Charles Steward was born on 17th June 1894, the youngest of four children, to parents Councillor Henry Hill Steward and Martha Fanny Steward [née Marsh] in Pride Hill, Shrewsbury, Shropshire. His father’s occupation was listed as a Cheese Factor.
After completing his education at Wellington College1 in August 1912 he went up to The Queen’s College, Oxford and at the outbreak of the war was preparing to take Holy Orders. He served in the Officers Training Corps [OTC] at both Wellington and Oxford where at the former he had progressed to the rank of Sergeant.
Within a few days of the outbreak of war Charles applied for a temporary war commission and was initially posted to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, The King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry) into which he was commissioned on 15th August 1914. The Battalion was in essence a depot/training unit and, on receiving mobilisation orders, had moved to Pembroke Dock, South Wales.
By December 1914 Charles had transferred to 2nd Battalion [2 KSLI] and on 20th December they left their barracks in Winchester to march to Southampton for the overnight crossing to Le Havre where they arrived at 2.00pm the following day.
The 22nd December saw them entrain for AIRE in Belgium being billeted in and around BLARINGHEM, in Northern France. Apart from a rest on Christmas Day they spent their time in digging operations.
The Battalion received its first casualties, due to enemy shelling, when it entered the trenches for the first time on 8th January 1915. This then continued on and off, coupled with sporadic rifle fire, over the next few days.
The 12th January 1915 saw a severe outbreak of frostbite, which affected about three hundred officers and men of the Battalion due to the severe cold. Unable to march, they all had to rest up and bathe at BOESCHEPPE before the move to DICKEBUSCH. In the trenches near here they held the centre section of the Brigade line and again were liable to daytime shelling and night-time rifle fire with more of the men being killed or wounded.
On the 16th January they were withdrawn from the line to billets in DICKEBUSCH, a cycle that repeated itself until early February where, following reports of a German breakthrough elsewhere in the sector, they were moved to be in a position to respond if required. As the reports turned out to be unfounded they moved back to DICKEBUSCH on 9th February and the cycle of in/out of the trenches, followed by billeting, continued again with the list of casualties climbing ever upward.
The 1st March saw a brief move to trenches near St ELOI where they repeated the same cycle of trench movement, but with the added fact of taking a greater number of casualties per day. After three weeks of a continuous unbroken period in the trenches the Battalion was pulled back to RENINGHELST where they were exercised in ‘Company drills, musketry, bomb and grenade throwing’ and far enough away from danger that Generals Plumer and Smith-Dorien could undertake an inspection.
By the 6th April 1915, by means of a route march, the Battalion arrived in the Belgian town of YPRES where they obtained billets when not in the trenches nearby. Although they sustained casualties almost daily they were not as great as those near St Eloi. On 20th April they proceeded under orders to BELLEWAARDE WOOD for the first time.
The ‘Second Battle of Ypres’ [2 Ypres], for control of the strategic Flemish town of Ypres, commenced at 4.00pm on 22nd April 1915 with a heavy bombardment launched by the Germans. Sixty minutes later history was made when 168 tons of chlorine gas was released over a four mile front. The gas affected the lungs and eyes, causing respiratory problems and blindness. Being denser than air it flowed downwards on release and the French troops in the immediate front of the encroaching gas cloud abandoned their positions en masse and fled leaving a massive 4000 yard gap in the allied line which the 1st Canadian Division2 attempted to seal.
Rumours of poison gas had spread after German POW’s had leaked word of the preparations: large tanks of chlorine had been brought up to the front and all that was needed was a favourable wind to carry it towards the Allied lines. Although it had been used on the Eastern Front, the General Staff were reluctant to believe that the Germans would dare use it in the West in clear breach of the Hague Conventions of 1907 which specifically forbade its use. They were proved wrong.
Some four hours later at 8.00pm GHQ got wind of an imminent attack in their vicinity and two Companies of the Battalion were quickly moved to the GHQ line at POTIJZE. This ‘line’ was nothing more than strong points, 500 yards apart, strung together in a line with a belt of barbed wire as protection.
On the 24th April 1915 the Germans released further quantities of gas on a 4 mile or so front near Hooge. Initially the defending British troops held the line in defiance but were soon forced into a retreat north and south of their position and despite repeated counter-attacks were forced to retreat a half mile or so northwards.
Over the next three days 2 KSLI undertook offensive operations in an around POTIJZE, ZONNEBEKE, and in BELLEWAARDE WOOD where they managed to consolidate their positions and re-take some of the trenches initially lost to the Germans, but at a very high price in terms of casualties. They remained in the area for the first ten days or so where they had to contend with heavy shelling with HE and gas, as well as rifle fire.
On the 10th May the Battalion commenced operations in RAILWAY WOOD before moving to bivouacs in VLAMERTINGHE and then onwards to trenches in BELLEWAARDE LAKE. 17th May gave them a few days respite at bivouacs in BUSSEBOOM where they remained until 24th May when orders were received in the early hours to move, on account of 28 Division and the right flank of 4 Division being under a sustained gas attack. At 4.30pm the Battalion was ordered to retake the trenches lost in the vicinity of BELLEWAARDE LAKE [which had been ‘lost’ by 28 Division] moving along the Ypres-Roulers railway taking up positions in and to the rear of GHQ lines.
On Tuesday 25th May 1915, at about 1.00am, the Battalion was ordered to advance and assault the enemy trenches in the vicinity of BELLEWAARDE FARM. Unfortunately the attack was a failure and the Battalion had to entrench itself in a line along the road west of WHITTPORT FARM. Second-Lieutenant Charles Steward, 2nd Battalion, The King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry) was killed in the ensuing ‘Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge’ along with another officer: he was 20 years old. Seven further officers sustained serious injury along with one hundred and ninety two Other Ranks [OR’s] who were listed as either killed, missing or wounded. The following evening the Battalion was relieved and returned to bivouacs at Busseboom.
Charles body was never recovered and with no known grave he is forever remembered on the Ypres, (Menin Gate) Memorial, in present day leper, Belgium.
The statutory telegram received by Charles’ father a few days after these events did not give any information as to the circumstances of his son’s death and so on 10th June 1915 his elder sister Hannah wrote to the Secretary of State for War, on the customary black-edged stationery of the time, enquiring as to whether he had any further details regarding her brother’s death and “we thank Lord Kitchener for his kind message of sympathy”. The reply from the Military Secretary of 13th June 1915 “begs to inform her that no further details have yet been received concerning the death of her brother 2nd Lieutenant C. Steward”.
It is not known as to whether the family ever received any satisfactory reply to their enquiries.
On 17th September 1915 the War Office received a letter from Henry Steward advising them that he would be settling his son’s affairs personally.
The King’s (Shropshire Light Infantry) is perpetuated today in the 3rd Battalion, The Rifles.