THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

12 April 2018

Alexander Charles Stewart, classicist and army cyclist

Untold Lives has been remembering the six members of the library departments of the British Museum who died during the First World War.  Today we are telling the story of Captain Alexander Charles Stewart of the Army Cyclist Corps, who was killed in action near the French town of Bailleul on 12 April 1918.

  IWM Cyclist CompanyRecruiting poster for Cyclist Company © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4893)

Alexander Charles Stewart was born in 1886, the only son of William and Helen Stewart of Turriff in Aberdeenshire.  He studied at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, leaving in 1903 as Dux.  He then studied at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with a MA in Classics in 1907.  After further study in Paris, Stewart worked as a classics master at Nicholson Institute, Stornoway.  In May 1910, he was appointed a 2nd Class Assistant at the British Museum.

On the outbreak of war, Stewart enlisted as a Private in the London Scottish, the 14th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment.  At some point he transferred to the Inns of Court OTC and was eventually gazetted into the Army Cyclist Corps.  Stewart went to the front in April 1916, joining at first the 61st Division Cyclist Company, which later that year merged with two other divisional cyclist companies to form the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion.

IWM London CyclistsPoster for the London Cyclists © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0873)

Volunteer cyclist units began to emerge in the decades leading up to the First World War.  Cyclist companies were initially established overseas at divisional level, although these were later grouped into battalions at corps level.  Their main intended role was reconnaissance, although they were also often involved in traffic control or signals work.

By the middle of 1917, Lieutenant (later Captain) Stewart was commanding No. 1 Company of the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion.  The battalion spent most of that year in the Ypres Salient.  In February 1918 they moved to the Oise region to survey roads.  They were still there when the German Spring Offensive broke on the 21 March.  Hastily recalled from leave on the 26 March, Captain Stewart rejoined his company when they were helping to defend the River Ancre crossings near Buire.

Shortly after that, the IX Corps Cyclist Battalion moved back north.  They became caught up in Operation Georgette, the German offensive in Flanders that opened on  9 April.  For the first few days of the offensive, the battalion was based at Méteren, just west of Bailleul, mainly tasked with reconnaissance and unit liaison in the area east of the key railhead of Hazebrouck.  Captain Stewart's No. 1 Company was based throughout on the railway line between Bailleul and Outtersteene.

The battalion war diary does not provide any specific details of his death; several days after the event, he was reported wounded and missing on 12 April 1918, somewhere south of Méteren.  It wasn't until the end of the year that Captain Stewart was officially reported killed in action.

Captain Stewart is buried in Outtersteene Communal Cemetery Extension near Bailleul.  In addition to the British Librarians’ memorial at the British Library, his name also appears on the town war memorial at Turriff, the memorials at George Watson’s College and the University of Edinburgh, and the British Museum’s memorials at Bloomsbury and Kensington.

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
Chris Baker, The Battle for Flanders: German Defeat on the Lys, 1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2013).
John Minto Robinson, ed., The war book of Turriff and twelve miles round 1914-1919 (Turriff: Turriff and District Ex-Service Men's Association, 1926), pp. 7, 110.
University of Edinburgh, Roll of honour 1914-1919 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1921), p. 97, plate lxxvii.
WO 95/845/2, XI Corps Cyclist Battalion War Diary, June 1916 - August 1919, The National Archives, Kew.