Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Stewart, James Campbell (1884–1947)

by Ross McMullin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

James Campbell Stewart (1884-1947), by unknown photographer, c1915

James Campbell Stewart (1884-1947), by unknown photographer, c1915

Australian War Memorial, P01193.001

James Campbell Stewart (1884-1947), soldier and public servant, was born on 19 January 1884 at Belfast (Port Fairy), Victoria, son of James Stewart, bank manager, and his wife Elizabeth, née Grant, both Victorian born. After attending Terang High School he became a bank officer, but his great love was soldiering. Having moved to Melbourne, in 1901 he joined the Victorian Scottish Regiment, a volunteer unit, was promoted sergeant in 1905 and commissioned in 1909. With the reorganization of Australia's defence forces, the Victorian Scottish emerged as the 52nd (Hobson's Bay) Infantry; in 1912 Captain Stewart became its adjutant.

For a 'king and country' man with a passion for soldiering, there was only one possible response to the outbreak of World War I: Cam Stewart enlisted on 17 August 1914 and was appointed adjutant of the 5th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. The Gallipoli landing proved a stern test. Amid the chaos and carnage of 25 April 1915 Stewart was soon acting battalion commander, and early that afternoon led the battalion reserve forward 'under the hail of shell fire' to the fighting on 400 Plateau. About 3 p.m. he was hit by shrapnel and later evacuated to Egypt. He returned to Gallipoli on 2 June and remained with the 5th Battalion until the evacuation.

In February 1916 the A.I.F. was enlarged and Stewart was appointed to command the 57th Battalion in the newly created 15th Brigade; he was a lieutenant-colonel from 12 March. His exacting brigadier, H. E. Elliott, considered that the three other battalion commanders allotted him were obviously unsuitable, but had no qualms about Stewart: he 'is far and away the best man for the job'. On the Western Front Elliott continued to praise Stewart's work, including his stints as acting brigadier when Elliott was on leave. Stewart was of average height and build; his oval face, moustache, probing eyes and expansive forehead lent a certain refinement to his appearance that could be deceptive, for he drove his men hard when necessary. Charles Bean described him as 'a cool, experienced and trusted officer'.

At the disastrous battle of Fromelles, Stewart was fortunate when a postponement meant that his 57th was placed in reserve instead of being one of the assault battalions that were slaughtered. He performed capably as commander of 'Stewart's Force' in the harassment of the German retreat in March 1917. In September the 15th Brigade's major operation at Polygon Wood was jeopardized when a British unit alongside was forced to retreat. After Elliott sent the 57th forward to rectify the situation, Stewart 'personally reconnoitred the position, in advance of his battalion, under an intense enemy barrage'. In the inferno his battalion filled the gap in the line, enabling the operation to proceed successfully. He was 'simply wonderful', enthused Elliott, 'his own men think the world of Cam Stewart'.

Promoted colonel commanding the 14th Brigade in March 1918, Stewart left the 57th Battalion on the day the Germans launched their great March offensive. He regarded the ensuing months until the Armistice as the pinnacle of his career. In both defence and attack his leadership during the battles of 1918 was characteristically cool and reliable, although he was criticized by Sir John Monash for 'lack of driving power' at Péronne. Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, appointed C.M.G. and mentioned five times in dispatches.

Back in Melbourne in November 1919, Stewart was employed in various positions by the Department of Lands, including chairman of the Farmers' Relief Board and member of the Closer Settlement Board. On Christmas eve 1925 he married a divorcee Annie Edith Pinsent, née Miller (d.1936), at the Sydney registry office. Living at Elwood, Melbourne, he was a Freemason who enjoyed fishing, gardening and golf. Yet his chief interest continued to be soldiering. In the Australian Military Forces he commanded the 14th Brigade (1920-21), the 10th Brigade (1921-26) and the 15th Brigade (1930-34); he was a well-known figure as chief marshal of Melbourne's Anzac Day march for over two decades. During World War II he was rejected for A.I.F. enlistment on age and medical grounds, but commanded Melbourne Metropolitan Group, Volunteer Defence Corps, in 1942-45. On 12 August 1946 he married Mary Imelda Polan with Catholic rites. Survived by his wife, he died of hypertensive cerebrovascular disease on 2 June 1947 in South Melbourne and was cremated. He had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vol 1 (Syd, 1921), C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • F. W. Speed, Esprit de Corps (Syd, 1988)
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 June 1947
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 June 1947
  • H. E. Elliott papers (Australian War Memorial).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ross McMullin, 'Stewart, James Campbell (1884–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stewart-james-campbell-8665/text15153, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

James Campbell Stewart (1884-1947), by unknown photographer, c1915

James Campbell Stewart (1884-1947), by unknown photographer, c1915

Australian War Memorial, P01193.001