In France, he repaid the favour further when he easily won the 1915 2nd Divisional boxing championships in which he had done ‘what he wanted’ with opponents far below his calibre.
Delaney’s time fighting on the Western Front was, of course not restricted to the squared circle though in both forms of conflict he proved to have ample skill, bravery and, perhaps most importantly, for a time at least, luck. On one occasion, the now the specially trained bomber was residing at the head of a bomb-throwing sap when, according to a letter home, a German sniper’s bullet went straight through his cap, literally parting his hair, scraping the top of his scalp and leaving him with nothing more than a bloodied trail marked on the top of his head. As a friend remarked after his death, that was ‘about as near a knock-out blow as you could get’.
Another remarkable moment in Delaney’s war occurred sometime in early May 1916. The exact details of the event are unclear as sources appear to contradict each other. Some claimed that Jerry recovered a seriously wounded colleague, despite personal injury. These reports suggest that the boxer was injured in the leg and abdomen during a routed attack on an entrenched German machine gun positon but, seeing a wounded comrade lying in the mud, he picked him up and struggled his way quickly back to the British lines. An article published after his death, however includes a slightly different but more detailed version. Recounted by an eyewitness, Corporal Coyle was one of the individuals responsible for reporting what he had seen in order to recommend his comrade for a gallantry award and is thus potentially more reliable, provides a variation on a theme.
Recalling the events of that bright, moonlit night in early May 1916, Coyle remembered ‘lying in a front line of trenches just where the enemy had made a gap with artillery fire’. To fix this breach, a bombing party was sent out consisting of Pte Mackay, Pte Jerry Delaney, Pte Hopkins and L/Cpl Whitlock. The first to breach the parapet and leave the relative refuge of their trench were Mackay and Whitlock. After a while had past, the rest of the party heard Whitlock shouting back. It became clear from his calls that Mackay was badly wounded and in desperate need of help. Apparently with little concern for personal safety, Jerry showed his stout boxer’s heart, immediately jumping up and over the parapet in search of Mackay. On finding his wounded friend, the boxer hastily moved to return them both to their terrestrial sanctuary, moving quickly towards their lines. As they came once more into view, the British opened a barrage of covering fire which the Germans appeared to mistake for the start of a raid. Their response was to lay down a combination of rifle, machine gun and artillery fire, throwing down shot and shell into a storm of steel through which Delaney continued, undaunted. Despite what seemed like an impossible task, contrary to other sources Coyle declared that Jerry displayed remarkable athletic agility and passed through this corridor of death completely unscathed.
Unfortunately, Delaney’s efforts to save Mackay were not enough. His injuries were too severe and he passed away on the following day. The Bradford man’s valour, which an observer described as ‘worthy of a V.C.’, did not go unnoticed and he was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal which was eventually downgraded to a Military Medal. Local and national newspapers around Britain rushed to publish notices of the well-known man’s award but confusion remained regarding his exact entitlement. It was widely and erroneously reported, as late as 1960s, that Delaney had been awarded the DCM.
The minutiae mattered little to the proud Irish community in the north of England who soon heard of his bravery ‘at the front’. In his home town, a testimonial fund was arranged in his honour and organisers conceived of a boxing tournament in a local Irish centre to contribute to the fund.
When festivities had subsided and he returned to the fray, he once more showed the bravery and ‘soldier’s spirit’ which he had effortlessly transferred from boxing ring to battlefield. The luck that had seen him escape certain death with a mere scrape to the scalp apparently avoid a wall of steel and fire could not last forever. Just before his death, Delaney’s colonel had offered him several weeks of leave in which to train for a forthcoming fight. Turning down this valuable and no doubt deserved reward for his sporting talent, he told the officer ‘I’d sooner go up, sir,’ ‘I’m here to fight Germans. What would my boxing pals in London think of me if I were to shirk my proper job now?’.
On 27 July he and a number of volunteers including Corporal Whitlock went up the line to Delvile Wood as part of a bombing section. Again the sources are contradictory and somewhat muddled. They variously claim that he was found by a search party lying within yards of the German line or that he was in fact ‘killed by a machine gun bullet, which struck him soon after he climbed the parapet to charge’. Whatever the truth of the matter was, it remains the case that this bombing raid was his last. The regiment had lost one of its bravest soldiers and the country one of its most talented athletes and proudest patriots as Jerry Delaney passed once more between the ropes, this time from life into death.
His passing caused sadness to all that knew him and many that did not. The Sporting Chronicle mourned his death on its front page. ‘Every sportsman in the country’, they solemnly but proudly declared ‘will this morning pay silent and noble tribute to the sacrifice made by the young boxer’ and many sporting fans wrote home of their disappointment and sadness.
Tributes continued to pour in and a fund was started in his memory. Aided by generous donations from Lord Lonsdale, it raised enough money to erect a significant memorial to him Bowling Cemetery, Bradford which read ‘ERECTED BY FRIENDS AND ADMIRERS OF A BRAVE SOLDIER AND NOTED BOXER’. Alongside the memorial, the fund provided for modest financial instalments to be paid to his grieving mother.
More than a century has passed since Jerry Delaney last laced up his gloves and his name has long passed from the memory of even the most ardent fan of the noble art. Those who make their regular pilgrimages to the old front lines tell stories of famous fallen athletes such a Ronnie Poulton-Palmer or Walter Tull but rarely, if ever, stand below the towering red arches of Thiepval and recall his name. His Bradford memorial today looks as impressive as the day it was built but stands today un-molested by grieving ‘FRIENDS AND ADMIRERS’ and the 23-year-old’s story remains just one of the many examples of pugilists who might have given so much to the sporting world, had they not died in what they saw as ‘the greater fight’ for civilization. This much is true but next time you are wandering between the trees in Delville Wood, and the flickering of light between trunks tricks the eye into seeing dark green figures of soldier-like appearance, or when you are staring up at the names carved indelibly into the stone, bathed in light or shadowed in darkness on the faces of Thiepval memorial think of ‘one of the most promising fighters the world has ever seen’ and remember ‘quiet’ and ‘gentle’ Jeremiah ‘Jerry’ Delaney.
Evening Despatch, Friday 22 September 1916
Leeds Mercury, Wednesday 5 May 1915
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Tuesday 23 February 1915
Sport (Dublin), Saturday 27 May 1916
Sporting Chronicle, Saturday 5 August 1916
The People, Sunday 25 April 1915
The People, Sunday 2 May 1915
The People, Sunday 20 August 1916
Editor: Well I have to say that was an amazing story, well told, of one incredible man and I’m very grateful to Conor for sharing Jerry’s story with us all. A Yorkshire link as well what more could you want!
Conor can be found on twitter @InThatRichEarth if anyone would like to follow him, don’t stalk him of course!!