History - A Good Soldier and a Fine Character (by John Mills)

Whilst touring the First World War battlefields of the Ypres Salient in Belgium I visited the graves of Frederick Keens and William Clayton, two soldiers named on our war memorial who were killed in the fighting near Ypres in 1915. Since the summer I have been looking into the background of these men, and others named on the memorial, and I plan to display the information I have found in the Main Hall on Remembrance Sunday.

However, I thought that you may be interested to know that the nephew of Fred Keens is the Rev Harold Ward and he has made available the Alderley Edge and Knutsford Circuit Magazine of 1915. The magazine was published each month and the 1915 edition contains many references to the men and women on our memorial. Included are the following articles about Fred Keens:

July 1915

“Our Knutsford congregation has the mournful distinction of having lost at the front one whose name stands on the Roll of Honour and on the Roll of Membership too. A memorial service for the late Private F.J. Keens was held on Sunday morning, June 20th. 

One of the hymns sung, ‘When thy soldiers take their swords’, had been sung more than a year ago at a service at which he and about a dozen others were received into church-membership. We hope it may be possible to make a further reference to the memorial service next month.”

August 1915

“Exigencies of time and space prevented us from making more than a brief reference in last month’s magazine to the Memorial Service held at Knutsford on June 20th. The circumstances were such as to impress the occasion strongly on the minds and memories of those who were present, especially the young friends and companions of our departed comrade. The hymns sung and the consolatory passages of scripture read will for many persons continue to be strongly associated with that service.”

Also in August 1915

“Our Church at Knutsford is mourning the loss of Private F. J. Keens, who has laid down his life in the Great War. The sad news that he had died at a field ambulance as the result of wounds received in action was officially communicated on Thursday, June 17th, to his parents. They had already spent some days in great anxiety owing first to absence of news and then to the tidings from comrades that he had been wounded. Much sympathy is felt with Mr. and Mrs. John Keens and their daughters. ‘

Fred Keens’ was not only on our Roll of Honour; he was on our roll of membership as well. He was publicly received into membership in our Church in December 1913 along with several young men and young women, and his last quarterly ticket of membership reached him by post in the very trench itself. Up to the time of his leaving for his twelve weeks' training,

Fred Keens was local circulation secretary for this magazine. He did this work admirably, particularly in securing new subscribers. He went into the great conflict deliberately and conscientiously, and it was and is a great satisfaction to his relatives that he declared very plainly before he went that if his life should be forfeited they would know that he was all right; and his manly young life bore out his confession that he was spiritually ready. Many had remarked in him a pleasing development of mind and character. He was 20 years of age. The choir, the Sunday-school, and very many people will miss him. We append an extract from a letter written by him in the trenches.

So far as can be ascertained, it is the last letter he wrote, and bears the field postmark of June 2nd:- ‘Dear Mr. Hudson, Thanks very much for your letter which I received in the trenches, a fact which one would hardly believe. I have been in 9 days up to the present date, and I shall be glad when we come out again for the rest. [Here follows an account of the way in which a bullet striking a sandbag covered the breakfast with sand.] The Germans are about 50 yards from us and are quiet in the day time but noisy at night. The noise of the shells, Jack Johnsons, and whiz bangs, etc., is terrific, and we keep ducking our heads thinking they are likely to hit us, whereas they go miles further on. We don't like one gun of theirs in particular. We call it a trench mortar. It plays havoc with the trenches, knocks sandbags forty to sixty feet in the air. I must say we see some marvellous but terrible sights. But thank God we still live.

I think every man here ought to thank God he has been spared, as the escapes we have are miracles. One other thing which might surprise you is that we still have birds singing around us, even though all this noise is going on and very nice they sound too; doubly so because they never were appreciated by me until now… Pleasing the Lord we all shall soon be home to tell our experiences. I am, Yours sincerely PTE. F. J. Keens’”

Fred Keens enlisted in February 1915, was posted to “France” in May, went into the front lines on 25th May and died of wounds on 4th June.

The title of this article is taken from a letter written by the Wesleyan Chaplain of Fred’s brigade who remained by his side to the end. There is a personal memorial plaque in the Church entrance which was donated by a sorrowing friend.

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