John Ebenezer Stewart

by

David McDonald

 

Firstly the booklet about John Stewart is now available online (it took the pandemic to get this to happen!)

 

https://culturenl.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/In-Fierce-Light.pdf

 

Three of John’s poems are reproduced on the Scottish Poetry library site

 

https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poet/j-e-stewart/

 

John Ebenezer Stewart was born in Coatbridge in 1888.  His father was a successful roofer and plasterer who used the proceeds of his business to send John to Glasgow University in 1907.  John was the only son of the Stewart family, and the only one to go to university. After graduation John returned to Coatbridge to teach at Langloan School, but in 1914 he enlisted in the army to fight in the First World War.  He enlisted in his local regiment, the Highland Light Infantry, but was quickly transferred to the Border Regiment.  During his war service he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery during the Battle of Messines but was tragically killed in action in April 1918, just a few months before the end of the war.

John was always a keen poet and writer and had had many poems published in newspapers and magazines, and John proudly collected them in a scrapbook, alongside some children’s songs which he had written with his friend Frederick Dixon and which were published in a children’s magazine.  As an adult he wrote a series of articles for the Coatbridge Express which were collected and published in 1912 as The Iron Burgh, and other Sketches. In these writings John shows his great pride in Coatbridge as a place of industry and commerce, though a dirty and noisy one.  He wrote: We lose the Sun in the density of smoke, and we are glad, for sunbeams feed not hungry mouths.  When the smoke is thick the children have bread.  That is sunshine.

John continued to write after he had enlisted in the army, providing his regiment with a history of their time at the front, as well as contributing poems to anthologies of war poetry and publishing his own collection Grapes of Thorn in 1916.  Grapes of Thorns was dedicated to his school friend Frederick Dixon who had been killed in action in 1916.

In 1914 John decided to leave his teaching job at Langloan and enlisted in the Highland Light Infantry.  He was quickly transferred to the Border Regiment where he spent the majority of the war, rising through the ranks to Captain by July 1916.

John was awarded the Military Cross in the New Year’s Honours list in 1916.  The citation states that it was simply for “consistently good work” rather than a particular act of bravery.  One incident does stick out in John’s record however. During the Battle of the Somme John was commanding “D” company of the Border Regiment and was part of an attack on Regina Trench south of Thiepval.  The company approached the trench from Stump Road and were successful in capturing a portion of it.  Before the company advanced John noticed a well-hidden German machine gun emplacement and ordered his men to stay where they were, along with soldiers from another regiment.  He was able to get a message to camp who sent reinforcements which allowed “D” Company to secure the trench.  It’s not a spectacular act of heroism, but it was a moment of perspicacity, calm, and clear thinking and it undoubtedly saved the lives of the men under his command.  Soldiers did not often survive encounters with machine guns.  The impression we have of John the soldier is that he was a capable and calm commanding officer.  He also seemed to be a very humble man.  The 9th Battalion Border Regiment put John’s writing ability to good use when he was asked to write a history of the battalion in the war.  In this work he praises the conduct of many of the men he commanded, but makes no mention of his own deeds, including his decorations.  There is perhaps a great story of derring-do waiting to be found, but John would not be the man to write about himself in such a way.  In the introduction to John’s books, the publisher, William Galloway Kyle asks him if he glad to have received the Military Cross, to which he replies…  

“I am glad of the distinction, if only because it proves that we fellows who write verse are not softies.”

We might wonder if one of the reasons John enlisted so willingly was that as a young man, in love with poetry and music, who takes his art very seriously, might not have been seen as something of a softie by his school friends, or his family, given his background.

John Stewart’s war came to an end on 26th April 1918, only a few months before the war would end, and nearly four years since he enlisted.  During the Fourth Battle of Ypres John was involved in the defence of Kemmel Hill.  A large number of casualties were sustained by his battalion of the Border Regiment and a neighbouring battalion from the South Staffordshire Regiment.  From the survivors a new battalion was cobbled together and put under the, now, Major Stewart’s command.  The new battalion lasted only two days suffering a mortar attack whilst ensconced in a trench and which John did not survive.

In his final letter home he asked his family not to worry about him “Be of good cheer.  If anything should happen to me remember I am happy to have had so many privileges and such a full life.”

His body was never recovered but he is commemorated on the war memorial in Coatbridge.


David McDonald
CultureNL Ltd.

Learning and Access Officer
Summerlee Museum, Heritage Way, Coatbridge, ML5 1QD


(c)  2020 David McDonald