Christina Keith, whose extraordinary wartime story you can read in War Classics, was the eldest of eight children. The Keith family, like so many others, saw one child after another drawn into a different aspect of the First World War. One of her brothers, William Bruce Keith, joined the Navy and was involved in the Battle of Jutland, the centenary of which is being remembered today.
William is known as ‘Uncle Bill’ in our family, but when he was a young boy his brothers and sisters called him ‘Willie’. He was born on 15 April 1898, so was just 16 at the outbreak of war. According to my father:
William wanted to go into the Navy and he discovered that he had just missed the date by which he had to apply and he would have to do something else, and then the war broke out so he was able to get in after all.
The Navy at Scapa Flow was a very real presence in the lives of the Keith family living in Thurso, and in her memoir Christina often refers to the familiar sight of battleships in the Pentland Firth. In 1916 William, now aged 18, was a midshipman on HMS Warspite. He describes the whole engagement in vivid detail in a letter to his brother Barrogill, who was serving with the army in France.
Our steering gear now got jammed and we started turning in circles – just before the ‘Defence’, which was quite close to us, caught fire and vanished. We were now helpless and the Germans seeing us turning in circles singled us out and concentrated on us. We had about 6 or 7 firing at us, and we couldn’t reply as we were turning so quickly that the guns wouldn’t train fast enough. Shells were bursting all around us, and I thought it was all up. One shell dropped so close that the spray from it drenched us in the foretop. We were hit several times and one small splinter came into the foretop.
Eventually the focus of the battle moved on, and they managed to sort the steering and were ordered to return to Rosyth. In an understatement so typical of the writings of the time, William says they were ‘rather hungry and tired’. Fourteen men had been killed and sixteen wounded. Inside the ship they found a scene of devastation, with chairs, tables, lamps and pictures broken into pieces. All lifeboats and rafts had been smashed, and they were in immediate danger of being torpedoed, so the men made makeshift rafts from the broken furniture. They eventually made it back to Rosyth in safety, and William writes, ‘when we got inside the Forth Bridge we did feel thankful.’
He was able to take some leave at home in Thurso, just across the water from the naval base at Scapa Flow on Orkney. Today, one hundred years on, a service was held in beautiful St Magnus Cathedral to commemorate the 8500 men, both British and German, who lost their lives in the Battle of Jutland.
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