Private Francis George Thomas

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Louisiana.

Greenwood Cemetery, New Orleans
Greenwood Cemetery, New Orleans

Frank Thomas was born in 1891 at Wells Street,[1] off Gray’s Inn Road, London the eldest of the two surviving children of Francis and Emma Thomas. His father was a printer’s compositor, a trade that Frank was to be follow. His father died in the early part of 1900 and by 1911 his mother was working as a cook in a factory—Frank was living with her and was a printer’s apprentice.[2]

After the outbreak of war, he enlisted into the British Army on 9 September 1914 at Holborn for service with 7th (Service) Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment.[3] He joined his new battalion at Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex and was allocated the regimental number 14178. Private Thomas did not serve there for long—he was discovered to have flat feet and was discharged on 27 October.

Not satisfied with his first experience of military service he enlisted again, this time at Islington, and joined The London Regiment. This time he was allocated the regimental number 4422 but, unfortunately, no service record exists for him and there is no record of which battalion he served with or of any service outside the United Kingdom in a theatre of operations.

At some time, probably in July or August 1917, he was transferred to the Labour Corps for service with 678th Home Service Employment Company, and renumbered 234948.[4] The Labour Corps had been formed in February 1917 to bring better organisation to the plethora of labour units that had been formed since the outbreak of war. The Home Service Employment Companies were formed ‘from men who were employed on command, garrison or regimental duties[5] and provided men for administrative and labouring tasks in depots, hospitals and other installations. These were mostly men who were medically downgraded to the lowest medical categories; they filled essential posts that allowed fitter men to serve abroad. It is not known what tasks were undertaken by Private Thomas but, given his experience as a printer’s compositor, they were probably clerical and probably in the London area.

Private Thomas volunteered to work in the United States with the British War Mission. He arrived in the United States sometime after November 1917 and was posted to the team supporting the training of units of the American Expeditionary Force at Camp Beauregard in Louisiana. His role is not known but, again, it was probably clerical or in a administrative role in support of the team of British instructors there.

The training component of the British War Mission provided instructors at each of the camps established to train the divisions of the American Expeditionary Force. At its height it numbered 261 officers and 226 NCOs spread across the training establishment—it was highly regarded and is credited, with its French equivalent, of being pivotal to the successful expansion of the United States Army in 1917 and 1918.

Camp Beauregard was established in July 1917 as one of 32 cantonments built to cater for 16 National Army and 16 National Guard divisions. Largely completed by November 1917, when the British training team arrived, Camp Beauregard was the home of 39th Infantry Division (formerly the 18th Division), a National Guard formation made up of units from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and which trained there until it departed for France in August 1918. It was followed by 17th Infantry Division, a wartime replacement and school division that did not serve overseas. Also at Camp Beauregard were an officers’ training school; a school for bakers and cooks; engineer and ordnance depots; and an auxiliary remount depot.

Influenza struck Camp Beauregard on 24 September and rapidly spread through the camp—nearly 3,000 cases were diagnosed within the first week—and by 20 October 4,980 cases had been treated in the camp hospital and the temporary, tented hospital built around it. In turn, 1,322 cases of pneumonia developed, which resulted in 416 deaths.[6] One of those who fell ill in this period was Private Frank Thomas. He was treated in the camp hospital from 9 October until his death from pneumonia at 8.50pm on 11 October 1918.

The British Burial Association Plot at Greenwood Cemetery, New Orleans
The British Burial Association Plot at Greenwood Cemetery, New Orleans

His body was transported to New Orleans where he was buried in the British Burial Association plot at Greenwood Cemetery on 14 October.[7] The cemetery was opened in 1852 and, due to the high water table, most of the burials are in above-ground tombs. The exact location of his grave is not known but he is listed on the British Burial Association memorial, which is at Magnolia Avenue, Lot 20, between Cedar Walk and Hawthorne Walk. His name is not included on either of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Special Memorials. Private Thomas is one of four First World War burials and five Second World War burials in the area of Greenwood Cemetery.[8]

Troy Valos for the photographs of Greenwood Cemetery.

1. (Back) Now Wren Street, WC1X 0HB.
2. (Back) Francis Arthur Thomas (1864-1900) married Emma Day (1864-1926) on 3 December 1887 at St Peter’s Church, Saffron Hill; Francis Alfred (6 April 1888-1889); George Arthur (April 1893-1895); Arthur William (1895-1897); Emily May (1898-NK).
3. (Back) The National Archives. Public Record Office. WO364. War Office: Soldiers’ Documents from Pension Claims, First World War.
4. (Back) The Labour Corps regimental numbers in this region were all former London Regiment men.
5. (Back) Starling, J; Lee, I; Holmes, R. (2014). No Labour, No Battle: Military Labour During the First World War. Stroud: The History Press. pp 50-51.
6. (Back) McClelland, J E. (1919). Bacteriological Observations on the Epidemic of Influenza at Camp Beauregard. American Journal of the Medical Sciences. No. 158, pp 80-87. (Dr McClelland signed Frank Thomas’s death certificate.)
7. (Back) Louisiana State Board of Health Certificate of Death. Volume 38, page 17163. The cemetery records his burial as 15 October.
8. (Back) The Second World War burials are:

Fireman Francis Guy, Merchant Navy, died on 31 July 1942.
Master William John Kershaw, Merchant Navy, died on 30 June 1944.
Gunner David Somerville, 1st Maritime Regiment, Royal Regiment of Artillery, died on 17 July 1945.
Master Harry Stephen, Merchant Navy, died on 21 June 1943.
Master Frederick Wells, Merchant Navy, died on 14 May 1942.

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