Keats, Bernard. Died 26th Mar 1918.

Bernard KEATES – or KEATS on the Rugby Memorial Gates – was born in Willenhall on 25 December 1898, registered as KEATES in Birmingham in Q1, 1899 and baptised as KEATS, on 26 January 1899 at St George’s, Birmingham, when his family were living at 8/4 St. George’s Street.

Both spellings of the surname seem to have been used indiscriminately, the family and enumerators adding the ‘E’, the military generally omitting it!

He was the third son of James Keates [b.c.1863 in Willenhall – a labourer] and Sarah, née Agus, Keates, [b.c.1873, also in Willenhall], whose marriage was registered in Wolverhampton in Q4, 1892.

The three eldest boys, Bernard and his two elder brothers, had been born in Staffordshire, but before 1901, the Keates family had moved to live in Rugby and was lodging at 28 Gas Street, Rugby. Bernard’s father was a ‘labourer carter’.

By 1911, the family had moved again and was living at 55 Pinfold Street, New Bilton, Rugby. His mother, now 38, was recorded as the ‘Head’ of the family – but was still enumerated as married, which she had been for 18 years, with five children, all still living – the three older boys, and now two girls, aged 8 and 4, who had been born in Rugby after the move from Staffordshire. Bernard was aged 11 and still at school. Their house had six rooms and they had two boarders. It is not known where Bernard’s father was as he seems to be missing from the Census.

There are very few on-line records of Bernard’s military career and no Service Records for him have survived. It seems that he enlisted in Warwick as a Private, No.35506 in the 1st Battalion of the Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire) Regiment. The absence of a date that he entered a ‘theatre of war’ on his Medal Card, suggests that this was after the end of 1915. A commentary on the war service of the 1st Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment gives an indication of where Bernard Keates may have served.[1]

In August 1914 the 1st Battalion were based at Tidworth … On mobilization the 1st Battalion left for France on the 13 August, taking part in the battle of Mons 10 days later and followed by the retreat from Mons. The ‘retreat ‘was a fighting withdrawal with a number of significant actions fought along that route. The battalion remained intact and ended the retreat on the outskirts of Paris. Once the line stabilized the battalion took part in the First Battle of Ypres, and Neuve Chapelle by which time they had lost 26 officers and 1000 men, the equivalent of a whole battalion. This was followed by trench duty at Hooge and then Kemmel where they remained for the remainder of the year.

[In 1915 -] The 1st Battalion spent the first few months on the Messines Ridge engaged in Trench warfare until March 1915. In March they took part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, followed by several more months in Trenches in the Dickebusch area. In June they took part in two attacks on the German Trench system round Hooge Chateau, where the fighting was most severe. The next few months were spent in the trenches near Ypres, Hooge, alternating with rest periods in the ramparts at Ypres, itself under shell fire. In September they took part in a Major battle at Loos. In October together with the rest of their Brigade they were transferred to a New Army Formation, the 25th Division to provide experience. They spent the remainder of the year in the trenches at Ploegsteert Wood. Christmas dinner was not eaten until the 1 January 1916.

It seems more likely that Bernard might have joined his Battalion in France in 1916.

At the start of 1916 the 1st Battalion were in reserve at Papot. They remained here for three months when they went south spending three weeks near St Pol. After relieving the French at Vimy Ridge they spent two months engaged in trench warfare near La Targette. Unspectacular work but it still resulted in 82 casualties. In July the Battalion moved towards the Somme area. They did not take part in the attack on 1 July but did go into action at Thiepval on 4 July. On the 22 July together with the 3rd Worcestershire Regiment, they assaulted and captured the Lepzig Salient, including the Hindenburg trench.   They withstood a number of counter attacks by the Prussian Guards all of which were beaten off. Other attacks followed together with more time spent in the trenches. In October they moved north and took up a position in the Ploegstreert where they were at the end of the year.

[1917 – ] The 1st Battalion started the year in the area of Ploegsteert, being relieved mid January for a fortnights hard training. In February they carried out a daring daylight raid in conjunction with the 10th Cheshire’s. The raiders won six Military Medals. In late February they were relieved by New Zealand units, spending the next seven weeks training. This was required due the reorganization of all battalions whereby each platoon became self sufficient in terms of weapon capabilities. The Army was starting to move towards mobile tactics. In April they took over some trenches from the Australians near Plogsteert. They went in and out of the lines until 7 June when the battalion took part in the attack on Messines Ridge. Two days later after hard fighting they had taken 148 prisoners and 7 machine guns,   but they had sustained 170 casualties.   One of the officers being awarded the Military Cross in this action was Captain R Hayward (later to win the Victoria Cross). This was a significant action because in taking this high ground it improved the situation in the Ypres salient, which had been overlooked by the Germans for most of the war. In July they moved to Ypres and had their first taste of mustard gas. At the end of July they took part in the attack on Westhoek Ridge remaining in the area under heavy shell fire until 5 August. After a short rest they returned to the Ridge to support other units under pressure from the Germans. On 10 September they moved south to join the First Army moving into the Givenchy Sector, near Bethune where they took up a position in October remaining for two months. At the beginning of December they were transferred once again, this time to the Third Army, to the Laqnicourt Sector near Bapaume. They were at this location at the end of 1917.

[1918 – ] The 1st Battalion started the year in the Laqnicourt sector, North East of Bapaume remaining there for two months.

On 21 March 1918, the Germans launched a major offensive, Operation Michael, against the British Fifth Army, and the right wing of the British Third Army.   The artillery bombardment began at 4.40am on 21 March 1918, and hit targets over an area of 150 square miles, the biggest barrage of the entire war. Over 1,100,000 shells were fired in five hours.

On 21 March 1918 they [the 1st Battalion] were in reserve at Achiet-Le-Grand when the German Army launched a major offensive. The battalion were in contact with the enemy for the next six days during which Captain Hayward MC won the Victoria Cross. By the end of this period the battalion was reduced to Company strength.[2]

It would appear that Bernard was wounded – presumably in that period when the Battalion lost so many men, between 21 and 25 March 1918 and was taken prisoner, and then died of his wounds, probably at a prisoner of war camp on 26 March 1918, although his date of death was also recorded as 24 March 1918 on some of the earlier records. He was buried in a German Cemetery, adjacent to the German prisoner of war camp, at the east end of the village of Oisy-le-Verger. This cemetery originally contained the graves of 24 prisoners of war from the United Kingdom, six from Italy and three from Russia, and 247 German soldiers. It was and about 5 miles north-west of Cambrai.

After the war, the British soldiers buried at Oisy-le-Verger were ‘Concentrated’ [exhumed, moved and reburied]. Bernard Keats’ ‘body naked’ was identified by a standard cross, and the German burial list and plan. There were no effects. Bernard was reburied in the Ontario Cemetery at Sains-les-Marquion in Grave ref: II. E. 15.   There was no personal message from his family on the memorial stone – it is possible that they could not be traced.

Sains-les-Marquion is about 2 kilometres south of Marquion, which is on the Arras to Cambrai road, some 14 kilometres from Cambrai. Ontario Cemetery is 1 kilometre due south of the village. The cemetery was made at the end of September and the beginning of October 1918, after the capture of Sains-les-Marquion (on the 27th) by the Canadian Division. It contained, in its original form, the graves of 144 soldiers from Canada and ten soldiers (or sailors of the Royal Naval Division) from the United Kingdom … It was enlarged after the Armistice by the concentration of graves, partly from the battlefields, but mainly from the many neighbouring German cemeteries, including … Oisy-Le-Verger German Cemetery, …

Bernard’s Medal Card showed that he was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He is also remembered on the Rugby Memorial Gate, and as KEATES, B., on the New Bilton War Memorial by the chapel in Croop Hill Cemetery, Addison Road, Rugby.

 

RUGBY REMEMBERS HIM

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This article on Bernard KEATES was researched and written for a Rugby Family History Group [RFHG] project, by John P H Frearson and is © John P H Frearson and the RFHG, January 2018. It is dedicated also to the memory of Graham Gare who had chosen to undertake the research on this soldier before his untimely death.

[1]         http://www.thewardrobe.org.uk/research/history-of-regiments/the-duke-of-edinburghs-wiltshire-regiment-1881-1920-the-wiltshire-regiment-duke-of-edinburghs-1920-1959. Further details may be found in the Battalion War Diary, The National Archives, Piece 2243/3: 25th Division, 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment (1915 Nov – 1918 Jun), also available at www.ancestry.co.uk

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[2]         http://www.thewardrobe.org.uk/research/history-of-regiments/the-duke-of-edinburghs-wiltshire-regiment-1881-1920-the-wiltshire-regiment-duke-of-edinburghs-1920-1959. Further details may be found in the Battalion War Diary, The National Archives, Piece 2243/3: 25th Division, 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment (1915 Nov – 1918 Jun), also available at www.ancestry.co.uk.

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