Galloway’s Great War
Elizabeth Keith from Whithorn contacted The Galloway Gazette with a reminder of the sad story of her great grandfather James Keith, who was killed in action on July 12th, 1915 at Gallipoli while serving with The King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
In 2006, The Galloway Gazette published the following article, written by Stephen Norris, about Private Keith and how the curiosity of one great-granddaughter in Canada uncovered his tragic demise and put her in touch with Private Keith’s other great-granddaughter in Whithorn.
It all began after The Galloway Gazette received a plea for help from 4000 miles across the ocean ...
Ann Taylor, of Orangeville, Ontario, Canada was looking for any information about her great-grandfather Private James Keith from Whithorn, Wigtownshire, Scotland after her children urged her to find out more about her Scottish roots.
Pte Keith, of ‘A’ Company, of the 5th Battalion KOSB, died amid the carnage that was Gallipoli in July 1915. Ann was desperate to find out all she could about her great-granpa after hearing a book was being compiled about the 5th KOSB.
All she had to go on were a set of precious war medals, what records she could access through the internet and the fragmented memories of a three year-old child.
That three year-old was 46 year-old Ann’s grannie, Sally Keith, who was taken by her bereaved mother, Sarah Keith (nee Neil, of the Neil family from Bladnoch near Wigtown) on an emigrant ship to Canada in 1918, three years after her husband James had been killed at Gallipoli.
James and Sally had married on April 30th 1915. Only 11 weeks later James was dead. Sarah was pregnant with the twins her husband would never see. One infant died soon after birth, but Sally survived to reach Canada with her mother.
With the help of local historian Joe Whiteford, the Whithorn branch of Private Keith’s family were contacted. It turned out that the soldier had a young son from a previous relationship, and incredibly, his son (Private Keith’s grandson) James ‘Jimpy’ Keith had in safe keeping three letters from the Red Cross and Order of St John sent in 1916 to Pte Keith’s mother, Mrs John Keith, (nee Annie McCallie) in response to her anxious enquiries to find out what had happened to her son.
The letters, signed by Sir Louis Mallett include graphic eye-witness accounts of the murderous fighting in which Pte. Keith was killed. The first, dated March 27th 1916 states: “Dear Madam, with reference to your enquiry about your son, we send you with regret a report which we have received from L/Cpl. Wm. MacRobert of the same Regiment, but B Coy, who is now in the Southern General Hospital, Somerville College, Oxford and whose address is St. Crispin Street, Creetown, Kirkcudbrightshire.
“He says that on the 12th July, near Krithia, after a very big attack, he was told by John McCleary of the same Regiment, A Company, that he had seen James Keith killed.
“He does not give us McCleary’s number, but he says he is in the 155 Brigade, 52nd Division, M.E.F and MacRobert thinks that he can probably furnish you with definite information, we suggest therefore that you should write to McCleary.
If we should receive more direct information about your son we will at once send it on to you. Meantime, we beg to assure you of our sincere sympathy.”
A week later, Mrs John Keith received a second letter, dated April 4th, 1916, containing a report from Pte.W.Thompson 2047, of the K.O.S.B.
He states: ”Keith came from Whithorn in Galloway, is a baker in civil life and a man of about 5’7”-8”, dark and clean-shaven.
“I saw him lie wounded in the head and in the thigh, in the third line of Turkish trenches on July 12th. (1915)
“He was looking very pale and asked for water and was bandaged up. This was about midday, the attack began at 8am and we were driven out of this trench about 3pm.
“There was heavy fighting for three days, and I am afraid the wounded would have to be left.”
Sir Louis Mallett says: “We fear this unsatisfactory report agrees with the one previously sent on to you; but we are trying to obtain further and more definite information.”
Mrs Keith finally received the news she had been dreading in a final letter, dated 23rd May, 1916. It contains an account from Pte Keith’s commanding officer, Captain E.N.Gibson, of the 5th K.O.S.Bs. He states:”Pte Keith was very severely wounded in the head in a Turkish trench which we took on the 12th July and held. He was bandaged up by 2nd Lt Salmon of A Coy.
“I think he must have died of wounds and his body was probably put over the parapet as they had to clear the trenches of bodies, but he may have received a burial. This took place about 10am.”
Sir Louis Mallett told Mrs Keith: “Second Lt Salmon is with the 5th K.O.S.Bs at Richmond, Yorks.
“We much regret having to send on such sad news, but we fear it leaves no doubt as to the ultimate fate of Pte Keith. We assure you of our very sincere sympathy.”
Having uncovered the fragile letters, Joe Whiteford was even more surprised to find that a story about Pte Keith’s suitability for war service had been handed down through the generations.
Joe recounted what he had been told: “He (Pte Keith) didnae need to go because he was terribly short sighted. When he was standing at The Ra’ mooth (The Ra’ is Kings Row, a street leading on to Whithorn’s main thoroughfare), he couldnae see the toon clock - an’ yet he signed up tae shoot Turks!”
Meanwhile over in Canada, Ann could not believe her chance call to the Gazette had turned up so much news about her great-granpa - or that Pte Keith was one of 11 children.
Five years ago Elizabeth erected a memorial stone to her great grandfather in Whithorn Cemetery next to the grave of Private Keith’s parents, Annie, who died in 1940 aged 73, and John, who died in 1928 aged 78.
Samuel Hodkinson’s photograph is one of a handful on display in the First World War kept on file in Newton Stewart Museum because he was a former pupil of the Douglas Ewart High School. Unfortunately there is no know information about Samuel life and, if he survived the war, what happened to him afterwards. If you have any information please contact Louise on 01671 404767 or email her at [email protected]