Willie McFadden

Army Heavyweight Champion and WW1 Veteran.

Written by Rob McFadden Great-Grand Nephew.

William “Big Willie” McFadden was a boxer and World War I veteran who
served in the Royal Marine Artillery from 1893-1919. He survived the
sinking of HMS Hogue in 1914, saw action at the Battle of Jutland in
1916, and was a two-time heavyweight boxing champion of the British Army
and Navy.

Early Life

Willie was born to Seamus and Anne McFadden in 1876 in the townland of Kilfad and grew up in nearby Killoughcarron.

He was the eldest of 14 children. In 1893, at the age of 17, Willie ran off to Scotland where he enlisted in the Royal Marine Artillery. Marine Gunner Willie spent much of the next 25 years in British warships traveling the globe.

According to his army records, his destinations included China, South Africa, the Mediterranean and numerous ports of call in between.

Best Shot in the Army

In 1903, Willie scored top marks in a fleet-wide gunnery competition was awarded the rare “Good Shooting” medal, designating him as the best shot in the entire British Navy.


Willie was the 1900 and 1902 heavyweight boxing champion of the British
Army and Navy. He spent more than 15 years trading blows in both
military tournaments and civilian prizefights, and won more than he
lost. Known for his size, strength, and stubbornness, he was never quite
able to crack the sport’s top tier, but Gunner McFadden was a known
fixture on the English boxing circuit. One of the biggest fights of Willie’s career came in 1905 when he faced off against Irish Champion and Wexford legend Jem Roche.

The highly-anticipated matchup, a bonafide spectacle, played out before a
packed house in Dublin for a purse of £100, more than an average year’s
wages at the time. Willie hung tough early, but Roche ultimately put his
man down in the 12th.

World War 1

At the outset of the Great War, Willie was assigned to the armored
cruiser HMS Hogue, an outdated ship that had been deactivated since

On 22 September 1914, just six weeks after the U.K. entered the
war, The Hogue and two of her sister ships were on patrol in the North
Sea when they were torpedoed and sunk by a single German submarine.

More than 1400 men were lost that day, including 376 of Willie’s shipmates.

Willie himself was wounded in the leg and spent four hours in the water
waiting to be rescued. It was 10 weeks before he was well enough to
return to duty.

The following spring, Willie received his next assignment – HMS
Warspite. In sharp contrast to the obsolete Hogue, the Warship was a
brand new battleship designed to outrun and outgun any enemy.

It was put to the test in 1916 during the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval
battle of the war. The Warship was heavily shelled during the fighting
and 14 of her crew were killed.

Later Life

Willie briefly traveled to America but spent most of his later years in
Portsmouth. He died there in 1948 and is buried at Milton Cemetery.

Fencing Medalion 2014

A medal won by Willie in a 1901 military fencing tournament was
recovered by a metal detector at Canvey Island in south Essex. The
family that found the medal, the Claytons, generously reached out to the
McFadden family and returned it to Willie’s relatives free-of-charge.

Willie was the Grand Uncle of GAA football star Colm mcFadden.

Published by mairead collett

Living the rural Life in Donegal, raising children and writing about my local area.