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Acting 2nd Cpl 6645 – 426279 Walter Herbert Thomas R.E. (attd 1/5th L.N.L.Regt).

Sapper Walter Herbert Thomas was attached to the L.N.L. from the Royal Engineers, he was one of four soldiers awarded the Military Medal for his actions whilst involved in the trench raid on enemy lines at Wieltje, Flanders on 10th January 1917.

Named after his grandfather, Walter was born in 1894 at St Helens, Lancashire to parents Herbert Thomas 21yrs a joiner born at Seacombe, Cheshire and Louisa (nee Owen) also 21, born at St Helens. They married at Walton-On-The-Hill, Everton on 29th June 1885, he had three older sisters: Louisa E (1885), Rachael (1888) and Gertrude (1891). Herbert’s mother had been born in Amsterdam, Holland.

The family lived at a number of homes in St Helens over the years, in 1891 they lived at 119 Morley Street then in 1901 at 72 Atherton Street, Walter was then 6 years of age. In the 1911 census return their home was 5 Kirkland Street, at which time 16 years old Walter was serving an apprenticeship as a draughtsman in the engineering department of the Pilkington Brothers Ltd, Cowley Hill glassworks.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities of WWI, Walter enlisted at St Helens for overseas service with the Territorial Army on 29th June 1914 he was 19 years 6 months of age, and lived at 130 Oxford Street St Helens, and had 18 months left to serve of his apprenticeship.

Joining the 422nd Field Co of the Royal Engineers as Sapper 6645, he attended the annual training at Hornby Camp near Lancaster between the 2nd to 4th August until the outbreak of hostilities. He later received his inoculations and was vaccinated in November of 1914, his service papers survive.

He landed in France on 15th January 1916 with 2/1st (West Lancashire) Field Company R.E. (T) being part of the 55th Division.

It wasn’t long before he had a skirmish with authority, on 30th January 1916 he was reprimanded for neglect of duty at Albert France, the specifics of the event are not recorded the witnesses for the offence were Col Sgt Maj 6745 W. Fairhurst and Cpl 6321 Crook.

He was in hospital at Le Havre with an undisclosed complaint for a period of a month from 7th May – 4th June 1916 until able to re-join his unit.

After engagements at Guillemont and Ginchy phases of the battles of the Somme, the 55th Division withdrew from the line on 28th September 1916 for a short period of rest away from the front. They returned to the Ypres sector in October 1916 relieving the 29th Division.

The sector of occupation for the Division was the line extending from the village of Wieltje, north east of Ypres, south east to Railway Wood which was on the Ypres – Roulers line, a distance of approx. 3 miles in an arc formation.

According to the War Diary of the 2/1st Field Co R.E. on the 6th January 1917, 1 NCO and 7 O.R.’s including Sapper Thomas were attached to the LNL to be utilised for their specialist knowledge in a forthcoming planned raid on the enemy trenches. For the next five days they would train together and put their particular skills into practice to carry out the action with a view to success, these skills would be useful in destroying any enemy strongpoints they confronted. The preparation culminated on the 9th January 1917 when he was one of the 140 men who marched to spare land near to Ypres prison and practiced their actions that would be put into effect a day later watched by the Divisional Commander who afterwards expressed his approval of their display. The area today is close by the site of the CWGC Ypres Reservoir Cemetery.

On the 10th January 1917 the men of the L.N.L. together with their R.E. colleagues had divided into two groups, left and right parties, both groups had Bangalore torpedoes with them to cut any obstructing enemy wire. There being 8 engineers involved it is reasonable to assume that these men were divided equally between the two parties.

The left party under the command of Lt Robert Keith Makant MC would assemble at 15.00hrs at Lone Farm and the right party under 2nd Lt John Cecil Frankland at Prowse Farm. They moved onto to their jump off point a ditch running S.E from Argyle Farm and at 17.15hrs they left their trenches and approached the enemy defences. The right party was immediately met by a heavy machine gun fire and artillery, a single shell accounted for both Bangalore parties of this group as they moved together and all became casualties.

2nd Lt Frankland had been killed and the reserve officer 2nd Lt Charles Warburton Whitaker who had also been wounded gave the order to retire as the wire they encountered had not been cut and they no longer had the means to destroy it. The left party gained their objective and was successful in their attempts in the enemy trenches though the raid had been costly.

Of the officers 1 had been killed and 2 wounded and of the other ranks 7 had been killed and 49 wounded with 4 missing presumed dead, of the wounded some would later die of their wounds.

Thomas survived the raid and won the Military Medal for his efforts. There are no records to prove which party he was with or any surviving MM citation, but is most likely he was present with ‘B’ the Left party that succeeded in entering the trench and to being involved in destroying the enemy strongpoints which were encountered.

After his exploits he was allowed 10 days port to port home leave from 15th -25th January 1917.

His battalion War Diary for the 27th January records:

“6645 Sapper W.H. Thomas awarded Military Medal for work on night of 10/1/1917 “

The Schedule Number recorded for his MM is 68647 the fourth in a sequence of Schedule No’s connected with the raid and has the same Registered Paper Number of 68/121/158 as the three other Military Medalists concerned. The award of his MM appeared in the London Gazette of 12th March 1917.

Exactly one year later on 14th March 1918 his mother Mrs Louisa Thomas of 130 Oxford St, St Helens would be presented with his MM by the Mayor, Ald Henry Baker Bates at a ceremony at St Helens Town Hall.

In 1917 with the change to the Army numbering system his army number became 426279.

On his return to 55th Division from home leave he resumed his work, promotion followed on 1st August 1917 when he became acting second corporal.
He was present for the Third Battle of Ypres at the Battle of Menin Road on 20th September 1917, the 55th Division suffered heavy casualties here and it was during this battle that he too was killed.

The following excerpt appeared in the St Helens Newspaper and Advertiser:

Military Medalist Killed

“Mr and Mrs H. Thomas of 130 Oxford Street have received the sad news that their only son Corporal W. H. Thomas, of the Royal Engineers was killed in action on the 20th September. He was in the Engineers before the war broke out, and was mobilised with them at the outbreak of the war. He went out to France a year and eight months ago and so gallantly did he perform the duties that fell to his lot that in January last he was awarded the Military Medal which unfortunately had not been presented to him before his death, though he had received the ribbon. He was only 23 years of age, and before the war was engaged as an engineer at Messrs Pilkington’s Cowley Hill Glassworks. His mother has received the following letter:- Dear Mrs Thomas- I understand that my section officer has written you a letter conveying the sad news that your son Walter has fallen in action , and as Walter’s sergeant I find it my duty to write expressing the whole sections sincere sympathy with you in the great burden and trouble you have to bear, also to tell you of the brave and gallant way he and a comrade bore themselves in action. It was Walter and a few comrades that led the way under heavy shell fire, and showed splendid example to others. Second Corporal Thomas and Sapper Clifford were buried where they fell and two crosses with suitable inscriptions have been erected over their resting place, the exact location you will receive from the authorities in due course. Walter was exceedingly popular with all of No 3 Section, and he and I worked together in the orderly room (in England) soon after the company was formed and I can only tell you how we all liked him, as an N.C.O. and also as a very bright and cheerful comrade. It will be a consolation to you to know that he suffered no pain, death being instantaneous, and to know that he faced what was before him with splendid soldierly courage and bravery. With No. 3 Section’s sincerest sympathy. – Yours very sincerely S.H. Lewis Sergt.”

His body was later buried in New Irish Farm Cemetery, at St Jean-Les-Ypres, Belgium grave A 3 of plot IX. On his CWGC headstone his parents had the following sentiment carved: “He will not come back to us, but we shall go to him”.

His name also appears on the Roll of Honour at St Marks Church, North Road, St. Helens.

His soldier’s (monetary) effects were claimed on 6th July 1920, and besides his Military Medal he was awarded the British War Medal, Victory Medal received on 21st March 1922 and the Territorial Force War Medal which was signed for on 18th October 1922.

His Victory Medal alone appeared for sale on a well- known auction site in November 2018, and it is believed that his MM had previously appeared for sale in Canada.

Present in his service file are several inclusions which refer to his initials as W.H.D. Thomas although nothing further can be found as to what the third initial may stand for. Also present is Army Form B178 (Medical History), this form notes his birthplace as Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea, this is most likely a transcription error by the writer for another soldier with the same name and which remained with this file. His birthplace of Prescot, St Helens is confirmed in his enlistment papers and also in other independent documents examined.

Garry Farmer
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