Keeling Brothers, Veterans of World War 1

Abraham Keeling – 12th Battalion

Robert Keeling- 18th Battalion

On 1st April 1914 a warrant was issued for the arrest of Robert Keeling. He had disobeyed a magistrates order to pay support for his child. Robert was described as being about 28 years old, very dark complexion, dark brown hair and a small dark moustache. His middle and ring fingers on his right hand were missing. He was said to be addicted to alcohol.

Robert was the grandson of convict Abraham Keeling who had been transported to NSW from England in 1822. Robert was born in the village of Broulee near Moruya on the NSW south coast. Early in the 19th century Broulee Island was joined to the mainland while the river at Moruya was blocked by a sand bar. As a consequence Broulee was planned to be the major settlement in the area. Land went on sale in 1840 and a post office, court and police station was established. Then series of events occurred to change the town’s fortune. Moruya rose into prominence while Broulee deteriated into lawless outpost. The Keeling family, who settled in the town in the mid 1840’s, remained. In 1875, father William had married Margaret Backhouse. The first child was a daughter who died as a child. Then there were two sons, Abraham, born in 1881 and Robert, born in 1886. Two more daughters followed. Twins were born in 1896. Then, 1898, another daughter, Wilhelmina, was born and both twins and the mother, Margaret, died.

Abraham moved to Western Australia to work in the gold mines at Kalgoorlie. He spent his working life far underground. After the gold ore had been blasted from the rock wall, Abraham broke it into manageable blocks and loaded it into ore trucks. When World War I began, he enlisted in the Australian Army. He was assigned to the 12th Battalion, 3rd Brigade and sailed for Egypt on 18th January 1915. On 25th May 1915, the 3rd Brigade was given the task of providing covering fire for the landing of troops at Anzac cove, so Abraham was one of the first to arrive at Gallipoli. From the moment they landed at 4.30 am, the 12th battalion came under heavy enemy fire. Six days later Abraham was shot in the chest and had to be evacuated to Cairo. Luckily the wound was not serious and he returned to his unit in mid-July. Nevertheless, his days under fire were limited as he contracted influenza mid August. This developed into Bronchitis in September. He was sent to hospital in Malta and did not rejoin his Battalion until February 1916, long after the Anzac’s had returned to Egypt following their evacuation from Gallipoli.

At the end of March, 1916, Abraham and his mates sailed from Egypt to France. On the day they arrived at Marseilles, Abraham was promoted to Lance Corporal.

Robert Keeling also enlisted in the Australia Army. By the time the war began, father, William had moved to Bateman’s Bay. When he enlisted, Robert lived with his father and was employed to drive carts for the local timber mills. On enlistment, he was posted to the 18th battalion. He left Australia for Europe and arrived in Marseilles at the end of February 1916. His battalion was immediately sent to the Front, close to Armentieres near the Belgium boarder.

At the end of June, Robert took part in a raid against a German trench. Artillery was fired at the enemy in two five minute bursts. The aim was to destroy the barbed wire in front of the enemy trench. This was only partly successful because the raiding party had to spend several minutes cutting through the wire. Fortunately, the bombardment had destroyed the machine gun. But, while Robert and his mates attempted to cut the wire, the German threw bombs at them. They were forced to withdraw. After regrouping, they attached again and succeeded in entering the trench and dropping bombs into six dugouts. Then the Germans counter attacked and the Australians were forced to withdraw again. The trench was occupied for nine and a half minutes. Seventy nine men had taken part in the raid. Fourteen were wounded.

On 30th July 1916, both brothers took part in the battle of Pozieres. Abraham was in the initial attack just after midnight on 23rd July 1916. This was preceded by a fierce artillery bombardment that included phosgene and tear gas. The 3rd brigade crept forward across no-man’s-land and succeeded in capturing the forward German trench. They then advanced through part of the village. The 8th Battalion joined the battle and secured the remainder of the Pozieres.

It was one thing to capture the village, another to hold it. The German counter attacks were ferocious. By the time the Australians were relieved on 27th July, they had suffered 5,285 casualties. Abraham survived.

Robert’s experience of the battle began on 30th July. The 18th Battalion were given a supporting role at Pozieres Heights. They formed work parties to dig trenches with picks and shovels. All the time their positions were being bombarded by German artillery. Sometimes they were shelled by their own artillery. They carted grenades, water and other supplies forward to the fighting troops. Although not directly facing the Germans, the 18th Battalion suffered many casualties, including Private Robert Keeling. He was shot in the ear and back of the head. He spent the next month recovering in hospital at Étaples, France.

Robert returned to his unit on 3rd September. He immediately got into trouble. He was arrested for being drunk on active service. On 14th September he was court marshalled, sentenced to 14 days Field Punishment No1 and fined 14 days pay. He served his sentence doing hard labour in a military prison. At the end of October, he was transferred to the 13th Battalion.

Meanwhile, on 8th August 1916, his brother Abraham was promoted to the rank of Corporal.

Robert’s time with the 13th Battalion was limited. By the end of November he was back with the 18th Battalion in the bleak quagmire of Flanders. In December he became ill with a form of rheumatism. It was so severe that he was evacuated to hospital in England. He remained in hospital until May 1917. He was then given leave before returning to France in July. He overstayed his leave and was again punished.

Roberts’s war continued.   Intense fighting in Belgium in September and October 1917 was followed with a day of AWL. Again he was court marshalled, sentenced to fourteen days punishment and 2 days loss of pay. Meanwhile his brother, Abraham continued to advance through the ranks. In April he was promoted to Sargent. In March 1918, Abraham was promoted to Quartermaster.

Abraham spent February in hospital with the mumps then much of the remainder of the year in various instruction courses. In April he went to Command School in England. He returned in time to fight in the second battle of Bullecourt in May 1917. In September he went to Lyndhurst, England for a bombing course that would see him absent from his Battalion until the beginning of November. After enduring a second Christmas on the front, Abraham was back in England in early January 1918 for extensive training in the use of the Lewis Gun. He rejoined his Battalion on 31st January 1918.

All the training paid off. At 10pm on the night of 13th March, a German raiding party attacked some advanced positions of the Australian 1st Division near Hollenbeck, south of the Ypres-Comines Canal. During the heavy bombardment that preceded the attack, a support trench was blown up and a number of troops were cut off. Abraham was acting quartermaster in the Support Trench. He organised the defence of the trench and then went forward to a number of troops who had been cut off from the main group. He brought back some prisoners then returned to bring back wounded men. He continued his comings and goings throughout the night under continuous heavy machine gun fire. For his courage he was awarded the Military Medal.

In 1918 thousands of German troops arrived in France following the end of fighting on the Eastern Front. Boosted by the influx, the German command ordered a major attack along the length of the Somme sector on the Western Front. The battle began on 21st March. The Germans advanced rapidly, pushing the front back 40 km, almost to the town of Amiens, in northern France. Finally the Australians halted their advance at Hazebrouck in July.

Amiens was a major transport hub and, if conquered, the Germans believed it would enable British and allied troops to be pushed back to the English Channel and open the way for a German advance on Paris. It was imperative that the town not fall into German hands. Thus it was the site chosen for an Allied counter attack. Both brothers took part in the battle which began on 8th August. That morning the battleground was covered by a thick mist. Advancing through the mist, the allied troops pushed the Germans back. They continued to do so on the following days.

On the 11th August, Acting Company Sergeant Major Abraham Keeling took a patrol a kilometre into enemy territory. He was attempting to find the 22nd Battalion, which was supposed to join onto the left of the 12th Battalion. He and his troops were attacked by riffle fire and grenades. Abraham was unsuccessful on the first attempt and on the second he was almost captured. Nevertheless he succeeded in finding the 22nd Battalion and was also able to bring back some valuable reconnaissance information. Later in the day, taking a Lewis Gun, he surprised a party of Germans a half a kilometre from the Australian forward position. He was later awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal because his action significantly contributed towards breaking up a German counter attack. He continued his heroic deeds until shot in the back.

Abraham was evacuated to England and admitted to an Army hospital in Bristol. He had a gunshot wound to his back and right chest. When he was shipped back to Australia in January he was said to suffer from a morning cough and be only 20% fit for work. The doctors thought he would improve with time. His father travelled to Sydney to meet his son when he disembarked. He was disappointed to find that Abraham have left the ship in Perth; so father and son did not meet. Later in 1919, his father died at his daughter’s home in Redfern.

After he arrived back in Australian, Abraham lived for a time in Fremantle. He had been well known in the Kalgoorlie area before the war and the subject of newspaper reports when wounded and decorated on the Western Front. He didn’t return there. He moved to the sparsely populated Pilbara. In the 1920’s he worked as a labourer at Cooglegong about 50km south of Marble Bar. Tin had been discovered there in 1900 and was mined for a time as an alluvial deposit. It was again mined during the 1920’s. The small village with a hotel, a store and a few houses soon became a ghost town when the miners moved on. In the 1930’s Abraham worked a Jigalong 170km east of Newman on the edge of the Simpson Desert. The settlement was initially established in 1907 as stations to provide maintenance and rations for those building the Rabbit Proof Fence. When Abraham worked there in the 1930’s, it was a camel breeding station. He had made a transition from mining to pastoral work, a trade he would continue until he died in 1959. Abraham remained at Jigalong after camel breeding was put out of business with the advent of motor transportation. In 1947 the station was taken over by the Apostolic Church for an aboriginal mission.

In the early 1950’s, when he was approaching seventy, Abraham moved closer to Port Headland. He obtained a position as a station hand on De Grey Station 80 km east of the port. Established in 1878, sheep were raised on De Grey Station in an area of almost 212, 500 km. What did he do there? Did he work around the rambling homestead with its wide verandahs and four dining rooms, so designed so that everyone on the property could eat with their social equals? Whatever the case, Abraham remained at the Station he died age seventy-six.

His brother, Robert lived his life on the other side of the continent. He survived the war uninjured but contracted Influenza in England whilst waiting to be shipped back to Australia. At the time England was in the grip of Spanish Flu and many diggers survived the war but succumbed to influenza. Robert spent some time in hospital but was able to return to Australia in April 1919. After four year of war, he returned to his old life. Again he lived on the NSW south coast living in and around Bateman’s Bay and Moruya. He worked in sawmills and in road construction gangs. He continued to drink heavily.

In 1924, Robert married Mary Luther in Moruya. The marriage didn’t last. By 1929 he was in trouble with the police again. He had neglected to obey a magistrate order to pay £15 maintenance to his wife. When the money was still outstanding six months later, Robert was sent to prison in June 1930.

By the 1950’s he had moved to the north coast and was living at Wauchope near Port Macquarie. In 1959 failing health resulted in his admittance to St Vincent’s Hospice in Lismore. He died there in 1961.

Robert and Abraham lived parallel but separate lives. Before the war both earned a living by the sweat of the brow, Robert in a saw mill and Abraham in a mine. They both joined the Australian Army. One rose through the ranks, the other bided his time as a private, who was often in trouble. After the War neither was able to successfully rejoin society.