Tag Archives: History Press

William Keith and the Battle of Jutland

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.

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William as a boy, appropriately dressed in a sailor suit.

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.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Publication

War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front is now available to purchase via The History Press, Amazon, Waterstones and other websites.

Christina cover

It tells the story of a young academic from Thurso who travelled to France towards the end of the First World War as a lecturer with the army’s education scheme. Christina was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which was most affected by the war. The two themes of education and war intertwine through the book.

Christina writes with warmth and affection of her encounters with the troops, while her account of travelling across devastated battlefields is both vivid and moving. The book also includes letters written by her brother, David Barrogill Keith, from the Front.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Women’s education and war

It’s two years now since I first became fascinated by the memoir of Christina Keith, my great-aunt from Thurso. My father – her nephew – has owned this manuscript for many years and I knew of its existence, but had never actually read it. Now it’s to be published. SKMBT_C28413080512270

Christina was an academic who spent much of her working life as a lecturer in Classics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Born in 1889, she was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which would be most affected by the First World War. These two themes, women’s education and war, intertwine in Christina’s story.

Towards the end of the First World War – although it’s worth remembering that when she signed up she didn’t know it was ‘towards the end’ – Christina travelled to France to take part in the army’s education scheme. She taught soldiers of all backgrounds, immersed herself in army life, and was one of the first women to travel across the devastated battlefields once the guns had fallen silent. She has left a fascinating memoir of her time in France which offers a truly fresh perspective on life on the Western Front as the conflict drew to a close.

I spent a wonderful few months in 2012 exploring Christina’s story from her early years as the eldest child in a large Caithness family, through her choice to pursue an academic career in male-dominated subjects, and on to her time in France.  The resulting book consists of my narrative of Christina’s story, her own memoir in full with explanatory notes, and some letters written by her brother Barrogill Keith from the front line. It will be published in March 2014 by The History Press, and you can preorder from Amazon or Waterstones.

Lots more on this to follow over the next few months!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.