Out Now!

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Letters from South Africa

Not a troopship, but the photo (Liverpool Landing stage) evokes for me the moment Sergeant John Keyton went to war with the Royal Irish Rifles.

I've always been nosey. Every nook, cranny, or unexpected surface was always explored. It was in this manner my brother and I found our father's Service Revolver. We were children, still fighting World War II in our minds. Our mother came in to find me pointing the gun at my brother's head and pulling the trigger. I remember the click and my mother's cry of alarm. Luckily that particular chamber was empty and the gun was whisked away from us. It was never seen again.

One other thing I found was a small packet of letters in the cupboard-drawer of our living room. Something completely instinctive prompted me to copy them. Unfortunately I never finished. My dad came in and caught me reading one of the letters. These were private, I was told, and they were burnt. I feel a residue of guilt publishing them now, but I think they tell you more about the man and the time than any harm to his name.

When I read them now an old music hall song comes to mind: 'Soldiers of the Queen' It evokes an Imperialist past. The tune is both jaunty and melancholic, and even now can bring a tear to the eye.

There is love in the letters, a touch of gentle sarcasm in the second letter, but the third captures the nitty gritty of conditions in the field. Things don't change much in the British army.

By the way; the 'Mike' referred to in one of the letters is not me! I'm not that bloody old, or so biologically flexible.


My Dear B
I have received your letter and can only conclude that you are ill. Why do you not tell me what the matter is? If I have to take a dose of nasty medicine, I like to take it all at once. Now for goodness sake my dear B. Do not keep me in suspense. Let me know exactly how you are.
The has been some fighting outside here but the Boers.........? It will be something all the way to Pretoria.
Things are getting a little cheaper here, so I will be able to send you a little money. I am sending two pounds...wish you to buy something for yourself with it. I daresay with a few....you can write a long letter now as I must try and get to the Field Post Office as soon as it opens, or you may have to dream of your money. I might be detailed for duty as soon as it opens, so I will now conclude, giving my best respects to you mother Mary and Phil, Mike and Doris and family, Tom and Lizzie and family, and all enquiring friends, and write soon to your Affectionate husband.
2232 Serg. J Keyton
H.Company1/ The Royal Irish Rifles. South Africa Field Force.

May 14 1900

My Darling B
I have just received three letters from you. I had given them up for lost as the Boers had captured some of our mail. I have not received Mike's parcel, but that is nothing to be surprised at, as the major portion goes astray.
About bringing you out here, I find that I shall be able to come home but then I shall have to pay for my own passage out again, and that will leave a big hole in the thirty pounds allowed if I should remain in the country.
I recieve a house grant of lands and one shilling per diem for five years, and must put in 14 drills a year. But I will see how things are at home first. You say that a Warehouse man sounds like a Porter. There is a slight difference. The Porter gets about 8/-6d a day and the Warehouse man 15/- So there is a slight difference.
I am glad to hear that you are alright. I expected all the time that there was something the matter with you, and you might as well have told me about it. You would at least have been more in pocket for I should have sent you everything....

May 21 1900

My Darling B
Just a few lines to let you know that I am alright, in good health and spirits, hoping you are the same, and not forgetting the yonkers.*(children)
There has been some fighting here. We lost about 140, and last night they tried to burn us, but the grass here is about one foot high, sometimes higher, and they set it on fire. All the country was on fire for miles. It was a beautiful sight, but we stopped their little scheme by making another around our camps, and let it burn back. Everything, even the wind was against us, and we had a very hard battle with the flames but eventually succeeded.
The cold at night is fearful, the water frozen in our waterbottles and no chance of ... until the sun comes out and thaws it. We get our rations raw and it takes us about two hours to boil a canteen of water. We have only grass to make a fire with, no wood to be got anywhere, and the amount of grass it takes to boil a quart of water is so surprising. I am trying an experiment with cow dung today. I will tell you in my next letter how I succeed...Our blankets are about worn out. We have two a man and they are no thicker than newspapers, and at nights under them on the frosty veldt is something not to be forgotten in a hurry.
We marched to this place, stopping at Winburg...look around for ...and rifles. We had some very stiff marching. We have no news whatsoever of the... outside world. I sent you five quid (£5) and lost the receipt, so that if it went on the Military, you have a good chance of losing it.
I was expecting to be home for Whit Sunday but there is not much chance now, and I am considering whether I shall be home Christmas. It is rumoured that we leave in October. I have only on envelope so if I cannot send.....

This is the last letter we have. Sergeant John Keyton died in July of that year, leaving two children, one he'd never seen, and a very strong woman who loved beautiful things.
The next posting will tell the story of Bridget Agnes Keyton.

Liverpool Pierhead at the time of Agnes Keyton.

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