Researched and written by Anne Wright
Sgt W J Stedman
8th Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment)
Died of wounds, 22.4.1918
Walter John Stedman served for two years and five months on the Western Front, longer than many of his comrades from 1914. This period must have been a great contrast to his life as a domestic gardener before the war. John was one of thirteen children born to his parents George and Bertha (nee Nunns), two had died by 1911. Just like his father, Walter was a native of Weybridge; his birth was registered in the second quarter of 1885. The family home in 1891 was Gardener’s Cottage, Waverley House, reflecting George’s occupation. Ten years later Walter was already at work as an under-gardener and had left home to lodge with a widow, Elizabeth Hall, at 7 Heath Road, Weybridge. In 1907 he married Emily Louisa Neal of Sutton and they had two children: Edna Ellen, born in 1908 and Albert Walter, born in 1911.
Walter enlisted in Guildford and arrived in France on 23 September 1915. His battalion had arrived three weeks earlier; he joined them on 28 September as part of a draft of 82 men. Two days before, participating in the Battle of Loos, they had attacked from trenches east of Vermelles (10 km from Lens) only to find the enemy wire uncut. They had advanced and retired under heavy machine gun fire. By 6 October they had moved to Reninghelst (9.5 km south-west of Ypres). The battalion remained in Belgium until July 1916. Walter and his comrades fell into the pattern of trench warfare: in and out of the trenches, training and filling the ever needed working parties. New trenches were dug and existing ones repaired, this was heavy and often dangerous work; in the line near Dranoutre (11.5 km south of Ypres) from 3 – 8 April 1916 they worked under constant sniper fire.
The Battle of the Somme had been underway for a month when the 8th Battalion went into the front line near Longueval (13 km east of Albert) on 10 August; they suffered 86 casualties. This was just the beginning. On 21 August they attacked with the 17th Irish Brigade, only to be held up by finding the enemy to be very close. Severe bomb fighting ensued and in due course they were withdrawn to their original position. Their casualties amounted to 7 officers and 89 other ranks. Walter would have experienced the terror of a gas attack when they were bombarded with gas shells on 31 August while in reserve positions; there were 118 casualties. The following day they went into the front line in Delville Wood (east of Longueville); by the time they were relieved on 5 September their trench casualties since 30 August amounted to 1 officer killed, 25 other ranks killed, 104 other ranks wounded and 13 other ranks missing. Since coming to the Somme battlefields Walter’s battalion had endured savage costly warfare.
By Christmas Day Walter’s battalion had moved north and were located at Philosophe (between Bethune and Lens) and were in the line close by. It was a miserable day with no halt to hostilities and spent in terrible conditions because of the rain. They remained in this area until May 1917 when they moved to Brandhoek (6.5 km west of Ypres). On 31 July Walter and his comrades took part in the attack which launched the Third Battle of Ypres (‘Passchendaele’) the Allies long awaited attempt to break out of the Ypres Salient. They advanced under their own barrage from 3.50 am and when that barrage lifted they charged. The battalion took their objectives but the units on their flanks were unable to move forward so they did their best to consolidate their positions. During the attack and the next day they came under constant and accurate shell fire from the Germans and conditions worsened under heavy rainfall. They were relieved by 11.45 pm on 1 August. Between 30 July and 1 August their casualties amounted to 3 officers killed, 9 wounded, 32 other ranks killed, 156 wounded and 105 posted missing. They went into Brigade Reserve and could only deploy three companies because of their recent losses.
In September they returned to France, to Beaulencourt (4 km south east of Baupaume). They fell into the routine of trench warfare once more and this continued until the German Spring Offensive launched on 21 March 1918. The 8th Royal West Surreys were in the front line at Le Verguier (12 km south of St Quentin) when an enemy bombardment began at 4.30 am and continued for 8 hours. Under cover of fog they had cut the British wire on both flanks where all support had given way so the front companies were completely cut off. Only Lewis Gun and rifle fire kept them at bay. They failed to enter the village of Le Verguier. At 7 am the next day all available men including cooks and orderlies were called to defend Battalion HQ and in a spirited fight drove off the enemy. What remained of the battalion was virtually surrounded so they were ordered to retire towards Vendelles: there were just 11 officers and 150 other ranks. So began a desperate retreat which saw them have to put up stubborn resistance such as east of Omiecourt (close to Peronne) on 25 March and at Vrely (32 km east of Amiens) on 27 March. By 28 March the battalion consisted of just 200 men of various units, however on this day they fought a rear-guard action at Caix (28 km south-east of Amiens) and held back the enemy. The Germans did not take Amiens.
Between 21 and 31 March the 8th Royal West Surreys’ casualties amounted to 20 officers and 380 other ranks. It is very likely that Walter was wounded during this period and possibly taken prisoner by the enemy. He died of wounds on 22 April and was laid to rest in Roisel Communal Cemetery Extension (III.A.7/19). Roisel is a small town 11 km east of Peronne which was taken by the Germans on 22 March 1918 and held by them until September. They started the Cemetery Extension immediately. British casualties were also brought in from other burial sites later. The 8th Royal Surreys’ losses throughout the period Walter was with them are testimony to his brutal experience of the First World War. On the day of his death the battalion received a message of appreciation from Guildford Town Council for their defence of Le Verguier.
His widow lived in Weybridge until at least 1935. She and Walter had at least three grandchildren through their son Albert’s marriage to Emily Louisa Blake in 1937. He died in Glamorgan in 1993.
The following additions were shared with us by Mollie Gair, Walter’s granddaughter.
Our grandmother – Emily Louisa Stedman moved away from Weybridge in late 1939 to live with her son Albert Walter Stedman and his wife, also named Emily Louisa (nee BLAKE). All through the Second World War we lived on a Market Garden in Harwich Road, Ardleigh, near Colchester, Essex and she looked after my sister and me. In addition she was a very good cook and did almost all of the cooking and housework during that time. Our father was not allowed to join the Forces during the Second World War because he was food producer and our mother also worked with him on our Market Garden. He was however, in the Home Guards throughout the war. Our grandmother lived with us for next 20 years before going to a retirement home in Bedford. In 1946 we all moved away from Ardleigh to Worplesdon, Surrey when my father got the job of Head Gardener at Goose Rye, a well known estate then owned by a Mr Dangerfield. We all lived in ‘The Goslings’, Goose Rye Road in the Head Gardeners’ house for a year or so then moved away from Surrey altogether when the estate was sold to Colonel Aldington, to Bedfordshire in 1948.
Our grandmother often spoke about her husband (Wal pronounced “Wol”) and how she first saw him diving into the river (Wey) near Weybridge and decided there and then that he was the ONE for her. It wasn’t until some time later she found out he was only 15 years old at that time (and she was 21!)! They were ‘courting’ for 7 years before they married November 1907. We all loved her dearly and she was very sadly missed when she died at almost 88 in 1967.
Walter John Stedman was captured by the Germans in March 1918 and (for confirmation) I have in my possession two Red Cross cards dated 23 March and 17 April 1918. They were sent to my grandmother at 6 Barnes Cottages, Waverley Road, Weybridge, Surrey from the Prison Camp at Limburg. They say he was ‘Sound – Yes Wounded – No’. The address was written by him on one side and his Name, Rank & Number on the other in his own writing. Yet records say that on the 22 of April he died of War Wounds! After that my grandmother heard nothing and she always said she had no OFFICIAL notification of his death, just that he was ‘missing presumed dead’. She said that about 6 months after the war ended, a former prisoner of the camp went to see her and told her that my grandfather had tried to escape and was bayoneted in the back. She certainly knew nothing during her life about his grave in Roisel Cemetery – I found out about that during the 1990’s when the War Graves Commission published details on line.
My grandmother also said that my grandfather always intended to escape if captured – apparently he was connected to, or belonged to, the Weybridge Harriers in his earlier days and was good at running. When he went home on leave in 1917 he had told her that in the event of being captured that he would ‘make a run for it’. That was the last time she saw him. Unfortunately, my father did not see him on that last visit (he would have been about six years old) because he was in an isolation hospital with scarlet fever. She also said that she spent a long time ironing the seams of his uniform to kill all the lice which he had picked up!
After the war ended my grandmother received a widow’s pension for that of a Lance Corporal – not Lance Sergeant – and always felt she had been cheated. Those extra shillings would have made all the difference to her when the children were young. Between the two wars she worked in domestic service to support them. My father, at eight years old, did a paper round and the money he earned went towards paying for his boots to be repaired. The reason given by the authorities was that the promotion (awarded in the field) hadn’t been confirmed. She never remarried as she said ‘she could never be sure her husband was dead – perhaps he had been shell shocked and lost his memory and/or gone to Australia’. She also kept the rented cottage at Barnes Road for over 20 years after his death to quote ‘just in case he had lost his memory, and gone to Australia” (I wonder if she heard of the ‘Arbroath’ and Lance Corporal W Stedman repatriated from Prison camp in December 1918 – I found that in records but his name turned out to be William. Just speculation!)
Bailey Family Tree, www.ancestry.co.uk
British Army WW1Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920, www.ancestry.co.uk
England & Wales, Civil Registration of Birth Index, 1837-1915, www.ancestry.co.uk
England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriages Index, 1837-1915, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1962, www.ancestry.co.uk
UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919, www.ancestry.co.uk