Armistice Day celebrations a century ago (and last Sunday) were bitter-sweet. A terrible war had finally ended.
A series of letters published in the Mudgee Guardian, written by Private Kenneth Gordon Keech (later Corporal), to his parents Mr and Mrs Edwin Keech of “Lilydale” Rylstone, between 1914 and 1916, reveal much about that terrible war.
Kenneth left his brothers James and Edwin to look after their six-year-old farm “Laurella” on Goonoo Goonoo Road Tamworth and enlisted at Randwick on 27 August 1914. The fourth son in a large family of ten sons and six daughters, he was aged 28, born at Rylstone, unmarried and a Methodist, 5ft 6½ ins tall, weighed 11½ stone, and had an appendicitis scar. He was fit for service. The Mudgee Guardian described him as “an eloquent speaker, a good Church worker and a splendid hand at landscape painting.” He was also an accomplished, elegant writer, as his letters show.
At the beginning it was a big adventure, a chance to see the world – after all, everyone knew travel was broadening. Gracious me! We’re having a glorious experience, he wrote four days after they arrived in Egypt, on 12 December 1914. They were camped at Mena at the foot of the Pyramids and Sphynx, an easy electric tram trip to Cairo. We are only doing two hours drill in the forenoon each day here and get plenty of time to tour the interesting neighbourhood. He visited the Zoo, one of the best in the world, and Museum, with embalmed bodies of kings and relics up to 5,000 years old. He describes the primitive methods of farming, the lovely buildings in the centre of Cairo and the awful slums. He learnt about ordinary life in Egypt, visiting the School of Agriculture, a boys’ high school, a girls’ school, a brewery and a cigarette factory, where 1,000,000 cigarettes are made daily.
Beginning army life as a stretcher bearer in the medical corps, he was trained at Mena in nursing and first aid, dealing in medicines and with the sick, bandaging and such. Even in 1914, before Gallipoli, it seems, Australian soldiers had established a reputation: They say, the Australian soldier is the best stamp of men that ever came to Egypt, hailing from high-grade families. We are all great big, strong, healthy, fit men… We’re the best soldiers here (the Australians).
Kenneth was at the landing at Gallipoli and described their involvement in that wonderfully grand yet awful fight…There was bayonet attacking, counter-attacking, with the muttering of thousands of rifles, the whiz-zt of bullets, the scream over us of our great navy shells bursting in front of us, ending their death message in the enemy’s midst. White clouds were ever forming over us from the bursting of the enemy’s shrapnel shells as the 100 odd, dirty, round, lead pellets, nosecap and fragments, all in their humming hurry found their mark in their broadcast scatter…Everyone was cheerful even the wounded. Dying men would smile and say, “I don’t mind it a bit…we’ve got them beat…”
After a determined artillery attack on 11 May an armistice was called to exchange bodies across a mid-way line and bury the dead, you can well imagine the density of the putrified air...When the armistice was up, everyone was at his post and at the word “go”…our artillery opened simultaneously, hurling things into fresher air.
Kenneth was wounded twice. On 15th May a bullet glanced him on the temple and dropped out, leaving a split over his eye (he chose to go back to the line). Two weeks later a rifle bullet struck him an inch above the knee, and glancing upwards, rested about midway up the thigh. He was transported to Egypt with 1,600 to 1,700 other wounded soldiers.
It is obvious that convalescent life had some comforts. We’re having an excellent time, he assured his family. This is a right royal holiday. The Sultan of Egypt visited as did numerous ladies, who distributed care packages, gave afternoon teas and built morale, though you get the feeling life was somewhat tedious. Then there is chess. I love that game and it wiles away the time so.
Kenneth spent about ten weeks in hospital and convalescence before re-joining his unit at Gallipoli in August. There is a fatigue entering his discourse now: the novelty of our artillery has quite worn off…we only take the same notice as we do in civil life of your neighbour’s dog barking. By November there is a bitter gloominess about the landscape, now a five inch fall of snow is thawing, while the wild wind is howling and still the dark, storm-smitten sky is shedding rain, sleet or snow. The last-named two, eddy and whirl into the trenches and dug-outs in their apparent confusion to get out of the cold. It is now that his parents learn of his third wound when he was hit by a shrapnel bullet in the back between the shoulder blade points, from his own artillery. I had a narrow escape from being killed. He had been on postal duties since his return to Gallipoli and the bullet had gone through his mailbag, dug into me and fell out. So now he had three bullets to show off when he returned! We’re as proud of our war scars as of our Empire’s freedom…for the liberty and freedom of others.
The last troops were evacuated from Gallipoli to Egypt on January 8 1916 but not before Kenneth received parcels from Rylstone: a sheepskin vest, writing pad, soap, cigarettes, billy, cake and sweets. Once again he saw the productive irrigated flats of the Nile Valley, rode a train that went 70 miles per hour, visited the American Mission School and had his photo taken, as we’ll almost certainly be fighting long before you get this.
We next meet Kenneth ‘somewhere in France’ on 30th April 1916, where they’ve been in the firing line for over a week, experienced asphyxiating gas and lachrymatory (weeping) gas and have had a fair casualty list. Nevertheless, he takes pleasure in the rugged and wonderfully beautiful…grape country…the trees are all bursting into leaf. He ends, our health is excellent and all of us are quite happy, though our future is a very serious one, everyone knows. In May he writes: the migratory swallow is twittering his greeting of spring and I will visit the land of my forefathers shortly…I am as keen on seeing the place as if it was my birthplace.
I can’t tell you what was in his last letter, handed to the Mudgee Guardian the day before he was killed in action on 24th July 1916, in the Battle of Bazentin Ridge (part of the larger Battle of the Somme). I don’t think it went to print.
A few months later Kenneth’s brother Aubrey Charles Keech, aged 21, enlisted. He was killed in action on 4thOctober 1918, one day before the last action of Australian troops in WW1. Their brother Percy, aged 18, enlisted in August 1918, too late to serve overseas.
That terrible war was about ordinary young men wanting adventure, itching to test their heroic capacity on foreign battlefields, wanting to prove their love of country and empire. In the case of Kenneth, he discovered that army life could be boring, much of the time it was terrifying, that if he looked around he could discover hope and beauty, but in the end, life on the battlefields was a matter of luck.
The featured image is of the poppy display for the Armistice Centenary at Kandos, November 2018
To see an image of Kenneth Keech click below: