If Bill Keightley had been a betting man, he would have thought the game was up. Machine gun fire had ripped through both his knees as he cleared the final few yards of No Man’s Land and gone tumbling down into a German trench.
Alone, in terrible pain, and with blood pouring from his useless legs, Bill must have thought, “This is it, this is the end.”
Except, incredibly, it wasn’t.
Bill, a 20 year old soldier from Melton, didn’t bleed to death. He didn’t die in the rutted mud of a French battlefield, like so many other young boys and men.
All we can say for certain is that after 36 hours – that’s 36 hours behind enemy lines, amid the whirling carnage of the Battle of Loos, the biggest action by British forces on the Western Front in 1915 – Bill had somehow got back to Allied lines and to a dressing station.
But how did he survive? How did he get from one side of No Man’s Land to the other when he couldn’t even walk? What happened? Who saved him?
These questions have been unanswered for almost 100 years.
The closing chapter of this unusual tale began two years ago, when Richard Lane, historian of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment, contacted the curator of the Gurkha Museum in Winchester.
Richard had questions about another Leicestershire soldier, Private William Buckingham. It was Private Buckingham who won the Victoria Cross for saving a number of men, including a Gurkha, in the thick of enemy fire during action at Neuve Chapelle on March 10 and 12 1915.
In the return correspondence, the museum curator Gavin Edgerley-Harris told Richard quite a tale.
Just a few months after Private Buckingham’s heroism, a Gurkha settled the debt of gratitude owed to this Leicestershire soldier by saving a man in the 2nd Leicesters, spending a day and night with him in No Man’s Land during the Battle of Loos before carrying him back to safety.
In doing so, this Gurkha rifleman became the first Gurkha to receive the Victoria Cross– the Army’s highest award for bravery. It was to be the first of many medals for the men from Nepal whose motto is “Better to die than live a coward.”
This incredible letter got Richard thinking. Who was the county soldier? Who was the Gurkha? What happened?
It was time to hit the books in the library.
Major-General Jacob, in the History of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, the Leicestershire Regiment in the Great War, sets the scene of September 25, 1915. It’s the first day of the Battle of Loos, the day Bill is critically wounded.
“The charge made by the 2/8th Gurkhas with the 2nd Leicesters of the Garhwal Brigade and by the 2nd Black Watch, 69th Punjabis and 1/4th Black Watch of the Bareilly Brigade could not have been finer.”
“The account of this action,” notes the book, “must not be allowed to close without mention of a very gallant act performed by Rifleman Kulbir Thapa, of the 2/3 Gurkhas, for which he received the Victoria Cross and which reflects as much credit on the man whose life he saved as upon the brave Gurkha himself.”
Sir John French, then Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, goes further. “During this action a deed, which could hardly be passed for bravery and self sacrifice, was performed by rifleman Kulbir Thapa.”
The account stirred something of a memory for the regiment historian. A bell rang in the distance.
Richard, a member of the Royal Tigers’ Association, recalled that the father of a fellow Tiger had spent a day and night in No Man’s Land during the Battle of Loos. He quickly got on the phone to Cis Keightley to check the story and the dates.
Cis Keightley MBE lives in Melton. He’s Bill’s son and, like his dad, was also in the military.
He served in the Royal Anglian Regiment during the Second World War and is a member of the Royal Tigers’ Association.
These days Cis is 84, but he still remembers those few things his father shared with him about the Battle of Loos.
“Before they went over the top,” says Cis, “the officer said to him ‘We’re going to take this position without losing a man’.”
It didn’t quite happen like that.
“The first man to get shot was the officer,” continues Cis, “he was killed straight away.
“These English officers were hunting toffs and they always said ‘follow me!’”
Bill, adds Cis, was one of “the Old Contemptibles” – the men who had been fighting the war since its inception in August 1914 to November 22, 1914.
“The Old Contemptibles,” says Cis, “they can’t be beaten.”
Bill had joined the 1st battalion Leicestershire Regiment as a regular soldier in 1913, having worked in the print room of the Melton Times and then as a crane driver at an iron works.
In 1914, he went from Ireland to France at the outset of the war.
In January 1915, he was mentioned in despatches in the London Gazette, for scouting duties. Soon after, he was wounded and returned home to Melton.
When he returned to France he was put in the Tigers’ 2nd Battalion. He was now a 2nd Leicester.
Before long the whistles sounded for the push at the Battle of Loos.
“They all got over,” continues Cis, “but my dad was riddled with bullets, the top of his legs. And he was picked up 36 hours later.”
It’s likely, through the blood loss and shock, that Bill’s grip on what took place in those long hours between life and death was loose at best.
“He did say he lay there for 36 hours. He would be perhaps delirious,” reasons Cis. “He never mentioned it, to be quite honest. Just that he was lying there 36 hours. Maybe that’s all he knew or was told. There was never any mention of a Gurkha saving him.”
Does he think it could have happened? “I don’t know, you see,” he says slowly. “It’s a possibility.
“It’s something we’ll never know.
“He didn’t speak a lot about that time and I should have quizzed him.
“But he didn’t talk about his experience, like a lot of men. Those who served in the Second World War were the same.”
Richard Lane, the regiment historian, thinks Bill Keightley is the soldier saved by Kulbir Thapa.
“Who else could it be?” he shrugs, before going through a checklist of similarities: the right date, the right regiment, the right place, the injuries and the length of time spent out on No Man’s Land.
“If it’s not Bill Keightley,” he says, “then who is it?”
Kulbir Thapa was in the third Gurkhas of the Garhwal Brigade of the 7th Meerut Division. At the push, Kulbir was in a party led by an officer that fought its way into a German trench south of Mauquissart. Although wounded, Kulbir was the sole survivor.
The citation for the Victoria Cross tells that Kulbir then found a badly wounded soldier of the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment behind the first German line trench.
“And though urged by the British soldier to save himself, he remained with him all day and night. In the early morning of September 26, in misty weather, he brought him out through the German wire and, leaving him in a place of comparative safety, returned and brought in two wounded Gurkhas, one after the other.”
In broad daylight, this soldier, a lion among men, heads back into No Man’s Land to rescue our Leicester.
He finds him, slings him over his soldier and carries him, bullets flying, those desperate yards towards British lines. It’s a sight that takes the breath away of the few men watching.
According to one account, the Germans stop firing. Their weapons fall silent and they can be heard shouting. Incredibly, they are shouting words of encouragement.
The Germans allegedly cheer and clap as Kulbir Thapa staggers towards the British line and the pair of them – the Gurkha and the young Leicestershire man – are embraced by British ranks as they reach safety.
There’s another piece of the puzzle which makes Richard believe it was Kulbir who saved Bill.
After the investiture in November 1915, when Kulbir received his Victoria Cross, it’s likely King George V asked him to recall what had happened. Soon after, the king and the queen went to visit the Queen Mary Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors, in Roehampton – the hospital where Bill was recuperating.
The king approached Bill and sympathised with him, at which Bill responded that “it might have been worse still” and that he would soon be equipped with artificial legs that would enable him to walk.
“This Mark Tapley spirit greatly pleased his majesty, who he informed in reply to a further enquiry that he had found the Queen Mary Hospital a great blessing,” recorded the Grantham Journal in 1916.
Mark Tapley? Mark Tapley is an innately cheerful character in Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit.
“My dad was a cheerful man,” agrees Bill. “He used to pull our legs awful. If friends came to call for us, he’d threaten to kick their arses… if he had any legs.”
“He had several amputations to his legs,” continues Cis. “He never told us that. I got that from his medical records.”
Cis’s nephew had contacted the records office at Kew. Many of the war records were destroyed in a fire during the bombing of London in the Second World War. It’s a stroke of luck Bill’s records survived and were photocopied and sent back to Melton.
“You can see the burn marks on them,” notes Cis.
It turns out Bill had at least four amputations on his legs. Conditions were such that his legs kept getting infected with gangrene. They removed so much in the end they were too short for his replacement legs so, instead, Bill would get around by crawling.
Meanwhile, in Winchester, the name Kulbir Thapa is not lost on Gavin, the Gurkha Museum curator.
“He’s the first Gurkha to be awarded the Victoria Cross, which sets him apart to begin with. And shall we say he set the standard against which the other deeds of valour and bravery and compassion are set.”
And Leicestershire, it turns out, wasn’t shy about wanting to salute the young Gurkha.
“Two or three years ago we were given a kukri,” says Gavin. “I don’t know how it came to us, but it has a plaque which says it was presented to Kulbir Thapa by the Leicestershire Old Comrades Association in 1915.”
A kukri is a Gurkha knife. It has a curved edge similar to a machete. It now sits on display at the museum.
But what happened to the two soldiers from different sides of the world?
Bill went back to Melton and met a young girl called Edith. She had lost her mother as a child. Her father, a soldier in the Sherwood Foresters, had been killed in the war. Orphaned at 16, she moved from Nottingham to Melton to live with an aunt.
Bill married Edith in 1919. The couple went on to have nine children; six sons and three daughters. When Cis was born in 1930, his dad was 36.
“He was a character,” says Cis. “He used to sit at the top of Burton Street in Melton selling the Leicester Mail.
“He also used to be a bookie’s runner. He took the bets for the bookie. You weren’t allowed to go in. In those days. You were only allowed to do it by phone.
“The police sergeant said to him one day, ‘Bill, don’t go in tomorrow – we’re raiding’.”
Bill was also a member of the working men’s club in Melton, where he could often be seen sitting on top of a table playing darts with his mates.
Bill enjoyed a long and active life and was 73 when he died in 1957.
Kulbir, meanwhile, went back into service with the Gurkhas, was promoted to havildar, or sergeant, and proceeded to Egypt with his regiment.
When the war ended in November 1918, he returned with his battalion to India.
He died in Nepal on October 3, 1956, aged 68.
Today, the legacy of Kulbir’s bravery lives on. In November 2010, the Kulbir Thapa VC Residential Home for old Gurkhas and their wives, at Kaski, in Western Nepal, was opened.
He is also remembered closer to home – on a special panel inside the regimental museum at the Newarke Houses Museum, in Leicester.
First published in the Mercury in September 1914. Pictures courtesy of the Mercury.