Melton soldier’s heroic rescue on a First World War battlefield 100 years ago

Bill Keightley (seated), a Melton soldier whio had both legs amputated after being seriously wounded during the First World War, pictured with friends outside the town's Working Men's Club EMN-151016-145922001

Bill Keightley (seated), a Melton soldier whio had both legs amputated after being seriously wounded during the First World War, pictured with friends outside the town's Working Men's Club EMN-151016-145922001

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They were born thousands of miles apart in the 1880s but 100 years ago during some of the fiercest fighting in the First World War their paths crossed in one of the most heroic incidents recorded in recent military history.

Bill Keightley, a 20-year-old soldier from Melton, had gone over the top during the Battle of Loos but he lay severely wounded in a German trench for 36 hours after enemy machine-gunners had hit both of his legs.

Cis Keightley, of Melton, holding a report about Gurkha soldier Kulbir Thapa, who bravely saved the life of his father while the Battle of Loos raged in France during the First World War in September 1915 EMN-151016-145005001

Cis Keightley, of Melton, holding a report about Gurkha soldier Kulbir Thapa, who bravely saved the life of his father while the Battle of Loos raged in France during the First World War in September 1915 EMN-151016-145005001

His chances of surviving on a French battlefield which was to claim more than 50,000 British casualties were slight until a Gurkha soldier called Kulbir Thapa suddenly joined him in the trench.

The Nepalese rifleman ignored Bill’s pleas to save himself and he stayed with the weakening Melton man before braving the bullets and shells of ‘No Man’s Land’ to get him back to British lines so he could get the medical attention which saved his life.

Richard Lane, a historian for the Leicestershire Regiment, which Bill was attached to, said: “Thapa stayed with him through the day, the night and until early the next morning and then he carried him to a place of safety before going back to pick up two wounded Gurkhas from the same trench.

“Then he picked Bill up again in his arms and started to walk back towards our lines.

“Apparently, the Germans stopped firing at this point and just applauded him.”

Both men later met King George V as a result of the incident. Thapa attended Buckingham Palace to receive a Victoria Cross - the highest miliary honour - for his extraordinary deeds that day.

And the monarch, accompanied by Queen Mary, also went to see Bill in hospital as he recovered from his horrific wounds. Both legs were eventually amputated - they were left in a state where they were not suitable for articifial limbs so the remainder of his life was spent in a wheelchair or by moving around using just his arms.

The extreme disability did not hold Bill back, however, because he met and married Edith soon after the war and the couple had eight children.

Bill’s son, Cis (85), who lives in Saxby Road, recalled: “His arms were so strong. He used to do hand stands as easy as anything. Dad used to walk around on his hands all the time. He went down the working men’s club a lot and he used to play darts sitting on a table.”

Bill was born into a big family in 1894 at Asfordby Hill. His father was a furnace foreman at nearby Holwell Works.

The Keightleys moved into Melton to a house on Asfordby Road and after leaving school at 14 Bill found work as a printer at the Melton Times.

But he was determined to join the Army and was serving with the Leicestershires when war broke. Bill was in the thick of it on the Western Front and in January 1915 he was mentioned in dispatches for his scouting work during the ferocious Battle of Ypres. His war ended early, though, following that remarkable incident with Gurkha Thapa.

Cis, who served with the Royal Artillery from 1947 to 1959, received an MBE for serving the Melton branch of the Royal British Legion for more than 50 years including many hours collecting for the annual Poppy Appeal.

Several times he has visited the Loos battlefield where his father, who died in 1967 aged 73, was so gravely injured and on the last trip a few weeks ago he suffered a minor heart attack.

Cis will be spending this year’s Remembrance Day across the English Channel next month with a party in the village of Berles-au-Bois where nearly 4,000 Leicestershire Regiment soldiers were billeted during the Battle of the Somme. The memory of what his father went through is never far from his thoughts.

“Kulbir Thapa must have been a marvellous man to do what he did. The Gurkhas are fine soldiers and they don’t get the credit they deserve,” said Cis.

He added: “My dad was a jovial man when I was growing up and he never talked about what happened in the war.”