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Heroes of the Great War by  G. A. Leask


 

 

LANCE-CORPORAL KEYWORTH'S EXPLOIT AT GIVENCHY

[216] THE war, as we have remarked, has proved that the Territorials are first-class fighting-men. Before the outbreak of hostilities many people were apt to regard them lightly. Some went so far as to call them 'Saturday afternoon soldiers.' These people were mistaken; the young business men who gave up their Saturday afternoons to drill and marching were not playing at soldiers. They were preparing for a great crisis which, when it came, found them ready. The great majority signed on immediately for foreign service, and very early in the war certain of the Territorial regiments were sent to the front, where they proved themselves equal to the best traditions of the regular Army.

Later in the war many other Territorial units, after having received a large, influx of [217] new recruits and having been thoroughly trained, crossed to France. The second battle of Ypres established the reputation of the Territorials to be regarded as equal to the Regulars in coolness and gallantry. Men who but a few months before had been adding up figures in a ledger in the City or serving customers behind a counter showed that they were the stuff of which heroes are made, and exhibited to all the world splendid fighting qualities. To tell of all the gallant exploits of our dashing 'Terriers' is impossible within the limits of the present volume. All that can be attempted is to single out a few of their most outstanding heroes, and the Territorial whose great deed is here described has earned a place in this select band.

Lance-Corporal Leonard James Keyworth, 24th (County of London) Battalion the London Regiment, popularly known as the 'Queen's,' was the third London Territorial to win the V.C., and the first so distinguished to die in action.

At the time of which we write Keyworth was twenty-two years of age. A good all- [218] round athlete, he was intensely fond of cricket, and carried his love of sport to the field of battle, where he 'played the game' with wonderful success. He was an excellent fast bowler and fielder, and this prowess, doubtless, helped him in the bomb-throwing which won him the V.C.

Upon the last occasion that Keyworth went out to play cricket before enlisting, he said to his mother, "We shall win." She told him not to be so sure, but he replied laughingly, "I always play to win." Even in the trenches Keyworth was fond of talking about cricket, and never 'bowled' better than on the night of May 25—26 at Givenchy, when his aim was deadly for the Germans.

Although a member of a London regiment, Keyworth was a native of Lincoln, where his parents reside. He was an only son, and was educated at the Technical School of his native town. After leaving he went into his father's tailoring business, but it was never to his liking.

Later he became a clerk in the offices of Messrs Burton, Scorers & White, solicitors [219] of Lincoln. He joined this firm at the time of the passing of the Insurance Act, and his work had to do with the Act. He was so employed when war broke out, and at the time of the great rush from all parts of the country to join the London Territorial regiments he was attracted to the 'Queen's,' with which regiment he went to the front in April 1915.

The fighting around Givenchy has been vividly described by Sir John French, and it is only necessary to allude to this famous battle-name in so far as it concerns the 'Givenchy V.C.'

The 'Queen's' had previously been in action, but it was not until toward the end of May that they firmly established their reputation as fearless fighters and a credit to the Army. Previously, to use Keyworth's own words, "I and my chums had already been 'blooded' before we were engaged at Givenchy. I mean we knew what it is to be under fire, for we had previously been in the neighbourhood of Festubert in a pretty tight corner."

It was at Givenchy that the 24th made their spirited charge, one so magnificent that [220] Lieut.-Colonel Simpson afterward said: "Men of the 24th, after what you did on Tuesday you can do anything; I am proud of you."

After a hot engagement round about Richbourg, the men of Keyworth's battalion had a spell of rest in billets. Then the order came to pack up, and soon they went swinging along to the trenches. By 6:30 that same evening two companies of the 'Queen's' were charging the enemy's lines.

In front of the 'Queen's' position there was a critical hill to be captured; from its summit and behind the Germans were pouring a deadly stream of machine-gun fire. To charge the position meant traversing the open, and the attack had to be made without any support from our artillery. Yet it had to be done, and the men went at it in fine style. Accompanying them, carrying bombs, was the 9th platoon, of whom Keyworth was one. Keyworth and his platoon went to the left of the hill, the bayonet men to the right. The British attack had been successful, and it was now necessary to prevent the Germans counter-attacking. [221] Crawling up the slope the former came under a terrific enfilading fire, from which only Keyworth escaped.

He said afterward that he had no clear recollection of what he now did. "Things were so hot, so terrible, so dreadful, that we had no time to think coherently."

However, he realized that it was neck or nothing. It was up to him to throw as many bombs, and do all the damage he could in order to save the rest of the battalion.

Hg had crawled up the ridge on his stomach, and was only a few yards away from the Germans. He had a plentiful supply of bombs, and was kept supplied by the men from behind. Standing up he took careful aim and hurled the first bomb at the Germans.

Then he dropped prone to prepare another missile. Rising again, he threw the second, and dropped once more. For two hours he went on doing this, coolly and systematically. He was fully exposed to the enemy's fire each time that he stood erect on the top of their parapet. The night was dark, but his figure was silhouetted against the sky. "I did not [222] realize that I was fully exposed," he said, "but I was conscious all the while that I was being continually sniped at." He threw from first to last that night about 150 bombs. Every time he took the utmost pains to judge the distance.

His aim was so deadly that at one o'clock in the morning the Germans stopped throwing their bombs.

Keyworth by his great skill and bravery had won single-handed a victory as telling as if he had commanded hundreds of men. He made a counter-attack impossible and so prevented the Germans retaking the positions wrested from them in another part of the line. How many of the enemy he actually accounted for will never be known.

Of all the V.C. heroes Keyworth surely had the most miraculous escape. He was fully exposed to the enemy's fire for two hours, yet came through practically unscathed, although his comrades who set out with him were all killed or wounded.

"Men were shot down by my side," he said. "Still I continued, and came out safe. I only [223] did my duty, but how I came out God only knows."

Once a piece of shell brushed his ear, blinding him with dirt. Later a bullet hit the metal case of a little mirror he carried in his pocket.

It speaks well for the bravery of the battalion that his companions, knowing he was out on the exposed parapet, gallantly endeavoured again and again to bring sandbags up to him to serve as a protection, but every hero who tried it was either killed or wounded.

When he returned home Keyworth received well-deserved praise, and honours were heaped upon him. His native town of Lincoln rose to the occasion, and showed in no uncertain fashion its pride in the hero who had so honoured it.

At a great demonstration at the Corn Exchange Keyworth was presented with an illuminated address and a purse of gold. The citizens gave him a rousing welcome, and he gave them his views on the needs of our Army in a few words brief and to the point. "It is men, thoroughly equipped in every respect, [224] that is the greatest need just now, and let us have plenty of them. With the men we want more munitions."

While on leave during the summer of 1915 Keyworth spent many days in obtaining recruits. He was thoroughly alive to the need of arousing young men to join the colours, and after a happy and useful period of furlough returned to the front to do further service for his beloved country. He did not live long after his return. He was in action in October, and received wounds from which he died. Lieutenant-Colonel J. Eustace Jameson, writing to Mrs. Keyworth on the death of her heroic son, paid him the following tribute:

"Your son, our comrade, was one of the highest examples of unselfishness and devotion to his comrades and to duty. His name will be enrolled among the bravest of the brave. After he had won the V.C. his one desire was to return to the front to help his comrades. Surely such a splendid and heroic death will help us to get recruits for the battalion of which he was an honoured member."


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