Captain Cecil Alexander Headlam Keenlyside

Researched and written by Anne Wright

Captain C A H Keenlyside
1st Battalion, the Cambridgeshire Regiment
Killed in action, 20.7.1915
Age, 34

The Keenlyside family moved to Weybridge in the early 1880s. Their previous home had been at Vernon House, Maple Road in Surbiton, which was Cecil Alexander Headlam’s birthplace on 23 October 1881. He was baptised at St. Andrew’s Church there a few weeks later on 30 November. Cecil had three older siblings, Sibella, Rupert and Guy. Two more sisters, Beatrix and Millicent were born in 1883 and 1885 respectively and another brother, Bryan in 1888. Their parents, Francis Headlam and Mary Anne Hales (nee Wilkie) had married at St. Lawrence’s Church in Thanet in October 1874. Francis was a barrister and Mary was descended from a military family. Cecil was educated at Charterhouse (1895-1900) and Trinity College, Oxford. He was a keen cricketer who played for his school, Ely and several times for Cambridgeshire. While at Trinity he joined the Oxfordshire Light Infantry and served with them in the Boer War. However, his great grandson recalls that, aged 19, he was in London in February 1901 as one of the soldiers who were part of Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the National Service League which campaigned (1905-14) for compulsory military training believing, in the light of their experiences in the Boer War, that Britain’s army was not capable of fighting a major war.

By the time he married Gladys Mary Milne at St James’ Church on 14 September 1910 Cecil was a civil servant. His wife was the daughter of Henry and Constance Milne of Warrenhurst, Bridgewater Road, Weybridge. The newly married couple made their home at Shippea Hill, Prickwillow, Ely in Cambridgeshire where Cecil was the manager of a hemp factory. They had two children: Francis Hugh, born on 7 July 1911 and Phoebe Lavender born on 28 August 1914. Two days before his daughter’s birth Cecil was promoted to Lieutenant in the Cambridgshire Territorials into which he had been commissioned as a 2/Lieutenant on 24 February 1913. He was subsequently promoted to Captain on 16 September 1914, having volunteered for Imperial Service on the outbreak of war. He landed at Le Havre on 15 February 1915 with the 1st Battalion, Cambridgeshire Regiment. They came under the command of the 82nd Brigade of the 27th Division and were despatched to the southern sector of the Ypres Salient.

During the Spring of 1915 the 1st Cambridgeshires experienced two key actions: the German attack at St. Eloi (14-15 March) and the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May). In the two weeks before the attack at St. Eloi Cecil’s battalion was in billets at Boeschepe involved in a period of acclimatisation: route marching, musketry, testing rifles (of which 94 were found to be defective and had to be exchanged!) and with some officers and NCOs in the fire trenches gaining experience. The battalion’s war diary records the German action at St. Eloi on the 14 March when they exploded a mine and rushed the British trenches; the following day the Cambridgeshires had two companies in reserve trenches but then the whole battalion was ordered to return to billets in Dickebusch. However, one platoon of ‘B’ Company was not with them having not been relieved; they did return later. The battalion had sustained 8 fatalities and 24 wounded. The Germans were eventually held.

In the early weeks of April 1915 the Cambridgeshires were in and out of trenches in Sanctuary Wood (south-east of Ypres). On 20 April their diary records the bombardment of Ypres, the preamble to the Second Battle of Ypres launched two days later. This battle was noted for the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans on the Western Front. The Salient was reduced in size and the highest ground lost but Ypres was not taken. Cecil’s unit experienced difficult conditions in the trenches and withdrew to Ypres on 7 May; the next day there was grave concern as the Germans broke through towards Ypres and on 9 May the situation was critical but on 10 May although the bombardment remained heavy the infantry attacks had become less determined. Their brigade was relieved on 22 May.

The battalion then moved to Armentieres and all four companies went into the firing line at Houplines. They adopted a routine of rotating in and out of the line. They had a relatively quiet time in June and early July and their Brigade entered a new line by Bois-Grenier on 19 July. The following day Captain Keenlyside and 2/Lieutenant H. S. Bates visited the trenches; they were very unlucky, 2/Lieutenant Bates was wounded and Cecil Keenlyside killed by fragments from a stray shell. The fatal injury was caused by a shell splinter which entered his throat and severed an artery; he became unconscious immediately and died 15 minutes later. A fellow officer, Major Archer, reported that full honours were paid at his funeral; as his company was out of the trenches, they and all available officers followed Cecil’s coffin to the grave where the service was taken by the Brigade Chaplain. A dignified scene ensued when, ‘The Last Post was blown. A Union Jack and a beautiful bunch of flowers were on the bier, the latter given by a French woman from a garden near our billets.’ Col. Copeman, his commanding officer, wrote to his widow saying that her husband was ‘…… all times an inspiration and help to us all and his loss is irreparable.’ Cecil’s servant Pte Harry Beedon wrote that his death, ‘… has come as a great blow to all of us for the Captain was loved by everyone.’ His grave is in Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery in Armentieres, a town on the Belgian frontier 14.5 km north-west of Lille. He is also commemorated on the City of Ely War Memorial.

Cecil’s parents predeceased him as did his older brother Guy who was killed in France in October 1914. His remaining family donated £50 to provide beds for the ‘Cecil Keenlyside Ward’ at Brooklands House Hospital in Weybridge. His wife remarried to Laurence Theodore Watkins of the Indian Educational Service on 14 February 1921 at St. James’ Church, Weybridge. About three weeks later they left for India accompanied by the six year old Phoebe Keenlyside. Her brother, Francis, probably remained in England to continue his education. He later became a widely travelled shipping director.


National Service League, The Cambridge Independent Press, Friday, 28 November, 1913
City of Ely, Roll of Honour,
Charterhouse School, Roll of Honour,
UK, De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour, 1914-1924,
England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, 1973-1995.
Brooklands House Hospital, Weybridge, Surrey Advertiser, Saturday, 4 September, 1915
Captain C A H Keenlyside, Killed in Action, A Popular Officer, Surrey Advertiser, Saturday, 31 July, 1915
Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms 1813-1912,
Surrey, England, Church of England Marriages 1754-1937,

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