The Great War: How did Lieutenant Keith Furze survive?
On Wednesday 13 January 1915, in the midst of World War One, a twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant began writing in his diary. Upon the pages of his delicate A5 notepad which could easily have been misplaced or forgotten, he sketched in pencil the following lines, “Packed most of morning. Directly after lunch I dashed over to Holland Park to say good-bye to the Wallis’s.” Little did Lieutenant Keith Furze know that this diary would be unearthed from the depths of a drawer over one-hundred years later, and that this simple, innocent, first line would form the threshold of a story covering his six-month account of life as an Officer on the Western Front.
Keith Furze was my great-grandfather, a man my mother remembers visiting in Windsor Castle following his appointment as a Military Knight of Windsor, after serving through two world wars. This momentary memory alone has always captivated me, especially given that so many of the stories we grow up with deal with castles, knights and acts of valour, as well as the occasional dragon. Alas, when I discovered Furze’s diary in 2015 I never found mention of a dragon, but I did find a heartfelt account of a period of immense human struggle. Surprisingly, what struck me most in his account were not the acts of courage, but his capacity to still feel fear even after such immense shows of bravery. His account taught me three fundamental truths. First, that challenge is an inevitable part of life and something that we all face. Second, that bravery comes in many forms but is always emboldened by one’s friends and family. Finally, that there will be moments in life so meaningful that you will feel nerves or fear, regardless of how courageous you may be, and that this perfectly natural.
On the first point, that challenge is an inevitable part of life and something that we all face, one episode in Furze’s diary makes this brutally apparent. He drew in detail the exact happenings of the night of 05 November 1914, when a German artillery shell hit the Headquarters building he was sleeping in, killing two men and severely injuring Furze and another Officer. How did he survive? Because the shell happened to ricochet off a window ledge in Furze’s room, meaning its trajectory was redirected, saving his life. All the men in that building faced the same challenge that night, and pure chance was the only aspect that spared some and not others.
With regards to bravery’s many forms being emboldened by one’s friends and family, a large part of Furze’s diary refers to accounts of those closest to him. At home, he speaks warmly of the relationships he enjoys with his mother and father, Mary and Herbert Furze, as well as the purpose he gains from the blooming romance with his sweetheart Daw Wallis. They give him a reason to find the courage to fight and return home alive. Out on the Front, Captain Fuller, Lieutenant Ross, Lieutenant Brookes, Lieutenant Garmin, and Major Kirkpatrick all feature heavily in Furze’s account. They provide selfless support to one another, the bedrock of the bravery required to get them through the awful trials of war. For some of them, the support they gave cost them their lives.
What I found most liberating to me, what truly struck home in the context of our modern world, is Furze’s clear presentation of his vulnerability. At the time, his sweetheart Daw and he are yet to share their first kiss, and the courage Furze will need to muster in order to take this first, important, step will outdo even that which he requires on the Western Front. The fact that a young man can charge towards German machine guns and still find it petrifying to kiss the person he loves for the first time lends acceptability to our own nerves, fears and vulnerabilities.
We are taught a great deal to be strong in order to survive, in order to overcome challenge. But strength alone did not help Furze survive one of the deadliest wars in human history. Instead, it was his appreciation, and acceptance, of his vulnerabilities that allowed him to seek help from those he loved, and offer his help to them in return. Although not everyone survived The Great War, their memories and camaraderie remain intact in the lines of pencil laid carefully upon the pages of Furze’s diary. Furze did more than record history when he made his notes, he honoured his companions with the gift of remembrance.
B.D. Wilberforce is the author of Furze: Sweethearts and Swan Songs, an historical fiction based on the hand-written account of World War One that Lieutenant Keith Furze kept between January and June 1915. It is due to be released on 11 November 2021, with pre-orders of the paperback and hardback available prior to that date. Find our more on the Author’s Webpage, or pre-order your copy from the Publisher’s Bookstore and Waterstone’s online.