John Ebenezer Stewart was born in Coatbridge, and despite an unprivileged childhood won a place at the University of Glasgow, from where he graduated with an MA in 1910. He became a teacher at Langloan School in Coatbridge. When war broke out Stewart enlisted as a Private in the Highland Light Infantry , but was soon commissioned in the 8th Battalion the Border Regiment, and had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by the time he died.The Battalion was in France by the autumn of 1915; the following year it took part in several actions of the Somme. Stewart was awarded the Military Cross in the New Year’s Honours list of 1917, and was wounded at the Battle of Messines in June that year. He took over command of the 4th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment in April 1918, and was killed on the 26th April at Kemmel Hill in the 4th Battle of Ypres.
Stewart’s collection of poetry, Grapes of Thorns, was published by Erskine MacDonald in 1917. In his introduction to the book, the publisher Galloway Kyle talks of the ‘almost cosmic upheaval which has turned the quiet student into a valiant fighting man’. Stewart, though he had submitted poetry to magazines before the war, was certainly one of those who responded to the experience in verse, and indeed owned that he was glad of the MC he had won, if only to prove that ‘fellows who write verse are not softies’. The furnace of war did not, in general, inspire Stewart to abandon the rather formal, literary English he used (except for one poem in Scots), but he confronts in straightforward manner fear – ‘I was afraid of Fear / Not of the foe – and the probability of death:
If I should fall upon the field
And lie among the slain,
Then mine will be the victory
And yours the pain;
For this in prospect comforts me
Against all saddening fears
That, dying so, I make myself
Worthy your tears.
And the last words of his quietly ferocious poem ‘On Revisiting the Somme’ now resonate around the world when that particular battle or the remembrance of those who died are discussed:
… Till one shall make our story shine
In the fierce light it craves.