William McKeon spent his childhood in Melbourne, Masterton, and Wellington, and displayed an interest in soldiering at an early age, becoming a member of the cadets.
When the war broke out, McKeon was keen to join up. Despite the protests of his family, he volunteered for service on his 20th birthday.
I had been up to Auckland to see my father and had told him of my decision, which did not please him, but he realised that it was the obligation of every young man to do his bit and he somewhat grudgingly agreed….
With the newspapers full of casualty list, and page after page of photographs of those who had fallen in battle, one can imagine how our parents and those we loved and who loved us, viewed the future with terror in knowing what we would have to face when our time came to join up with the Division.
After training, McKeon arrived in France, and served in a carrying party that brought rations, ammunition and supplies to forward troops in the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917.
Following that attack, the New Zealand Division was posted to the Polygon Wood sector. They were ordered to perform vital tasks such as road building, trench digging, and cable burying, which had the added bonus of keeping the men fit and active.
We toiled mightily in this area. We would arrive on the job and under the direction of the Divisional Engineers we would be strung out on our lines. Equipment, gas masks, rifles, greatcoats and tunics would be placed within easy reach and we would commence to dig…. This was no mean task.
To begin with, as the weather grew colder, the ground froze progressively deeper and the picks literally bounced off it.
The snow and frosts transformed the bleak landscape of the Western Front into a landscape of strange beauty, hiding, temporarily, the ugly scars of war.
However, the weather conditions not only made digging more difficult – they made the effects of German shellfire all the more dangerous.
Shells bursting on the frozen ground threw shrapnel further, and with deadly effect.
McKeon described one such instance:
The morning was fine and frosty, the ground iron hard. Out of the blue came a lone shell which landed dangerously close to the dugout and exploding on the hard ground, sent its vicious fragments in all directions.
A second later another shell arrived, bursting among the Ruahine men with shocking effect. There were thirty-three casualties; ten killed, six blown to fragments and seventeen wounded. All from one shell!
It was a terrible shock and our nerves went to pieces.
McKeon survived his time in Polygon Wood, but was shot through the back during the attack on Crèvecoeur in October 1918.
He was treated at Brockenhurst in England, before being sent back to New Zealand in March 1919.
McKeon was a talented illustrator. He included many sketches from his war years in his memoirs, which were later published – and after the war he returned to his job as a draughtsman.
He went on to become an architect, and during the Second World War he served as an intelligence officer at Fortress Command, which was responsible for the defence of the Wellington coastline.