CAPTAIN BERTRAND STEWART, QUEEN'S OWN WEST KENT YEOMANRY
Aged 42- killed in action 16 th September 1914 near Braisne. Buried Braisne Communal Cemetery A3
By Patricia Evans
A quick glance at a newspaper produced in the first few weeks of the Great War would confirm that there were quite a large number of German spies who had been operating in U.K. for some time. It would be stretching credulity to pretend that we were not doing the same in Germany although it would probably have been indignantly denied by anyone in authority. Despite the fact that spies had been in existence since time immemorial and certainly since Moses sent men out to spy the land of Canaan, it was still regarded as a pretty grubby business. Although Mansfield George Smith Cumming, chief of the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau was anxious to collect information on Germany 's military build-up there could be no acknowledgement that Britain was actually employing spies to ferret out such information. However, if gentlemen who were travelling abroad happened to come across anything of interest they could, of course, pass it on to the interested authorities. By 1911, Cummings was heading the Secret Intelligence Service, which much later was to develop into MI6, and he was anxious to recruit suitable agents. They had to be gentlemen, naturally. While our local German spy, Otto the Barber, was firmly entrenched in the community at Abercynon and picking up snippets from his customers, we were sending British agents, thinly disguised as businessmen, to ferret out German plans. Although some of these agents were successful in stealing plans, quite a few of them were caught and imprisoned.
One such gentleman was Bertrand Stewart, who was one of the “Stewarts of Appin”, the only son of Charles and Eva Stewart of Achara, Appin, Argyllshire and of 38 Eaton Place, London . The family also owned Castle Stalcaire, a ruin that had once been the hunting seat of James lV of Scotland until he was killed at Flodden Field. Bertrand had been born in London in December 1872 and educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford until 1892. Five years later he was admitted as a solicitor, becoming a member of the firm of Markby Stewart and Co. Coleman Street. He had a substantial private income and was a member of 7 London Clubs including the Athenaeum and the Carlton and his recreations were given as hunting, shooting and deer-stalking. On 1 st August 1905 he married Daphne, the daughter of Colonel Osmond Priaulx of The Mount, Guernsey and they set up home at Queen's Gate Gardens , London .
During the Boer War, Bertrand had served in the ranks of the Imperial Yeomanry, seeing action at Cape Colony, Orange River and the Transvaal and this seems to have given him a taste for adventure. In 1906 he was commissioned in the West Kent Yeomanry, but he was interested in a more active role than seemed to be offered by the Yeomanry. He said that he wanted to do “something spectacular in the way of discovering German preparations for war”. He was certainly to have his chance.
While travelling in Germany in 1911 he was arrested at Bremen and charged with espionage. It was claimed that he had been attempting to find the secrets of German military and naval defences in the North Sea and dockyards and was picked up after documents had been passed to him in a Bremen restaurant. He was still reading them in the rest room when he was arrested. He was pilloried as “the Gentleman Spy”. The German newspapers described him as belonging to a set of people in England who “although having a regular profession only require to devote part of their time to it and lead a versatile life in hunting and other sporting pleasures”.
His trial began before the Supreme Court of the Empire at Leipzig on 31st January 1912 and was held in camera. After four days he was found guilty and sentenced to detention in a fortress for 3 years and 6 months but this was soon reduced by 4 months because he had already been in prison for a considerable time. It was reported in the British press that the evidence against him relied upon the testimony of a single prosecution witness “of a class whose evidence is always viewed with suspicion in English courts”. In other words, an informer, who, it was said, was a penniless ex-criminal who was in the pay of the prosecution. Stewart told his judges that “if their distinguished nation was ever at war with Britain , he hoped he would be in the field against them in defence of his country.”
In fact, Stewart was held at the fortress of Glatz until May 1913 when his release was ordered as an act of clemency on the occasion of King George V's visit to Berlin. He was in good company because Captain Bernard Frederick Trench of the Marine Light Infantry and Lt. Vivian Brandon, R.N. who had been sentenced to 4 years each in 1910 were also released.
Captain Stewart prepared a memorandum denying any involvement, but it seems pretty certain that they had all been among the agents who had been sent into Germany by Cummings. He seems to have soon settled back to his former life and in August 1913 was promoted Captain in the West Kent Yeomanry. He wrote the “Active Service Pocket Book” which was printed in several editions, was editor of the “Cavalry Journal” and wrote a well regarded article in the “National Review” for June 1914 entitled “ Germany and Ourselves”. When war broke out shortly afterwards he was immediately appointed to the Intelligence Department on the Staff of Major General Allenby and left for France with the Cavalry Division. Sadly, his service was to be very short because he was killed near Braisne on 12th September 1914 while1st Cavalry Brigade was fighting a delaying action.
In the book “From Mons to Ypres with General French” by Frederick Coleman (1917) there is a chapter “With the British at the Battle of the Marne” which describes the fighting near Braisne, and he describes how he moved down a slope and in front of him lay the town of Braisne and the crossing of the River Vesle.
“On the bank by the way lay the dead body of Bertrand Stewart of the Intelligence who had taken a rifle and gone down to lend a hand. Beyond him a wounded trooper sat propped against a milestone gasping with pain”.
A letter from Rheims, dated 16th September, written by someone with whom he had served, was sent home to Bertrand's family. It said:
“ I was with him at the time, and must tell you I am certain it was the death he would have chosen – painless and sudden and doing his duty… A patrol of ours was attacked entering the village of Braisne and the supporting party retired. Captain Stewart at once jumped up, and putting himself at their head rallied them and took them to the assistance of those cut off. I was sent back for reinforcements and on my return had got back to within a few yards of his side when the end came. Those who, like myself, worked with him had become very fond of him, and his memory as an English officer will remain with us”.
He was buried in the village cemetery at Braisne, near to where he fell.
A letter appeared in the Times of September 18th 1914 stating that his father, mother and wife are proud and happy that he died for his country's honour and for a “scrap of paper”.
The officers and men of the west Kent Yeomanry presented his widow with a bronze tablet commemorating his service and an annual prize for an essay is still awarded in his name. One of the recipients was Enoch Powell.
Captain Bertram Stewart
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