Last week, French villagers rallied around to help his grandson track down his grave in the small commune of Armentieres.
Darlington pensioner Neil Stewart, 68, grew up listening to stories of his grandfather’s heroism and long harboured an ambition to travel to France and find his grave.
As the centenary of World War I approached, Mr Stewart set out on a solo pilgrimage to pay respects to the grandfather he’d never known.
“Going to France, I had money, my passport and a return ticket – my grandfather went out there with his uniform, a rifle and no return ticket,” he says.
“I grew up in Shildon and my grandfather’s name was on the memorial there and I always laid a wooden cross there but this year I decided to go and find his grave – if it wasn’t for him, my family wouldn’t be here.
“I knew where I was headed but not how to get there. I didn’t speak a word of French but I bought a map on the ferry and in the railway station, just pointed to where I wanted to be.
“After hours on the train, I eventually got to the town and walked into a little bar as I didn’t have a clue where the cemetery was.
“There were four young men there and they helped me tremendously, they got me a drink, put me in their car and took me to find the grave, they were marvellous.”
Mr Stewart’s pilgrimage marks the first time anyone in his family has visited the spot where William Stewart laid down his life, dying of wounds on December 23, 1915.
He said: “My family didn’t believe I’d do it alone, it’s out of character but something I felt I had to do.
“It was an incredible journey and I felt proud – of myself for going there and paying respect and of him, for doing what he did.
“Next year I want to take my nephew and grandson so that they know - it’s very important that people learn about this – those men went through a lot just to give us a better life and it must have been dreadful.”