Sefton Stewart, April 11, 1898 – August 8, 1918
August 8, 1918
In July 1918, the Allied Forces of the First World War began an offensive strategy that would push German forces out of France. As part of this, they planned an attack in the Amiens region of northern France to protect the vital Paris-Amiens railway. The attacking force was composed of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the British Army, the French Army, the Australian Corps and others. Troops moved to the front lines at night to fool the enemy. False movements were made in daylight, amid decoy noise, dust and fake radio communications.
Richmond’s own Pte Sefton Stewart was among the members of the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada. The 13th had orders outlining their participation in the Battle of Amiens on the morning of August 8th.
The 13th Battalion’s movement to the front line on the night of August 6th was not entirely uneventful. “The roads were jammed with traffic of all description and the roar of numerous exhausts was so loud that it seemed impossible the enemy could fail to hear it. Low flying aeroplanes were used in an attempt, apparently successful, to drown the noise, for the Germans gave no sign that it had reached them…” (Fetherstonhaugh, 249).
On August 7th, “fine weather proved a boon to the men, who lay around in shell holes and communication trenches, keeping all movement carefully concealed. No fires were permitted and a strong force of aeroplanes patrolled all day to prevent the enemy from observing the assembly. As two brigades were crowded into an area that would ordinarily accommodate one battalion, it was a literal fact that officers, in some cases, had to walk over the men while arranging dispositions” (Fetherstonhaugh, 249).
At dusk the 13th Battalion moved into their jumping off trenches reporting they were ready by 1.45 a.m. on the 8th of August. Throughout the night the German artillery was active, possibly suspecting that something was about to happen.
At exactly 4:20 a.m., 900 Allied guns opened fire and Pte Stewart, among members of the Canadian Corps, together with the Australians on their left, advanced on the German line. Visibility was poor on the battlefield with mist and smoke making it difficult to see more than 30 to 45 feet ahead. This made it very difficult for the tanks supporting the 13th to see where the infantry was having trouble.
In clearing Hangard Wood the 13th ran up against several machine guns, which caused serious trouble. Many soldiers showed bravery and skill during the fighting in Hangard Wood. The shortage of bombs required members of the 13th to outflank machine guns instead of smashing up their positions with bombs and grenades.
It is our understanding that it was a circumstance similar to this where Pte. Sefton Stewart was killed in action. From two letters penned to Sefton’s Mother by friends who had served alongside him, we learn more about Sefton’s final moments.
Westholme Aux. Hosp. Market Drayton, Salop, Eng.
Dear Mrs Stewart: I feel it my duty to inform you of the circumstances regarding your son Sefton’s death. For over a year he has been my best pal and we were constantly together. It came as a great shock to me as he was killed right beside me by a machine gun bullet. It went through his heart and he didn’t speak. I was wounded in the neck a couple of minutes later. I am sure he did not suffer any pain. I wish to extend my sincerest sympathy. I feel his loss greatly in fact I can hardly convince myself that he will not be there when I return to the battallion May I close again extending to you his Mother my sincerest sympathy I shall always consider Sefton the best pal I ever had. Yours sincerely A H Metcalfe
France. Aug. 22nd 1918
My Dear Mrs Stewart-:- Probably your son has mentioned my name as being one of his chums so I thought it my duty to write you. I left him last December and had almost persuaded him to take a commission with me and would have made him when I saw him again. I left England a few days ago to come back to France and the morning I left I had a letter from one of his chums A. H. Metcalfe. Saying he had been killed on Aug. 8th. The letter read this way We were held up by a machine gun and Sefton said we will have to take it and they started after it when a sniper in the flank hit Sefton through the Heart and a few minutes later hit Metcalfe in the neck. I am awfully sorry to be the bearer of such news as I put things so awkward but as I was his close friend and had promised one another if anything happened to one, the other would notify their parents. Whenever there was a scrap I always stood by Sefton because he was so cool I don’t Think he knew what fear was… I did intend having a good time with him when I got back and the last day before I left England I received word of his death. I do hope you will accept my sincerest sympathy as I liked him as a brother I don’t Know what I shall do when I get back to the Battalion now. My mother also sends her sympathy. Hoping I have not grieved you any more by sending this letter. I am a Sincere Friend. J. N. Catton Lieut.
It would be 10 days after August 8th before news reached the Stewart family in Richmond, Ontario. The telegram from Ottawa, dated August 19th 1918 reported, “Deeply regret inform you 145820 Pte Sefton Inglis Stewart infantry officially reported Killed in Action August 8th.”
August 8th is the solemn conclusion of Sefton Stewart’s story, one that has been shared over the past three years in the form of nearly 70 letters. Sefton’s words were his connection with home, limited in what he could share about his own experience, but always caring about those he loved and about his home. Invited into these personal conversations, we witnessed Sefton’s growth from a young student in 1916, to a wise young man offering his younger siblings advice from his position “Somewhere in France.”
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.” (Laurence Binyon. For the Fallen)
Written with research assistance from Jonah Ellens.