The eldest son of Frederic John Keeling, a solicitor of Colchester and Alice Keeling, nee Chapman was born in Colchester on 23rd March 1886. He had one younger brother Guy William Keeling born in 1890. Both sons attended Bigshotte Rayles Preparatory Boarding School just outside of Wokingham, Berkshire. After leaving Prep School, Ben attended Winchester College until 1904 when he was elected to a Minor Scholarship in History at Trinity College, College. Two years later this was advanced to a Major Scholarship.
Ben Keeling was a committed socialist from an early age, but it was at Cambridge that many of his views were formed. He was a member of the Cambridge Union and formed the Cambridge University Fabian Society. In 1906 whilst attending the College he was summoned to court for leaving a bicycle outside in Trinity Lane on the night of 17th July. When asked to plead Ben was quoted as saying the he did not know of he was guilty of not of leaving the bike in the lane and causing an obstruction and that the college had a communistic approach to bicycles. He was then told not to bother the court with his communistic systems. On being given a fine of £2 6s for the offense, Keeling immediately asked if there was an option of imprisonment to which he was told of course there was if he did not pay the fine. At Cambridge he was celebrated for many exploits vindicating the position that socialists were as much entitled as rowing men, amongst whom, nevertheless, he made converts, to an assured and respected position in university society. On leaving Cambridge he took an active part in Social work of many kinds and spent time living in a workmen’s dwelling in South London and in 1910 was appointed manager of the Leeds Labour Exchange for the Board of Trade. In 1913 he became assistant editor of the New Statesman and wrote several small books and pamphlets on social reform, employment reform, industrial regulation and the regulation of child labour. His aversion however to ‘the public school tradition’ meant he was sometimes inclined to conceal his education at Winchester and Bigshotte Rayles.
Around this time he married Rachel Susanna Townsend in the May of 1909. They had a daughter later that year and a son in 1912. Very soon after the outbreak of war on the 2nd November 1914, Keeling enlisted with Kitchener’s Army. He refused an officer’s commission and would not shave off his beard. What was good enough for the King was good enough for him. He became Private 12347 with the 6th Battalion DCLI.
During the early days of his service he formed a friendship with Robert Barrington-Ward an officer with the 6th Battalion. Together they founded “The Red Feather” the journal of the 6th Battalion. Keeling worked his way up through the soldier ranks and despite being offered a commission several times he still declined. He was wounded at Hooge, on the Yypres Salient on the 29th July 1915 when he sustained cuts around his head and neck. He spent a week recuperating at a hospital in Boulogne. It was shortly after this that he was given responsibility of the running of grenade courses, although he still managed to find time to write articles for the New Statesman opposing conscription.
The first grenades The first British grenade, the Mark 1 used in 1914, proved highly unpopular with soldiers. Forming a canister with a 16 – inch cane handle, it was ignited by removing a safety pin through the top . When thrown , the handle (and attached linen streamers) ensured it landed nose down so that the striker was forced into the detonator. However the Mark 1 caused widespread distrust given that it was liable to explode prematurely if it came into contact with an object while in the act of being thrown: again entirely feasible in a trench environment. Consequently many British soldiers – and those based in Gallipoli who had no access to grenades of any type – resorted to the construction of home made, or ‘jam – tin’ bombs. So – named because they were literally made out of jam tins, each was packed with gun – cotton or dynamite, together with pieces of scrap metal. A length of fuse would project through the top of the tin, with each inch of fuse giving approximately 1.25 seconds delay. Other home – made grenades of differing designs were widespread and were seen in various fronts. By the middle of December 1915 Keeling was acting Serjeant-Major of a special grenadier company formed in his battalion. On the 18th August 1916 during the final stages of fighting in and around Delville Wood, during the Battle of the Somme, Keeling as killed in action. He had jumped up on to the parapet of the trench to make sure the Germans were ahead and was caught by a
bullet, dying instantly. His body could not be retrieved. He is remember on the War Memorial at Thiepval and at Winchester College. Unfortunately after Keeling’s death in August 1916 a Military Order was published forbidding such magazines as “The Red Feather” and publication ceased. Barrington-Ward his co-editor of the Journal went on to become Editor in Chief of The Times. His son Bernard later went to Winchester as a War Scholar. He then won a scholarship to Oxford where he read PPE. He then joined the Institute of International Affairs as an economic assistant and at the age of 22 was recognised as an expert on international economics, contributing leading articles to many national newspapers.