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Frederick Keeling

(1886-1916) – Bearded soldier

A Winchester-educated socialist, Keeling refused an officer's commission and would not shave off his beard. What was good enough for the King was good enough for him. He joined the DCLI as a private soldier and edited the battalion journal 'Red Feather' with a future editor of 'The Times'.

Credit: Cornwall’s Regimental Museum, Bodmin

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Ben (as he was always known) Keeling must rank as one of the most remarkable soldiers of the Great War.  The opening sentence of the Preface to his collected letters written by H.G. Wells reads: ‘Ben Keeling was a copious, egotistical, rebellious, disorderly, generous and sympathetic young man’.

Born on 28th March 1886, he was educated at Winchester, being awarded a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1906, where he obtained a First Class History degree.  While at university he became a confirmed socialist, founding the Cambridge Fabian Society.  Keeling devoted his life to working in the East End slums of London.  As President of the Board of Trade in the Liberal Government, Winston Churchill heard of his activities and employed him in the Civil Service to organize the first Labour Exchanges.  He rapidly became the acknowledged expert on the casual employment of labour and the employment of young people in Britain and Europe. 

In spite of being a confirmed socialist he had a deep seated fear of the power of the revolutionary elements in Russia, his sympathies initially being with Germany in the months leading up to the Great War.  In spite of this, in August 1914 he joined the Artists’ Rifles, an officer-producing Territorial Force Regiment based in London.  He decided against a commission, transferring to the 6th Battalion the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry as a Private soldier.  His abundant letters told of his happiness and sense of achievement as he worked up the ranks.  He became an intimate friend of Lieutenant Robert Barrington-Ward (later to become Editor of the Times), and between them they founded and edited a battalion journal known as the ‘Red Feather’.  From his first days in the army Keeling expressed his individualism despite all efforts of the military establishment to persuade him to conform.  He wore a luxuriant beard which he refused to shave off, saying that what was good enough for The King was good enough for him.  He must have possessed an extraordinary strength of personality to carry off such an act of wilful disobedience.

The 6th battalion crossed to France on 22nd May 1915.  Keeling was at that time an NCO (Non-commissioned Officer) in the Bombing Platoon.  The bombers performed one of the most dangerous tasks in any attack, moving along enemy occupied trenches from traverse to traverse, killing the occupants with mills grenade and bayonet.  Keeling showed a wild disregard for his own safety and was soon wounded.  After a short period as an instructor at the Brigade Bombing School, he returned to the 6th Battalion as a Company Serjeant Major commanding the Bombing Platoon.

He was killed at the battle of Delville Wood in August 1916.   

Key words: casualty, trenches

Credit: Cornwall's Regimental Museum, Bodmin