CAPT. STEVE NEWMAN (Regimental Adjutant, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.)


Captain Steve Newman is currently the Regimental Adjutant of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. The Regiment is wrapping up some research on the Regiment in the Great War and preparing to publish several books - one on Flanders and one on France. During this research the Regiment has managed to identify one of their men who has been listed as "missing" for eighty years.  Tom Morgan

The gravestone with an etched maple leaf was eloquent in its simplicity. Surrounded by eighty-seven other men, he was simply the Unknown Sergeant. On the stone his regiment, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry was listed and with it the date 28 September 1918. Located on a small hill, Crest Cemetery overlooks the rolling French farmland and villages of St Olle, Raillencourt and Sailly. Nearby is the historic town of Cambrai and dotted on the landscape are the military cemeteries showing the price paid in breaking the Canal Du Nord and Marcoing Lines eighty years ago.
Nearly sixty-six thousand Canadian military personnel died in the First World War. Forty-five thousand of them, mainly in France and Belgium, have known graves. More than nineteen thousand Canadian names are commemorated on the impressive Memorials to the Missing found on Vimy Ridge, France and the Menin Gate of Ypres, Belgium. When bodies were discovered but could not be identified by name they were buried with a headstone which gave the particulars of nationality, rank and regiment if possible - and in some cases a date. Others were simply listed as an "Unknown Soldier of the Great War."

The Empire, as it was known then, listed 530,000 names among the missing. Eighty per cent of these being from the United Kingdom and the remainder from the Dominions and Colonies.

From time to time soldiers' remains are recovered from the battlefields and some are identified, but most have disappeared forever. Less than half of the missing are buried as unidentified in cemeteries. The Unknown Sergeant was one of these and his name was carved somewhere on the Vimy Ridge Memorial.

The Canadian Corps was in full stride in the second half of 1918. Along with the Australian Corps and several British divisions they spearheaded the Allied effort to victory in the mad dash known as the "Last One Hundred Days." It began with inflicting the "Black Day" in the history of the German Army at Amiens, 8 August 1918 and ended with the capture of Mons 11 November 1918. Between the two points lay heavy fighting and casualties. On 28 September 1918 the Unknown Sergeant and the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) crossed the Canal du Nord near Bourlon Wood and then swept across the open fields towards Cambrai. As members of the 7th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division they were asked to crack the Marcoing Line, the last of the major German prepared defence lines west of Cambrai. The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) led the Brigade attack with the Patricia's in support. Even before the battle could be joined the Patricia's lost their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Stewart, DSO. He and several men were killed by shell fire as they moved across the open fields towards Raillencourt. The RCR enjoyed initial success before being held up by flanking fire from St Olle and the enemy support line in Sailly. The Patricia's deployed and helped force the support line into Canadian hands by mid afternoon. At 7p.m. the Patricia's and the Edmonton Regiment (49th Bn) attacked towards the fortified village of Tilloy. The assault was caught up in heavy wire obstacles; overgrown and not obvious from aerial photos. Furthermore, the enemy covered the obstacles with machine gun fire which inflicted heavy casualties on the assaulting force. The next day three officers and forty men were discovered killed in a small area where they had failed to claw their way through the wire. During three days of heavy fighting between 28-30 September 1918, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry suffered 375 killed, wounded and missing.

Among them was the Unknown Sergeant.

For eighty years the grave remained unnamed. The occasional visitor would stop by and visit those with names, or possibly wonder about the five men who were unidentified in the cemetery. The peaceful setting of today belies the horror and violence suffered by the men who fought here. For those buried in Crest Cemetery their only constant and faithful companions are the gardeners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who spend so much loving attention and care on the war graves and grounds of cemeteries around the world.

A new series of books dealing with the Patricia's in the Great War has been researched and the first, "With the Patricia's In Flanders 1914-1918 -- Then and Now" will be published in early 1999. A similar book will be done for France as well. The basis of the series is an in-depth view of the Regiment during the fighting and a look at the battleground today. Each cemetery and Memorial to the Missing has the full service record for each Patricia buried or commemorated there. It was in the course of this research that the identity of the Unknown Sergeant was discovered. The Regiment lost six Sergeants on 28 September 1918. All had known graves except for one. He was Sergeant George Ross Thompson.
George Thompson, according to his attestation papers, was born in Kenora, Ontario 5 April 1888. When war broke out in 1914 he was single and working as a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) engineer. The Patricia's accepted men who had prior service and were not in the Canadian Militia as those units were mobilizing as well. There were a few taken despite the lack of service and Thompson was one of them. Most had a specific skill applicable to the new regiment butThompson was valued for his services even before arriving in Ottawa and meeting Lieutenant-Colonel Farquhar, the new Commanding Officer. There were seventy Legion of Frontiersmen, former soldiers who belonged to the Empire-wide organization, waiting in Moose Jaw. They had heard of the new Regiment and the PPCLI troop train coming from Calgary.

It was their intent to join it - invited, or not.

The veterans persuaded young "Smokie" Thompson of the CPR to help them by placing two railcars on the siding by the main line. The determined men bluffed the day and night operators of the station into letting them wait for the train despite having no paperwork or authorization from CPR to join the train or use the rail coaches. When the train arrived, Thompson was quick to connect the two extra cars before it could leave. Although the conductor refused to co-operate at first, coercion and bluff got them to the next rail divisional point. They were told that they must produce a copy of their authorization upon arrival. Fortunately the conductor changed and once again through bluff and coercion they reached Winnipeg. Hamilton Gault, the founder of the Regiment, who had been receiving telegrams about this strange group attached to his Calgary train sent CPR a guarantee of transportation costs. For his part in the affair, Thompson was accepted in Ottawa as a private in the newly formed Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, service number 1056.

Thompson arrived in England with the Regiment and the First Canadian Contingent in October 1914. The PPCLI crossed to France as part of the 80th Brigade, 27th Imperial Division on 20 December 1914. He served in the cold, wet St Eloi sector until being hospitalized with general debility 23 March 1915. Thompson returned to the unit 5 April and fought through the epic stand at Frezenberg 8 May 1915. Promoted to provisional Corporal 26 August 1915, he was destined to become a drill instructor at the Canadian Base Depot 15 May 1916. By this good fortune, he missed the Battle of Sanctuary Wood (2-4 June 1916). In August 1916 he rejoined the unit just as the Canadians were preparing to head south and take part in the Battle of the Somme. He was promoted to Sergeant 15 September 1916, during the fighting at Flers-Courcelette and survived the attack against Regina Trench 8 October 1916. After taking part in the assault on Vimy Ridge in April 1917, he was granted ten days leave in Paris returning to the unit 22 May 1917. Nine days later he was evacuated to hospital ill. Released from hospital 4 July he was attached to the 3rd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station on 20 September 1917 and did not return to the PPCLI in the field until 13 May 1918. By this time the last major German offensive of the war had collapsed into stalemate. Thompson suffered an abscessed leg 3 July 1918 that held him out of the initial battles of the "Last Hundred Days" at Amiens and Scarpe, but he returned to help bolster the unit just after 28 August 1918. A month later he was killed by machine gun fire during the morning, 28 September 1918, as the Regiment supported the RCR in their initial assault on the Marcoing Line. The war and the Regiment moved quickly past Cambrai towards Mons and Peace. Thompson's body was lost as he passed from the sight of his fellow man.

There were many people involved in identifying the Unknown PPCLI Sergeant. It started with the touring of Patricia battlefields, cemeteries and memorials by Captain Steve Newman, the current Regimental Adjutant. This was followed by long hours of detailed research in the National Archives and Personnel Records, ably guided and assisted by Tim Wright of the Research Division. Independent confirmation and advice by Norm Christie, a former CWGC Records Officer and author/researcher on Canadians in the Great War (The King & Empire Series), helped clinch a positive identification. Photos and military maps came from the Regimental Curator Lynn Bullock. And finally, Roy Hemington, the current Records Officer of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in England assessing the merits of the evidence and moving to rename the Unknown Sergeant's gravestone. After eighty years, his name is:

Sergeant George Ross Thompson, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

The Regiment has located relatives of Sgt. Thompson, living in Winnipeg.

The Canadian Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has contacted them with regards to possible wording of a personal incription on the headstone - a priviledge which would have been available to Sgt. Thompson's next-of-kin 80 years ago, had his identity been known.

The original "Unknown Sergeant" headstone has been delivered to the PPCLI Museum, where plans are under way for its display. Final details for a graveside service by the Regiment are still being looked at.

Postscript added 2nd October, 1998
The sound of rifle fire will be heard across the battlefield again shortly after eleven o’clock, on
9 November 1998. As part the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) Pilgrimage commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the Armistice (1918) Sergeant Thompson’s grave will be re-consecrated. A padre will lead the service sprinkling Canadian soil and maple leaves upon the grave. The family has chosen to place at the bottom of his new gravestone the following inscription “In remembrance of the sacrifice made for freedoms enjoyed today.” The unique folklore of Sergeant Thompson’s part of the Regiment will be read and the Minister of Veteran Affairs will lay a wreath as will a PPCLI Sergeant. Echoing across the fields to the other cemeteries in the area will come the haunting Last Post and Reveille and the sad lament from the pipes, remembering the Patricias and their comrades in arms who lie nearby.

In Calgary at the Museum of the Regiments the Patricias will unveil a new display in time for the 11 November ceremonies. The original Unknown Sergeant’s headstone will be set back from a full archway with a mural of Tyne Cot Cemetery and the Cross of Sacrifice in the background. The exhibit will remember over six hundred soldiers of the Regiment missing in the Great War with no known grave. A Patricia Honour Guard will be provided from Edmonton for the ceremony with a Sergeant laying an exact duplicate of the wreath used in France against the headstone.

Should you have pictures or information on any Patricia, particularly those killed in the Great War, please contact the author of this article, Capt. Steve Newman.

Copyright © Capt. Steve Newman, PPCLI, July, 1998.

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