b. 10/05/1886 Manchester. d. 28/02/1954 Stockport, Cheshire.
John Thomas (1886-1954) was born in Higher Openshaw, Manchester, on the 10th May 1886. His father, Edward Thomas, was a boot and shoemaker and his mother, Elizabeth, was a nurse but both parents were to die early and Thomas and his two sisters were raised by relatives of the family. Thomas attended St. Barnabas School in Openshaw, and just days before his 18th birthday he joined the Royal Navy, on the 1st May 1904, listing his occupation at the time as a Boot Maker and served on several ships including the HMS “Leviathan” before being discharged in 1907. He then became a regular solider in the Army Service Corps before he joined the Reserve and found work in the Merchant Navy, working on the Cunard Line in 1912.
At some point he joined the 2nd/5th Battalion, Prince of Wales’s (North Staffordshire Regiment), but sources are conflicted regarding this and little is known about his life after leaving his job at sea. It would appear that he joined the 2nd/5th North Staffordshire Regiment, after the outbreak of war but one source claims he enlisted on the 7th June 1909. The confusion surrounding his enlistment with the North Staffs., has made it difficult to piece together his early involvement in the Great War but it is known, and well documented, that he was 31 years old, and a Lance-Corporal in the 2nd/5th Battalion, Prince of Wales's (North Staffordshire Regiment), when events for which he was awarded the VC took place.
The battalion had moved into trenches on the 28th November 1917, close to the village of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, and the North Staffs., had relieved the 1st Grenadier Guards, who were then the centre front battalion just to the right of the Cambrai – Bapaume road. The battalion spent the night manning a series of detached posts that made up the front line, with two companies engaged in work details and carrying parties. On the 30th November, the battalion were still in position and held off a German counter-attack between 11 am and mid-day, and during the same period Thomas went out in view of the enemy and reconnoitred positions at the southern edge of a nearby copse, marked as F.21.a.4 on trench maps, an isolated house at F.2.a.30.85 and an abandoned factory on the western edge of Fontaine at F.15.c.38.05. He returned with information which proved to be invaluable to snipers. During the same period that Thomas was out in No-Man’s-Land, a second enemy counter-attack was launched at 12.30 pm which was again repulsed.
The battalion War Diary records that:
“Thomas jumped out of his trench and ran forwards 200 yards, and then dropped down and crawled through some trees and out the other side. He then crawled further forward for another 150 yards. From here he could see a large German dugout, and watched 200 men come out in threes and fours, who passed within 20 yards of him. He allowed them to go about 200 yards, and then fired at them in the back. He went out at 11 am and came back at 3 pm.”
For this action Thomas was awarded the VC and his citation reads:
“For most conspicuous bravery and initiative in action. He saw the enemy making preparations for a counter-attack, and with a comrade, on his own initiative, decided to make a close reconnaissance. These two went out in broad daylight in full view of the enemy and under heavymachine- gun fire. Has comrade was hit within a few yards of the trench, but, undeterred, L./.C. Thomas went on alone. Working round a small copse he shot three snipers and then pushed on to a building used by the enemy as a night post. From here he saw whence the enemy were bringing up their troops and where they were congregating. He stayed in this position for an hour, sniping the enemy the whole time and doing great execution. He returned to our lines, after being away three hours, with information of the utmost value, which enabled definite plans to be made and artillery fire to be brought on the enemy's concentration, so that when the attack took place it was broken up.” - London Gazette, 13th February 1918
Thomas was presented with his medal by the King at Buckingham Palace on the 23rd March 1918, but earlier in the month he had been involved in an incident at Bullecourt, where he had been blown up and concussed by a shell. Following his investiture Thomas returned to his home address at 7, Gorton Lane, Lower Openshaw, and was given a civic reception where the Mayor resented him with several gifts including a gold watch and an illuminated address. Thomas returned to France and was promoted to Corporal on the 10th November 1918, and Sergeant on the 21st March 1919. During this time he had married Amelia Wood, from Hulme, Manchester, whilst the couple were on the Isle of Man, the ceremony taking place at St. Matthew’s Church, Douglas, and upon their return they moved to Stockport, where they raised two boys who were later to serve with the Special Air Service in World War Two.
Thomas attended the VC Garden Party in June 1920, and four years later he was one of five VC recipients introduced to Lord Derby at the unveiling of the Manchester War Memorial in St. Peter’s Square. He was also present at the 1929 VC Dinner at the House of Lords and the Victory Parade and dinner in 1946, though his health was not good and he was suffering from the effects of his service during the Great War. He was only able to walk a few steps at a time and by 1947, he had become unemployable and retired from work aged 61. Despite his health, Thomas was present at the reception given for Altrincham’s Bill Speakman VC, who had earned his medal during the Korean War. Thomas was a member of the welcoming committee at the event on the 30th January 1952.
Two years after the Speakman VC event, Thomas passed away at home in 33, Lowfield Road, Stockport on the 28th February 1954, and was buried on the 4th March, following a service held at his home by the Salvation Army. The coffin was pulled by gun carriage to Stockport Borough Cemetery, where members of the North Staffordshire Regiment acted as bearers and played the Last Post at the graveside.
A letter written by Thomas, to his sisters has recently been discovered and published in the Daily Mail, where he wrote that he had become so despondent with the war and witnessing his friends being blown to pieces that he had considered handing himself over to the Germans just months earlier.
Thomas’s medals are not publically held.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT PUBLICLY HELD.
BURIAL PLACE: STOCKPORT BOROUGH CEMETERY, STOCKPORT, CHESHIRE.
SECTION LB, GRAVE 550.
Whittington Barracks Church
Plaque at Staffordshire Regiment Museum, Lichfield
Manchester Cenotaph (courtesy of Steve Hoar)