BY PHILIP RUSSELL KEIGHTLEY CAPT.. R.G.A.
|Most lovely is his resting place:
Upon a gentle hill he lies,
While at his feet twin rivers trace
Their pathway 'neath his Irish skies.
The rooks make curious melody,
And all the air is full of song;
The squirrel leaps from tree to tree,
For spring is here, and days are long.
Yet days for him have had their end,
And nights for him are dark no more,
Although the golden summer spend
The riches of her magic store.
With beauty round him for a shroud,
The tired soldier sleeps at ease,
Nor will he wake though long and loud
The wind roar through his sheltering trees
For him the storms of earth are still;
For him all wars have closed in peace.
He sleeps upon a holy hill,
Till storms and war alike shall cease.
THE writer of these pages had hoped among his other dreams to tell at some future day the story of his experiences in the Great War. The fragmentary transcripts of a short yet crowded life contained in this book were not meant for publication. They were intended only for one beloved and cherished correspondent. Written at odd moments and under the most unfavourable conditions, in the trenches, in midnight watches, in hospital, in the mess-room they reflect the mind of the writer at the moment. They are the instant picture of the scene painted in living colours while the mighty drama was slowly evolving. In this consists their charm and value. They are sincere, natural, spontaneous, impressed everywhere with a sense of the actual. By a touch or two the scene lives before us in its humour or its tragedy. They are a chapter, however insignificant, in the history of the Great War which the formal historian does not touch.
But this insignificant chapter is not without its interest. It contains all that made the war glorious and heroic, the spring and source of our victories and final triumph. The daily life in the firing line, the patient endurance of our young men, their unconscious heroism, their instinctive devotion to duty, their cheerful, indomitable gaiety, and always their splendid courage in the shadow of suffering, disaster, and death this seems to me almost the most wonderful thing in the mighty epic of the war. On that life of patient work, suffering, and endurance is built the story which will go down to future generations, the grim stand at Ypres and the victorious onrush at the Somme. It is a glimpse of that life which is revealed in these pages.
The writer of these letters would have been the last person in the world to have claimed that there was anything exceptional in his character or conduct. He would have laughed scornfully at any such suggestion. In the life of the firing line, courage was a commonplace ; it was taken for granted. Men went over the top, or endured through days and weeks the iron rain of the trenches, as part of the day's work, and had no conscious pride in their heroism. Duty became the habit of their daily lives, and self-sacrifice and suffering were its natural and inevitable companions. There was nothing theatrical in their attitude of mind. They did not pose as the saviours of the world, as indeed they were, but they freely and ungrudgingly gave themselves and their young lives because their country needed them, and they felt their country was right. And the tragedy is that of all those who gave up their lives for their country there was hardly one who did not hate war with his whole heart, and the inevitable horrors it brought in its train.
The declaration of war found Philip Keightley a student of Trinity College, Dublin, with a shy love of literature, an overflowing contempt for the learning of the schools, an enthusiasm for all forms of athletic exercises, and a genius for friendship. During his two years at the University he drank of the cup of life with all the joyous gaiety of youth. He was not a lover of the lecture room, he scorned examinations, but his friends were legion. Nor was it wonderful that he should have many friends. His mirth was always overflowing, his laughter was a thing good to hear. He carried with him a sense of open air and space and sunshine. But beneath this outward gaiety was a character which the atmosphere of war afterwards rapidly broadened and deepened. He was full of a fine considerateness for others, and was. a great lover of the lame dog. Where he saw his duty clearly nothing could turn or move him. Chivalrous and high-minded to a fault, he hated all shams and pretentions and meanness's with an utter hatred.
With his tastes and habits it would have been wonderful had he not been an enthusiastic member of the University Officers' Training Corps, and he immediately applied for an infantry commission on the outbreak of war. But more than a year elapsed before his desire was gratified, and it was not till December, 1915, that he was finally gazetted a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. Here he at once found his true career. His early letters written while engaged in coast defence in the South of England, where he spent his first six months, are full of the delights of his new life and his interest in his work.
The humours of his men were a continual feast to him. There was a fresh romance in his daily duties. Every little incident took shape and form as a great adventure.
The following extract will give the reader
some idea of the spirit in which the young soldier regarded his
work and the thoroughness with which he carried it out :- " In
spite of all my grumbling — that is one of my privileges — I
never notice the flight of time. The Army seems to specialise in
the word `do' preceded by the word `Sir.' The great thing is to
be able to follow with the still more magnificent word done.' I
find no difficulty in enjoying every moment of leisure, and when
at my work I am much too busy and too interested to think of
"A few days ago we had a draft of some fifty men sent us from Ireland, and have now had another thirty-five added. These have been handed over to me entirely and I am hustling them into shape. My opinion of the intelligence of the lower class Englishman is not high when I compare him with the keen, quick-witted Celt. But they are easy to handle, and they seem too bovine and placid to mind my exhortations or the curses of my sergeant, who is a Scotchman of fiery temper.
" I fired my first shot yesterday. A tramp steamer sailed blissfully into the prohibited mine area. Our look-out reported it to me, and I did my best to send a shot across her bows as per instructions. It did not go within two hundred yards of her, but in gunnery hundreds of yards do not count on an occasion like this.
Great excitement reigned all over the Eastern Defences, as well as on the steamer, which never travelled faster in its natural life. The commander of the aforesaid Defences came down personally to see me about the matter. I think he would have liked to tell me off, but as I was simply carrying out his own instructions, which were perfectly clear, he could only mutter something about 'overdoing the thing.'
" Now there is a long list of new instructions to meet such an occasion. The crowning joke is that my Battery Commander complimented me, and I have since bathed in the admiration of my fellow subs, which I try to bear with all becoming humility. The crowning joke is that my Battery Commander complimented me, and I have since bathed in the admiration of my fellow subs, which I try to bear with all becoming humility."
In September 1916, he set out for France on the Great
Adventure, and it was his fortune to be sent with his battery to
the deadly salient of Ypres. Here he spent the winter of 1916,
and the greater part of 1917, and here he saw war in its most
revolting aspects. In his letters he touches lightly, and always
with a dash of humour, on his experiences during this time, but
it was only on his return home on leave after nine months'
hardship that his friends observed the change that had been
wrought in his character. In that terrible forcing house the
growth was rapid. Youth had put off its mercurial and careless
gaiety ; manhood had arrived with its earnest purpose and its
resolute questioning of the eternal problem of pain and
He had his own view of the influence of war upon character. On one occasion he was asked whether that influence was beneficent or injurious, and his reply was characteristic. " I don't know. What Suits one man admirably will poison another. It probably makes a good man better, and a bad man worse. If you have any virtues, God knows some of us have few enough, it gives them soil and room to grow, and if you have any vices, there is no better place in the world for their cultivation. I thinks it depends on the character of the man himself. I have seen good men grow into fair imitations of saints and heroes, and bad men turned into arrant swine rooting in the mud. But even in the worst there is some good, and it is our business to find it."
He was probably right. That world of mud and blood, with its dug-outs and cellars where men lived like animals, that monotonous round of arduous duty, that daily spectacle of sudden death, tried the soul of youth as in a furnace and discovered the best and the worst. Its influence upon his own character was unmistakable. He had become familiar with death and suffering. In his lonely hours he had had much time for quiet thought and life had assumed a new aspect. But this year in the salient was always a nightmare of which he did not care to speak, and his joy was great when he was transferred to the Somme in the autumn of 1917. Here he took part in our first victorious advance towards Cambria, and later had a full share in the peril and hardship of our retreat when the Germans made their final despairing push towards Paris. His description of the happenings of that memorable week in which the 3rd Army was doggedly falling back, always with its face to the foe, seems to me a most admirable piece of descriptive writing, a series of little vignettes as picturesque as they are real.
There is little more to be said. When the Armies of the
Allies resumed the defensive his battery was once more in the
firing line, and the declaration of the Armistice found him
somewhere near Le Cateau, greatly dissatisfied that the victors
had held their hand on the threshold of another Sedan.
He had already been gazetted to a commission in the Regular Army, and he now obtained the promotion to which he had been eagerly looking forward as a recognition of faithful work and arduous service. He returned home in February, 1919, on leave, and then, passed away after a few days' illness. But, indeed, there was an added pathos in this tragic end. During the last few hours of his life his mind was always back with his old comrades in the firing line, heartening, strengthening, encouraging the men he loved, and in the shadow of death he saw Death with an heroic and invincible courage. And he went into silence with a smile of final victory on his face. At twenty-four and a few weeks he had finished his lifework.
A fellow-officer, who had been with him at Ypres and on the Somme, writes of him after his death :" He was the kind of soldier most to be admired, because, although lie hated the war as much as any of us, he never shirked his duty but always did his job. As a companion he was the merriest, most charming comrade, and we all were devoted to him. With this character and his great ability lie would have done great things if only he had lived. But apart from the pain of parting there is nothing but love and pride and confidence."
Something, perhaps, may be allowed for the generous praises of a friend who loved him, but this estimate is substantially accurate. His own ideals were of the highest, and none was so ready as himself to confess his own shortcomings. Nor, when well considered, had he lived in vain. To have done his day's work with all his heart and strength, to have left a multitude of friends who admired and loved him, to have lived a clean, manly, joyous, and valorous life, to have left a memory of gracious, kindly deeds, and never to have known the bitterness of failure or disillusionment, such a life is not all vanity, and it is well to have lived it.