Private Bernard Donald Keenan
Died 23rd July 1917
Bernard was born in the last quarter of 1897 at Oakwood, a farm to the south of Little Stretton on the east side of the A49. The 1901 census recorded the family as still living at Oakwood and it consisted of father, James Aveline Keenan who was born in Church Stretton, mother Florence who was born in Wistanstow, and three children: James Aveline Cadwallader aged 9, Grace Kathleen aged 7 and Bernard Donald aged 3.
Oakwood Farm April 2018
Ten years later in 1911 the family lived in Little Stretton and Bernard was aged 13 and is no longer the youngest child as, shortly after the 1901 census, Robert Leonard had been born and was then 9.
In the autumn of 1915 Bernard became 18 and at the start of 1916 conscription was introduced so it is possible that Bernard was amongst the first tranche of conscripted men. According to the Genes Reunited Armed Forces site he enlisted at Church Stretton and the use of the word enlisted may suggest that he offered his services before conscription required him to join. The net result was that Bernard joined The Liverpool Regiment but was later transferred to The Machine Gun Corps.
Shortly after the formation of the MGC, the Maxim guns were replaced by the Vickers, which became a standard gun for the next five decades. The Vickers machine gun is fired from a tripod and is cooled by water held in a jacket around the barrel. The gun weighed 28.5 pounds, the water another 10 and the tripod weighed 20 pounds. Bullets were assembled into a canvas belt, which held 250 rounds and would last 30 seconds at the maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute. Two men were required to carry the equipment and two the ammunition. A Vickers machine gun team also had two spare men.
British Vickers machine gun crew wearing PH-type anti-gas helmets. Near Ovillers during the Battle of the Somme,
July 1916. The gunner is wearing a padded waistcoat, enabling him to carry the machine gun barrel. IWM
photograph Q3995, with permission. Note that the left hand soldier has an MGC badge on his shoulder.
Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum Collection
The MGC saw action in all the main theatres of war, including France and Belgium, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Salonika, East Africa and Italy. In its short history, the MGC gained an enviable record for heroism as a front line fighting force. Indeed, in the latter part of the war, as tactics changed to defence in depth, it commonly served well in advance of the front line. It had a less enviable record for its casualty rate. Some 170,500 officers and men served in the MGC, with 62,049 becoming casualties, including 12,498 killed, earning it the nickname 'the Suicide Club'.
While the undeniable bravery and self-sacrifice of the corps stands testament to the men and their regimental esprit de corps it is also a symptom of the fixed belief on the part of senior commanders that machine guns were confined to a marginal if useful role, that of an adjunct to massed rifle fire, ignoring the proven potential of this weapon. Courtesy of Wikipaedia.
Why has the British military hierarchy got such a long track record of failing to see the potential of new weapons and tactics? Each of the military innovations of the last century initially caused considerable resistance as can be seen in the following cases: the development of submarines, tanks, machine guns, the use of unconventional units operating behind enemy lines and co-ordination between the army, navy and air forces.
Bernard was killed on 31 July 1917 and is commemorated on The Menin Gate Memorial near Ypres and so it is reasonable to assume that he was killed in the Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele. The Third Battle of Ypres was made up of four battles the first of which was Pilckem Ridge This battle started on 31st of July 1917 and lasted for three days until the 2nd of August. During this short period British casualties and dead numbered 31,850 and German losses were about the same.
Map courtesy of Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Third Battle of Ypres continued until November 1917 and finally ended with Canadian troops capturing the strategically important village of Passchendaele. During the four months of fighting losses on both sides were heavy with estimates of German losses ranging from 217,000 to 400,000. Historians have spent a century analysing the casualty figures but the mid point of their results is that the Allies and the German forces both sustained around 260,000 casualties.
The Church Stretton parish magazine carried the following obituary to Bernard:
‘Bernard Donald Keenan was born Sept 25th 1897, he was educated at Ludlow Grammar School, he went into the Liverpool Scottish Regiment in Sept. 1916, and after being trained at Park Hall, and Grantham, he went to France in December, 1916. After the battle on July 31st near Ypres, he was given a report of the battle to take to the Brigade Headquarters but neither he nor the report ever reached head-quarters. His Captain wrote, “A company of men like B.D.Keenan would be invincible.” Bernard Keenan loved music and loved the church services. On returning to his home on leave one Sunday Evening about the time of the Evening Service he went into the Church and took his place in the Choir as usual before going home.’
A War Gratuity of £6-1-8 was paid to Bernard’s father on 4 February 1918 and a further £3-10-0 was paid on 17 October 1919. The family received Bernard’s British war Medal and a Victory Medal.
James Snr and Florence lost two sons and the depth of the grief they felt is difficult to imagine.