Friday, 24 April 2015

Finding Private Thomson

Finding Private Thomson - Lest We Forget

Image Wikipedia Creative Common ©©

This week I began a blog post in honour of Anzac Day and my great uncle, William Shaw Thomson, and it ended up having a most unexpected twist.... 

I began writing a post in memory of my great uncle who died in 1915, on the battle field of France and Flanders in World War 1, as a private in the fourth battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. As my post progressed,  I began to get a feeling that, although I definitely had the correct great uncle on my tree, I had possibly collected the wrong military records for him. With a feeling of dread, I realised that I might have researched a war story of the wrong man. The worst part of this realisation was that I had grown fond of my soldier. I knew his battle story well. I had researched William Shaw Thomson some years ago, when just starting out in family history and I admit that I was not nearly as thorough a researcher as I have learned to be in the ensuing years. Details about my Private Thomson were not adding up. I had not cited my sources adequately back then and so I found it difficult to understand how I had reached the conclusions that I had before me. 

When on a newly discovered record, I saw that the William S Thomson whose records I had, ( Regimental number 3963/4) was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and I knew that my great uncle was born in Bothwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland, I was certain that my early research was flawed. At first I grieved for my now unrelated William S Thonson and then I set about spending many hours researching  World War 1 records in an effort to find a trace of my own Private William Shaw Thomson. I finally discovered a death record for a William Thomson, (Regimental number S/7454) who like my relative was born in Bothwell. Although this William Thomson was the only soldier by that name  in the Gordon Highlanders who was born in Bothwell, I lacked evidence to link this record to my great uncle. In pursuit of the truth, I  regretfully made the decision to remove the existing records from my family tree and resolved to start my research again, at a future date. Of course, this meant that I no longer had an Anzac day blog post. And I no longer had  a date of death, a military history or a World War 1 story for my great uncle William Shaw Thomson. 

This morning, I thought of ideas for a different Anzac Dayblog post, since tomorrow in Australia and New Zealand we remember our war heros. This year, on April 25th, it is the 100th anniversary of the Battle at Gallipoli and so a very special Anzac Day.

 I recalled that I had been given a box of war memorabillia in 1999, following my father's death.  The box, owned by my great uncle John Clarke White, brother of my paternal grandmother, has been sitting in a cupboard since then, waiting for me to find time to look through it. Today, I decided to examine the 'bits and pieces' that my great uncle John kept from his service in World War 2.  This I thought would be the topic of my new Anzac Day Blog.

 But fate , or serendipity had other ideas.....

My Great Uncle's box. Image Sharn White ©
As I sorted through the medals and fascinating war objects that my great uncle, John White had kept from his World War 2 service, I noticed three medals that I knew were not related to the contents of the box. When I was aged about 11, my grandmother  had given me three  medals and I am loathe to admit that I have never gotten around to researching them. Now, I could see clearly that they were World War 1 medals. Since I planned to photograph the contents of the box for my blog post,  I decided to take photos of the three World War 1 medals at the same time. 

The British Victory Medal Image Sharn White ©

Back of the Victory Medal 1914-1919

The British War Medal

The British War Medal-back

The 1914 Star
When I turned the medal, known as the 1914 Star, over to look at the back, and read the inscription, I was at first quite puzzled. My paternal grandmother had Thompson ancestors but I couldn't think of a single one with the first initial of W...... Then like a bolt of lightening, the realisation struck me.... the name on the back of the medal was THOMSON. It had no 'p'. I knew at once that the medal in my hand, belonged to my great uncle William Shaw Thomson. I was holding the evidence I needed to find the very same man I had given up searching for the previous night. To add to my disbelief, the Regimental number was the same one as that of the William Thomson I had found the previous night born in Bothwell. Regiment number S/7454.  With much joy, I return, therefore, to my post about my great uncle, William Shaw Thomson, Lance Corporal, ( promoted from Private) who served in the First battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. I will not forget the other William Thomson and his story will be told in another post.



Pte William Thomson's 1914 Star. He died as a Lance Corporal

My great uncle, by marriage, William Shaw Thomson was born on April 13, 1892, the sixth child of Thomas and Margaret (Shaw) Thomson in Bothwell, Uddingston, Glagow in Scotland.

My great aunt, Margaret Bonnar McDade was born on September 25, 1896, at Bishopton, Erskine, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the second child of John and Elizabeth (Gibson) McDade.

William and Margaret, known to all as Maggie, both grew up in coal mining families. By 1911, the McDade family was also living in Uddingston and Maggie and William were destined to meet and fall in love.

William and Magaret, known to all as Maggie, both grew up in coal mining families. By 1911, the McDade family was also living in Uddingston and Maggie and William were destined to meet and fall in love.

On September 7, 1914, Margaret Bonnar McDade, of 7 Watson Street, Uddingston aged 18 years married William Shaw Thomson of 27 Maxwell Place Uddingston.

William was 21 years old and a coal miner but undoubtedly, since Britain had declared war on August 4th, 1914, he was about to go off to fight. Nowhere in Britain, were the recruiting numbers as high as they were in the Scottish city of Glasgow as young men including William Thomson, responded to the call to enlist. Couples rushed to marry before they were separated for an unknown length of time.

William Thomson and Maggie McDade were married at 19 Howard Street, Glasgow which in 1914 was a type of Registry Office. Scotland is famed for its marriage types - regular (a marriage in a church following banns) and irregular (by consent in the presence of wittnesses and legalised by presenting before a sheriff and payment of a fine) and although irregluar marriages were not condoned by the Church in Scotland, they were tolerated as a preferable alternative to couples living in sin. In 1914, on the cusp of war, in Scotland, the number of irregular marriages rose as young people rushed to find a quick and inexpensive way to bind their love, before young men went off to war. Maggie and William's marriage was registered by the warrant of a sherrif. Their marriage registration states

Warrant of Sherrif's Subsitute of Lanarkshire, dated September 7th, 1914.

William Shaw Thomson joined the First Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. I have no diary or account penned by his own hand of his battle experiences so I must rely on accounts told by other members of the 1st batttalion. 

Below is a brief history of the where the 1st battalion, Gordon Highlanders' served in World War 1, between 1914 and 1917 when William Thomson was killed in battle.

1914 - France, the Battle of Mons, Solsmes, Le Cateau, Zeebrugge.
1914-15 - The Winter Operations (November 1914-February 1915) French and Belgian Flanders. 

West Flander 1914-1915 Winter Operations Image Wikipedia ©©
March - September 1915 - Ypres, Hooge
March 1916 - The Bluff, Ypres
July 1916 - Longueval and Delville Wood
Late 1916 - Serre on the Ancre River 
1917 - Arras

William Shaw Thomson saw a great deal of action and surely far too much horror fighting alongside his comrades in the Gordon Highlander 1st battalion, however, tragically, he was killed in the line of duty, on June 18th at Arras.

A diary reproduced on The Gordon website, paints a poignant picture of William Shaw Thomson's last days with his battalion in June of 1917:

1st    Bn preparing to move to Arres
2nd   Bn paraded at 6.55 am, buses to Arres, good billets
3rd   Bn church parade
4th   Bn training for coming operation, moved billets owing to shelling
5-11th Bn training and assault practice with the Suffolks
In the line
13th   Bn relieved 1st RSF in Hill trench east of Monchy
14-19th Bn attacked at 7.20 am took trench and established posts on the mound and high ground. Very heavy fighting from counter attacks. Successful operation but heavy losses. 70 killed, 160 wounded, 27 missing.
Lance Corporal William Shaw Thomson, Regimental Number S/7454, was one of the 60 men killed.

                                                   LEST WE FORGET

Lace Corporal William Thomson's memorial at Arras, in the Faubourg-d' Amiens Cemetery



  1. The geneafairy was smiling on you today. So pleased you were able to get sorted and produce such a beaut post.

  2. Great post, Sharn, seems William was quite determined to be remembered, today ;)

  3. I have a feeling your great Uncle William was looking over your shoulder and cheering as you wrote this wonderful post. Good on you for persevering and to William for lending a helping hand. I’m researching my great Uncle Leonard at the moment he made it through WW1 only to die a few months later while still in France. I know he drowned and I know he is buried in France, but I just can’t find out how or why he drowned. It’s been suggested he ‘probably’ drowned while swimming in a local lake – but I’ve just got a feeling there is more to it. Every time I decide I will have to settle for that something (Great Uncle Leonard?) nudges me in another direction, and I start digging around again. I feel I owe it to him to get it right.

  4. I often marvel at the way "fate" or "something else" guides us. I could imagine the feeling when you turned the medal over and had that "aha" moment.

  5. Great research Sharn. I especially like that you show continued reflection helps with our research and it's okay to acknowledge we've made mistakes and start again. You've done him proud!

  6. Barbara, it's not impossible he drowned in the muddy holes where men and horses sometimes disappeared. Might this explain it?


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