LIEUTENANT ERNEST CECIL STEELE
MACHINE GUN CORPS
18TH SEPTEMBER 1918 AGE 21
BURIED: HEUDICOURT COMMUNAL CEMETERY EXTENSION, FRANCE
Ernest Steele's mother was German. She became a naturalised British citizen in 1894, the same year she married James Steele, a cardboard box manufacturer in London. It's not really possible to determine the sort of relationship someone like Rosa Koehne would have had with her native country, nor how she would have felt when the two countries were at war. But perhaps the fact that her son was a volunteer is a clue.
Ernest Steele enlisted in the 16th London Regiment; conscription was not introduced until March 1916. He went with the regiment to France on 17 August 1915 whilst he was still only 18. As he was not yet 19 he would have needed his parents' signed permission in order to be able to serve abroad On the 25 September 1916 he was commissioned into the Machine Gun Corps, serving from March 1918 with the 21st Battalion, part of the 21st Division.
On 18 September 1918, the day Steele was killed, the Division took part in an attack directed at outposts of the Hindenburg Line near the village of Epehy. A creeping barrage of 1,500 guns, and the presence of 300 machine guns greatly assisted the attack, which was a small but significant victory, indicating an encouraging weakening of German resistance.
Steele's father signed for his inscription. His son might have been a youthful volunteer, and gone abroad with his parents' support when he was still only 18, but by the time he came to choose his son's inscription James Steele's support for the war seems to have diminished.
The inscription comes from verse seven of 'Man Was Made to Mourn' by Robert Burns (1759-1796). To Burns, man has enough problems in his life without adding to them himself through his inhumanity to his fellow man.
Many and sharp the num'rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves,
Regret, remorse and shame!
And man, whose heav'n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, -
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
The Steele's weren't the only family to choose this as an inscription and it's interesting that the War Graves Commission, which gave itself the power to censor inscriptions, didn't refuse to accept this one, despite its obvious criticism of war.