Sunday, November 13, 2011

Remembering Richard Rowland Thompson, awarded the Queen's Scarf of Honour in the South African War

In the small village of Chelsea Quebec, a special effort has been made over many years to honour the phrase from the poem “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon:

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
we will remember them

In the small Pioneer Cemetery in this village lies the grave of Private Richard Rowland Thompson, a soldier who served with the 2nd (Special Service) Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry in the South African War. When he died in 1908 from a sudden illness, he was buried with full military honour but, unfortunately, his grave was forgotten for half a century. The memory of his grave was finally revived through the efforts of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society which restored the cemetery and has organized a memorial service on the 11th of November each year since 1986.

The annual memorial service includes an invitation, not only to all local residents, but also to representatives from senior officers of the Canadian Forces and a contingent from Thompson’s regiment, now The Royal Canadian Regiment with two battalions based at Petawawa in the upper Ottawa River valley. On November 11, 2011, Commodore Hans Jung, commander of the Canadian Forces Health Services Group and the Military Surgeon General, and contingents from Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment and from CF Health Services Centre gathered here to participate in that years’ service. A photo gallery from this ceremony can be viewed at Chelsea Remembrance 2011

Private Thompson’s gravesite is significant because he was the only Canadian to be awarded one of the eight scarves personally knitted by Queen Victoria for presentation to private soldiers for special gallantry in South Africa. Private Thompson had first exhibited exceptional courage at the Battle of Paardeberg on February 18, 1900, when Canadians suffered heavy casualties during a failed attack on Boer positions. As darkness fell, one wounded Canadian soldier had been remained lying between the lines where he could not be rescued. Richard Thompson chose to remain with him until help could arrive and he saved the wounded man’s life by holding bandages to his wound to keep him alive. While they lay huddled between the lines, the Boers continued to fire on them in the moonlight, at one point shooting Thompson’s helmet off.

A few days later on February 27, The Canadians were ordered to attack the Boer lines again, this time by advancing under cover of darkness. The Boers spotted Canadians about sixty metres from their trenches and opened up a murderous fire on the attackers. Again, one Canadian soldier was wounded near the Boer positions, unable to get back to safety. Thompson, now back in the Canadian trench, jumped up and, against orders of his company commander, raced out several hundred metres through Boer fire to rescue the man. Unfortunately, just as Thompson reach his comrade and grasped his hand, the wounded man died. Thompson somehow managed to get back to the Canadian trench without being hit and reported the fate of the man to his commanding officer.

Thompson exhibited one of the key characteristics of courage under fire. The most common motivator of courage has been the importance of the bonds established between men whose life is threatened in battle. Men often take extreme action to help each other survive while accomplishing their mission, sacrificing their life if necessary to help others. It is significant that, on receiving praise for his act from his company commander, Thompson remarked that he preferred to call his race between the lines as “pure foolhardiness.”

The South African War was a hard-fought struggle between British and Commonwealth forces and their Boer opponents. As the number of casualties continued to be reported back in England, Queen Victoria decided that she should create some special mark of personal gratitude for the men fighting for the Empire. To do so, she knitted several scarves from deep gold wool and included the royal cipher “V.R.I” in the design, attaching a small metal cross in a wreath to it. Private Richard Rowland Thompson was selected by the Canadian contingent to receive this honour and it is held today in the collection of the Canadian War Museum.

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