An officer and a gentleman

The Hon Keith Stewart
The Hon Keith Stewart

Reported in April 1915 in the Galloway Gazette the following letter concerning the storming of Neuve Chapelle was sent to his family by Lieutenant the Hon. Keith Stewart of the Black Watch, younger son of the 11th Earl of Galloway,

His family lived at Galloway House, Garlieston, but Keith was born at Datchet, near Windsor in 1894 and was educated at Warren Hill Prep School, Eastbourne and Harrow.

At Warren Hill his headmaster wrote of him: “He was so distinguished in ability, athletics and sport, so brave and so modest. He seemed to have all the qualities one admires most in young men.”

At Harrow, he was the captain of the school as well as captain of both the football team and of Fives (a racquet game) and, for three years running, won the fencing championship. In addition he was a considerable scholar, winning the English prize three years consecutively. He was a crack shot with both rifle and shotgun and was extremely popular. From Harrow he went to Sandhurst, passing out fifth in order of merit out of 200 and was commissioned into the Black Watch, his father’s old regiment.

His army class master commented on Keith: “Of all the good lads I have trained here, (intellectually at any rate), for their country’s service, there has never been one who did better work, or shown greater promise of future eminence. He was always my pride and my joy.”

In December 1914, he joined the 2nd Battalion in France but was sadly killed in action at Aubers Ridge during the Battle of Festubert on Sunday, 9th May, 1915. He was 20 years old.

He was the epitome of the golden generation of intelligent, talented and effervescent young men, who in another time would surely have lived lives of endeavour, achievement and fulfilment, but were sadly lost on the battlefields of the First World War.

He was, by all accounts, completely revered by his men, and it was only after his death that they learned he was the son of an Earl. He had never mentioned it.

He is buried in the War Graves Cemetery at Vieille Chapelle, and there is a cross erected in his memory in Challoch churchyard.

A month before his death, he gave a vivid account of operations involved in the storming of the German positions at Neuve Chapelle:

“Well, since I last wrote there have been excursions and alarms for that big attack, or rather one part of it, which took place in front of the line we held. Now, to restore your peace of mind, I am neither dead nor wounded, and this brigade was not the storming party. We were a little to the south of the village mentioned in the papers, and had been in occupation of that part of the line which was to form the right of the attack. It was at this point that our line formed rather a dangerous salient. The attack pivoting on this point has now swung round its left flank and the salient is no more. The brigade holding that part were to hold on and support the attack by fire, while the attacking brigades came through them. I do not think I am giving away any valuable information saying this.

“At 7.30am on the 10th, the ball opened without ceremony and without warning. Every gun along the front to be attacked (and there was hardly room to fit them all in) opened rapid fire - field guns, field howitzers, heavy howitzers, and long-range guns all poured onto the German lines, and the ground in rear of them, a liberal torrent of shells. Some were told to batter down the wire entanglements, others to breach the parapets with high explosive, some burst round after round of shrapnel over the German trenches, while others searched buildings in the rear to catch their supports and reserves. Never in my life have I heard such an inferno. Every few yards seemed to be sparking fire and the whole ground literally shook. My platoon and I had been sent back into section reserve the day before so I was not able to observe the effects of this terrific bombardment.

“I was told that it was an extraordinary sight. How anybody could live under such fire passes comprehension.

“After half-an-hour or so of this bombardment, the infantry were due to go forward. The whole time, both during the shelling and during the attack, this brigade, of which we form part, swept the German trenches with rapid fire from rifles and machine guns. The first line of the German trenches were secured without much difficulty; our regiment in doing so only lost three men. The attack met with more opposition in passing on to the second line of trenches, and some units lost rather heavily in taking them. About noon I was sent up with my platoon to be used, as soon as an opportunity occurred, as a working party to open up communications between the original line and the captured trenches.

“It was obviously impossible to do any digging until dark, and the trenches on the flank had not been attacked and were therefore still in German hands, so I did nothing but wait until dark. ‘Pipsqueak’ (slang for a kind of deadly, high-velocity artillery shell) was paying more attention to me than I was worthy of. He placed one shell into the back of a house, a point which I was making for with a message, but luckily did not wait to receive me with open arms. However, to make amends for this apparent lack of courtesy, I suppose, it brought down a shower of plaster on my head, but did no damage. Shortly before dark I went up to the point of the salient in our line to get some ammunition.

“I found the place crowded with a Territorial Regiment waiting with fixed bayonets to attack one front, which was still in German hands. At a given signal, they swarmed over the parapet and captured both the trench and its occupants. After dark, my platoon and I, together with some 60 Sikhs under a British officer, went out to dig the communications trench aforementioned.

“Then came an experience which I sincerely trust I may never have again. We were diagonally across a part of the German lines still in their possession. We had hardly done more than scratch the surface of the ground, when a confounded flare - one of our own I think - gave the whole show away, and then there was the devil to pay. Down we went flat on our noses, but the Boches had seen us and a rapid fire was opened on us.

“They were most touchy after the events of the day, and machine guns were added to our troubles. Every few minutes up would go a flare which would drop just behind us, who were trying to look as much like turnips growing peacefully in the ground, as nature would permit us to do. Then the fire would reopen, and those infernal bullets would come zip-zip round about. Altogether a most unpleasant situation. I passed the word along for each man to crawl in as best he could, a matter of no small difficulty. I did the deerstalking stunt to the best of my ability, and finally got in safely after being out there in the open for about three-quarters of an hour.

“Notwithstanding all, I had only two men hit in my platoon and three of the Sikhs. I did not have one moments sleep that night, as I was occupied doing something the whole time, but went back into section reserve next morning, so I got a sleep. That night I went up to hold what had been an advanced post for the salient part of our line. It was then our support, as we now hold the German trenches.

“The Boches attempted a counter attack away on our left, but it died away pretty soon. A 5am the following morning, the Germans began a strong counter attack against our front.

“I hear they got within 50 yards of our lines and were practically wiped out by our machine guns. At the same time another party attempted to bomb down the line against our right flank.

“It was so misty that I could not see which were Germans and which were our own men, so would not at first allow my men to fire. Their bombing was not very successful, and as it got lighter my marksmen set to work with excellent effect. One Sikh stood up upon the parapet with great gallantry and threw three bombs beautifully into the middle of the Germans.

“That was enough for the Boches, and they came out holding up their hands. We took four of them into our trenches all hit by pieces of bombs. Another party tried to attack some two hundred yards to my right, where the remainder of the company was.

“They got into our abandoned fire trench and found themselves getting it hot with bombs, rifles and machine guns.

“Further on my marksmen were thoroughly enjoying themselves and were taking them in flank (loud cheers at every ‘bull’). Here also the Boches found things too hot for them, and soon we saw a pathetic row of white handkerchiefs bobbing above their parapet and they began to trot in with their hands up. Seventy-one unwounded prisoners were taken in that little bit and 19 dead were left in the trenches.

“Altogether not very successful for ‘Kaiser Bill’.

“However, they had been bringing up more guns, and although no actual counter attack was realised, we got three hours continued severe shelling which was perfect hell. We all collected and huddled under the front parapet and remained there till the shelling ceased. My command of two platoons was very lucky in that advanced picquet, as we only had one man killed by shrapnel. Yesterday we got more bad shelling, but none was hit until after dark, when a ‘pipsqueak’ got half-a-dozen. We were relieved eventually at 2.30am, but took an awful long time getting back to headquarters and finally got settled down in an open field all dog tired, but got a couple of hours of uncomfortable sleep before marching back here.

“On the whole, we were very unlucky in casualties from shellfire, and particularly so to lose three officers killed and five wounded, which was pretty heavy considering that we were none of the actual storming party.”

James Innes

Last week’s war diary told of the death of James Innes, of the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders, originally from Creetown. Once again Ken Morrison has been invaluable in providing further background information.

He writes: “James and his brother William John were serving in the local militia unit, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada when they enlisted initially in August 1914 in Vancouver, British Columbia and then they enlisted for overseas service in the September in Valcartier, Quebec.

“In 1909 members of Vancouver’s Scottish community sought to raise a Highland regiment in Vancouver.

On 24 November 1910, authorization was received from the Militia Department for the formation of a new regiment in Vancouver bearing the number 72, and wearing the same uniform and tartan as the Seaforth Highlanders of the Imperial service.

Upon hearing of the proclamation of war with Germany on 4th August, 1914, Lieutenant Colonel Edwards-Leckie, commanding officer of the Seaforth Highlanders, immediately offered the regiment for overseas service. His request was denied, and instead the regiment provided 25 officers and 514 men for the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This was why James and (William) John enlisted twice!”

Both brothers are named on the former Stronord Primary School Memorial and Roll of Honour - now the Outdoor Centre in Minnigaff, see: