By Angela Clark
Walter Keating, my grandfather, was born in Chester in 1881 and lived with his family in William Street, Newtown, Chester. He was one of eight children, the three eldest were born in County Mayo, Ireland, the remaining five were born in Chester.
Along with thousands of men of his generation, Walter Keating was called up at the beginning of WW1, which was a very difficult time for all, especially men with young families like those of the Keatings. Along with thousands of other local men he was conscripted to the Cheshire Regiment before moving to the South Lancashire Regiment. Leaving a wife to bring up small children alone, knowing that he may never return, must have been heart-breaking.
He was, after a short spell of training, sent to France. His particular theatre of war was Ancre in Thiepval, Picardy, and he took part in the Battle of Ancre Heights which was one of the last and bloodiest battles of the Somme. It was there that he was awarded his Military Medal. He was a private, and military protocol dictated that had he been a ranking officer, his Military Medal would have been a Military Cross.
His medal was awarded for rescuing comrades whilst under heavy German fire and in the face of one of the heaviest bombardments of mustard gas in the Somme battles. This was recorded in the London Gazette dated 19th February 1917 and confirmed in a formal letter signed by King George V.
He returned from the war a troubled soul, mentally scarred from what he had witnessed and endured, he found it difficult to come to terms with everyday life. The effects of the mustard gas and trench foot had taken their toll and he was left with a racking cough. Despite this, he managed to find work with Chester Corporation as a yardman and held down steady employment on the site which is now St Werburgh’s and St Columba’s Primary School in Lightfoot Street, Hoole.
He was unable to tackle physical work because of the effects of the mustard gas during his time spent in the trenches. Home life was now close to the breadline. Supporting a wife and 8 children made great demands of him with which he was poorly equipped to deal, and the death of a much loved daughter Margaret, at the age of fifteen, was a devastating loss to all the family.
Our mother, Emily Cunniff, late of St Werburgh’s Parish, recalls him being constantly cold, he would sit in front of the fire on his return from a day’s work and shiver. My
grandmother would cover his shoulders with a blanket and sometimes he would weep for his lost comrades. I suppose today we would say that he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the aftermath of war. He died in 1942 aged 61 a lifelong parishioner of St Werburgh’s where he was baptised, married and were his children were baptised and attended school.
Please use the form below to get in touch if you would like to contribute more stories of the Irish in Cheshire during WWI!