|Date of Birth||April 5, 1887|
|Place of Birth||Kenora, Ontario|
|Next of Kin||Mrs. Alma Patterson (sister), 639 Agnes Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba|
|Trade / Calling||Engineer|
|Religion||Church of England|
|Service Record||Link to Service Record|
|Battalion||Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry|
|Force||Canadian Expeditionary Force|
|Enlisted / Conscripted||Enlisted|
|Place of Enlistment||Ottawa, Ontario|
|Address at Enlistment||Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan|
|Date of Enlistment||25/08/1914|
|Age at Enlistment||27|
|Theatre of Service||Europe|
|Prisoner of War||No|
|Date of Death||28/09/1918|
|Age at Death||31|
|Buried At||Crest Cemetery, Fontaine-Notre Dame, France|
|Plot||I. B. 9.|
Sergeant George Ross Thompson, known to his friends and family as Smokey, was an original member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, enlisting with them in August 1914 when they were first organized. After surviving almost four years of war Sergeant Thompson was killed in action on 28 September 1918, 44 days before the Armistice. In 1998, after 80 years as the ‘unknown’ Sergeant, his grave was identified and a dedication ceremony was held at his final resting place in France.
Family and Early Life
George was the youngest son of John and Ellen Thompson of Kenora, Ontario. John was born in Sweden and immigrated to the U.S. with an aunt when he was in his teens. In the late 1860s he was working for the Great Northern Railway between St. Paul, Minnesota and Winnipeg, Manitoba and he ended up moving to Winnipeg where he operated a hotel. Ellen Earl, an Irish girl, was passing through Winnipeg with her family and she took a job working for John at the hotel. John and Ellen were married in 1877 or 1878 and their first child, daughter Alma, was born in Winnipeg.
In the summer of 1879 the Thompsons moved east to the rough but booming town of Rat Portage. They travelled by ox cart on the Dawson Road, going to the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods and from there by boat to Rat Portage. Over the next thirty years John was involved in many successful ventures in Rat Portage (later called Kenora), both on his own and with business partners. He owned the Nickel Plate Saloon and Hotel on Main Street, and Thompson and Palmer’s butcher shop which was right next door. He operated a wood yard, owned a big boat used for ferry service and excursions, leased and ran a second hotel and had a mining claim on Lake of the Woods. He started the first ice-selling business in Rat Portage which earned him the nickname the Ice King. The Thompson family home was at the south end of Main Street and John’s large ice house was across the street and close to the lake.
Four children were born to John and Ellen in Rat Portage: Frederick (1880), Georgina (1882), Ambra (1883) and George Ross (5 April 1887). When George was two years old his mother became ill and she went to Manitou, Manitoba to be with her family. She passed away there in March 1890. John was married again in August 1891 and he and his second wife Sarah Magnusson had three children: Gertrude (1892), Lawrence (1894) and Mabel (1896). George grew up in Rat Portage and attended school there but he also spent some time living with his mother’s relatives. At the time of the 1901 census, when he was 14, he and his sister Ambra were staying in Manitou with an aunt and uncle, Catherine and John McNabb. Catherine was their mother’s sister. The first railway line to Rat Portage had been completed a few years before George was born and by the time he was old enough to work the Canadian Pacific Railway was a major employer in the Kenora area. George was taken on by the CPR and when the war started he was working as an engineer in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. While he was living there he roomed in the Utopia Block along with several other men.
Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 and within a week the Canadian government had authorized a regiment to be raised for immediate overseas service. It was named Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and recruitment began on 11 August. Volunteers in the Calgary area were told to sign up as quickly as possible and the special troop train departed there on Saturday 14 August. The train arrived in Moose Jaw later that day and when it left town engineer George Thompson was on board. The recruits passed through Kenora the next day and George’s sister Alma and her two sons went to the train station to see him off. George’s nephew Paige was seven at the time and years later he wrote, ‘I do remember that Mother, my brother Lea and myself went down to the depot in Kenora to meet the troop train and say good-bye to Uncle Smokey Thompson when he was on his way overseas during the first world war. Mother was so upset over the entire incident that she was actually sick for two or three days, this left a lasting impression on my young mind that I never forgot.‘
After arriving in Ottawa on 18 August the volunteers underwent medical examinations and signed their attestation papers. George passed his physical on 21 August and attested four days later. Recruits were required to have previous military experience so that a minimum of training would be needed, but George and a few others who didn’t were accepted nonetheless. The men headed to Montreal next where they embarked on 28 August on the SS Megantic. Due to the threat of German submarines they ended up spending a few weeks training in Levis, Quebec then left for England on the Royal George on 27 September with the 1st Canadian Contingent. They were in a convoy of 32 transport ships accompanied by a Royal Naval escort for protection and the fleet arrived safely in Plymouth, England on 14 October. On his attestation paper George had named his sister Alma as his next of kin and on 4 December 1914, while he was training in England, Alma passed away in Winnipeg. Later that same month, after George was sent to France, his father also died.
After a short period of training the Patricias were attached to the 27th Division, 80th Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force and on 20 December 1914 they were sent to France. The British Army had been involved in fighting as early as August but the Patricias were the first Canadian infantry unit to arrive in France. A year later, in November 1915, they were transferred from the BEF to the Canadian Corps, becoming part of the 3rd Canadian Division, 7th Infantry Brigade.
In the first few months of 1915 the Patricias were based in the St. Eloi sector in Belgium and in March George was admitted to a hospital due to illness. He rejoined his unit in April and the following month the Patricias were at the Battle of Frezenberg (8-13 May 1915) where they made an ‘epic stand’ and suffered devastating losses: 175 killed, 197 wounded and 77 missing. In August George was promoted to Corporal and early in 1916, now as part of the Canadian Corps, he was sent to Le Havre for three months of training as a drill instructor. By the time the Canadians began to move to the Somme area in August 1916 he was back with the Patricias as a Sergeant and his unit took part in the battle of Flers-Courcelette and the assault on Regina Trench.
In the spring of 1917 all four Canadian Divisions were based between Lens and Arras in France, opposite Vimy, and they were undergoing intensive training for the planned assault on Vimy Ridge. The operation began on Easter Monday, 9 April, and it was a remarkable success for the Canadian Corps. Following the battle George was granted ten days leave in Paris and in the summer and fall of 1917 he spent several more months in the hospital. After some time as a temporary stretcher bearer he rejoined the Patricias in May 1918. The final period of the war, known now as the Hundred Days Offensive, started later that summer and during those last months of the war the Canadians Corps had some of their greatest victories. George was out of action for the start of the offensive, due to an abscessed leg, but he joined his unit in the field on 28 August. He was killed in action one month later.
On 28 September the Patricias supported the Royal Canadian Regiment during an advance near the city of Cambrai. By early afternoon the two battalions had secured a section of the Marcoing Line, just west of Cambrai, and around 7 pm that night a further attack by the 7th and 9th Brigades began. The Patricias advanced almost 2 km northeast towards the village of Tilloy before being stopped by thick barbed wire entanglements. From high ground to the north the Germans were able to rake the Patricias with machine gun fire and the battalion had to withdraw, suffering heavy losses. Among the Patricia’s casualties on 28 September was Sergeant George Thompson (see note below).
Sergeant Thompson is buried in Crest Cemetery in the village of Fontaine-Notre Dame, 3 km southwest of Cambrai. He is commemorated on the Cenotaph in Kenora, on the Kenora Legion War Memorial and on the Rolls of Honour for the Princess Patricia’s and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Every year at 11 am on November 11th the CPR stops all of its trains in North America for two minutes of silence, to pay tribute to those who served their country.
For 80 years George’s grave was unlike most others – his marker read simply Sergeant, Princess Patricia’s CLI along with the date of his death. In 1998, after extensive research by Captain Steve Newman of the PPCLI and four other archivists and researchers, the grave was identified as that of Sergeant George Ross Thompson. His relatives were located and told about the findings and they chose the wording for the bottom of his new grave marker: In remembrance of the sacrifice made for freedoms enjoyed today.
A Memorial service was held at Crest Cemetery on 9 November 1998, as part of the commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of the Armistice. With his nephew and other PPCLI members in attendance Sergeant Thompson’s grave was reconsecrated and the Last Post and Reveille were played in his honour.
By Becky Johnson
Note: Research by Capt. Steve Newman, PPCLI, determined that Sergeant Thompson was killed by machine gun fire during the morning of 28 September, while his regiment was supporting the RCR in the initial assault on the Marcoing Line (www.hellfirecorner.co.uk/sergeant.htm).