Up the Gatineau! Article
This article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 6.
Hero Buried at Chelsea, Quebec
This story of a Canadian’s receipt of one of the more unusual military decorations has its beginning in the Boer War of 1899-1902 and ends in September 1968 at Chelsea, Quebec. This is the story of Private Richard Thompson and his award of what is known as the Queen's Scarf of Honour.
Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, had crocheted 7 scarves in the last year of her life with the intention of presenting each as one of the highest military awards for bravery. They were made of khaki coloured Berlin wool with the Royal Cipher "VR1" embroidered in silk on one of the little knots of wool above the fringed end. They were to be worn over the right shoulder to the left side in the same manner as a colour-sergeant's red sash.
There were many conditions of the highest order in which this award was granted. Soldiers must have entered the war as “rankers" and had first to be recommended for the Victoria Cross, followed by subsequent field recommendations. Another requirement was that the award could only be sanctioned after a vote by a nominee's comrades in the field. Indeed, Private Thompson must have qualified without a dissenting vote because he was recommended for the Victoria Cross twice, the highest wartime military decoration. Given these complicated conditions it was unfortunate that 0J88l'1 Victoria was to die before she could present any of these scarves personally.
Queen Victoria's death and the end of the Boer War resulted in the Queen's Scarf being generally forgotten by the public, until 1956 when the Victoria Cross centennial ceremonies in London, England, brought out references to this unique gallantry award. There was the greatest competition among soldiers to become the fortunate possessor of one of these scarves and it took a very long time to get the required information which would enable selection of those eligible.
In 1960 the Department of National Defence in Ottawa received a letter from R.S. Malone, a Brigadier in World War ll, who was publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press. He had read an article in the Manchester Guardian about this award, believed to be valued higher than the Victoria Cross, which had been presented to soldiers fighting in the Boer War. Among the names mentioned was one, Private Richard Rowland Thompson, the only Canadian to receive the “Scarf of Honour". Brigadier Malone’s query was: where was he buried? and where was his coveted scarf?
The job of research couldn't have fallen to a more dedicated and competent person than Bombardier Ken Richardson who was an information specialist employed by the Department of National Defence's information services. Mr. Richardson had a personal love for military lore and the challenge to bring a really worthwhile story to light could not be resisted.
It took Mr. Richardson more than eight months to track down the world's rarest award for bravery. He spent his evenings and long week-ends, putting 4,000 miles on his car, combing the Ottawa area for Thompson's gravesite and trying to locate Boer War veterans who might shed some light that would lead to the scarf.
In his research he found that Private Thompson had emigrated to Buffalo, New York, from Cork, Ireland, and had moved to Ottawa in 1899 where he enlisted in the 43rd. Ottawa and Carleton Rifles, one of the predecessors of the present Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, as a medical assistant. His age was 22.
After serving some time in the Boer War, Pte. Thompson was invalided home to Canada in October, 1900, but subsequently returned to South Africa to become a lieutenant in the South African Constabulary. He later worked for the Debeers Mining Corporation in Kimberly where, in 1904, he married Bertha Alexander, a member of a prominent Gatineau family of Meach Lake. She had also served in the Boer War — as a nurse. Not long afterwards they returned to Canada and then moved to Buffalo.
Richard Thompson died on April 6, 1908 of appendicitis. His widow brought his body back to Ottawa and he was taken, with full military honours, from the Drill Hall in Ottawa to a private cemetery in the Gatineau Hills, the burial place of his choosing.
At the National Defence Medical Centre, Mr. Richardson struck it lucky. A patient, Arthur Bennett, then aged 88 (who has since died) was with Thompson when he performed his acts of bravery. Armed with this information, Mr. Richardson wrote a story about the hero which appeared in several Canadian newspapers.
Douglas Cowden of Ottawa read the story and called Mr. Richardson. He said he was Mrs. Thompson's nephew. Mr. Cowden also informed him that his uncle was buried in an abandoned cemetery in Chelsea, Quebec, just 8 miles from Ottawa, and he was able to give him names and addresses of several relatives.
Now the story was getting interesting for our researcher, with a combination of unusual circumstances taking place. He sent letters off to persons in Canada, England, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The answers he received helped him to positively identify the location of Thompson's unmarked grave but didn't help him to find the scarf.
Later his research uncovered the account of Pte. Thompson's funeral in an Ottawa newspaper. Here he discovered that the hero was a son of a prominent confectionery manufacturer in Ireland. Mr. Richardson then went to the Irish Embassy and obtained the names of all Irish citizens who were in the confectionery business. He wrote to each of them. This action paid off.
On August 4, 1964, he received a letter from Samuel Thompson of Cork, Ireland, who said that he was a nephew of Richard Thompson and that he had in his possession the Queen's Scarf! It was safe and on display in a glass showcase in the head office of his confectionery firm. ln a truly generous gesture he also indicated that he would lend it to Canada on a permanent basis.
The wheels turned quickly from here on. After a great deal of correspondence between Canada and the newly found relative in Ireland, the Canadian Government arranged for Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and a sister Dorcas Thompson to come to Canada with the scarf.
On May 24, 1965, the 146th anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth, 10 seasoned veterans of the Boer War joined an audience of 5,000 on Parliament Hill to recall the devotion and active participation of Queen Victoria in British military history. It was Victoria Day with a difference for the presentation ceremony in a sun-splashed affair. The magnificent troops of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (which evolved from Pte. Thompson's old unit) and the Royal Canadian Regiment (now stationed in London, Ontario) paraded onto Parliament Hill. The Honourable Roger Teillet, Minister of Veterans Affairs, read the speech to honour the memory of a man who, by his courage on the field of battle, brought honour to himself, to his regiment and to his adopted country.
After his speech relating to Pte. Thompson's heroism the Minister of Veterans Affairs introduced the official guest, Mr. Samuel Thompson, who then presented the Queen's Scarf to Governor-General Georges Vanier. Mr. Thompson agreed to add whatever he could to their knowledge of Pte. Thompson and the unique decoration he received. Among the objects in Samuel Thompson's possession was a gold locket, with the Union Jack embossed upon it, with a photograph of Private Thompson and his wife, Bertha, inside. The inscription reads "From the citizens of Ottawa to R.R. Thompson OS (Queen's Scarf), for services in South Africa, 1900." ln addition to the scarf, Private Thompson was also awarded the Queen's Medal with three clasps.
The Governor-General in return gave Mr. Thompson a framed parchment bearing a citation commemorating the historic presentation in Ottawa.
Behind this colourful ceremony on Parliament Hill lay a truly remarkable story. The Minister of Veterans Affairs had briefly related one of Private Thompson's heroic deeds in his speech but a letter from Pte. Thompson to his brother in lreland gives us a further glimpse into that day:
"I just want to let you know a little about the Paardeburg fight we got into about 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. I personally did not get out until 12:30 that night. l stayed right out on the battlefield right under the enemy trenches with a poor fellow who had been shot in the throat. It was marvellous how I escaped as my helmet was shot off my head by the enemy who started sniping at us in the moonlight. Anyhow l saved the poor lad's life by staying by him and keeping the bandages pressed against his throat".
Another account of a second heroic deed, performed just a few days later on February 27, 1900, was recorded in the book “For the Flag" by Elizabeth Susan MacLeod, published at Charlottetown, P.E.I by Archibald lrwin in 1901. It appears to be an eye-witness account from the trenches.
"Between the trenches and the Boer position lay Canadian dead and dying. About 2:30 p.m. a wounded man, about 500 yards away, was seen to be trying to make for our trenches under a heavy fire, but was at last observed to fall. Now and then between the volleys he was seen to wave his hands as if for assistance. Suddenly from the left of the trenches a form was seen to climb the earthworks in front of our trenches, jumping down to make straight for the place where the wounded man lay, about 90 yards from the Boer trenches. Utterly regardless of the scathing fire that hissed around him, he ran on and at last reached the wounded man, and tried to lift him, but it was too late, for the poor fellow had breathed his last. Seeing it was of no avail his would-be rescuer walked back over the ground he had covered, and although bullets whistled around him and tore up the ground in every direction, he coolly regained his trenches with a pipe stuck between his teeth. I have since ascertained that his name was Private Thompson of the Royal Canadians, and although I do not know whether his case is one recommended for bravery or not, still I have never, during the campaign, seen a case of such coolness and pluck as that displayed by Private Thompson."
After these daring feats of conspicuous bravery, Private Thompson's Company Commander complimented him on what he called his pluck. But Pte. Thompson wrote that he thought it was just pure foolhardiness.
Foolhardy or not the man, whose life Pte. Thompson saved on February 18, personally thanked Thompson in a letter which Samuel Thompson had also brought with him. The letter reads as follows:
"Dear Dicky -
I am just off for Wynberg and England. I've had a devil of a time, and my recovery has been a complete surprise to everyone here, myself included. An operation, which would have taken place had I been fit, will have to be performed in the future. My heart's all gone wrong and also my eyesight. Had it not been for you and Bull, I would have been a beautiful corpse long ere this. I really don't know how to thank you sufficiently. Words seem so cold and barren, and I hope when you visit Canada, you will give me a chance of proving to you my gratitude. You can always hear of me by writing to the Standard Bank of Canada, Picton, Ontario. I hope you will never be placed in the same position as I am at present, and with best wishes for your safe conduct through what I am afraid is going to be a long, long, war. Believe me,
Yours very sincerely,
James L.H. Bradshaw
In the meantime the Chelsea cemetery had also been made ready for a commemorative ceremony, thanks to the then President of the Historical Society of the Gatineau, Mrs. David Wright, and members of the Society who worked diligently getting the plot in readiness for the afternoon memorial service.
On the afternoon of May 24th, 1965, the unveiling of a memorial marker took place. The Minister of Veterans Affairs officiated and Lt. Col. the Reverend James Barnett of St. Bartholomew's Anglican Church, Ottawa, conducted the service for members of the Thompson family, army officials and Chelsea residents who came to the service.
The Honourable Roger Teillet's short speech follows:
"I welcome you to this memorial service for Richard Rowland Thompson, OS, who, 57 years ago, was brought to his final resting place here in the Gatineau Hills that he had learned to love.
During his short life he had travelled to far-away places. He had immigrated to a new and burgeoning country. He had taken up arms in the cause of his adopted country. He had received the most unique decoration for gallantry ever awarded to a serviceman of that country. We know, from our limited knowledge of him, that his untimely death cut short a promising career.
During the half century and more since his death, Canada has progressed from colony to nation. We have earned the right to speak freely in the councils of the world. We have come to seek, in the annals of the past and in the memoirs of our great men, guidance for the future.
This morning we recalled the life and times of this unusual Canadian. The symbol of his gallantry was added, with appropriate ceremony, to our heritage. This afternoon we honour the memory of the man.
In doing so it is my privilege, and duty, to extend, on behalf of the people and the Government of Canada, a sincere "thank you" to all those who have refurbished this plot and the cemetery in which it lies.
When the plans now in progress are completed it will be a congruous environment for the tomb of a Canadian hero and for those who keep him company in his final resting place.
It is a mark of national maturity for a country to decorate the tombs of its illustrious dead. Canada marks appropriately the graves of those who, in the service of our country, have given their lives for our ideals and institutions. If their final resting-places are known but to God, their names are inscribed on monuments erected for that purpose.
It is meet that it should be so.
The grave of Richard Rowland Thompson, before which we stand in solemn tribute, has been so marked."
"I now ask his nearest relative, Mr. S.F. Thompson, to assist me in the unveiling of this marker."
Wreaths were laid on the new "shrine" by the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Mr. Teillet; Mr. Samuel Thompson; General Charles Foulkes of the Royal Canadian Regiment and Colonel Lorne Barclay, Commanding Officer, Cameron Highlanders.
The card on the wreath from the Thompson relatives read:
In loving admiration
of Uncle Dick
Dorcas, Sam, Noreen
Three years later, on September 29, 1968, the unveiling of a white stone cairn, expertly built by Mr. Albert Kuen of Wakefield, Quebec, took place at the Chelsea cemetery. With funds raised in a campaign, donations of money, materials, equipment and manpower by local residents and organizations, the cemetery was transformed into a more fitting resting place, not only for this celebrated soldier, but for others buried there also.
The Department of Veterans Affairs was in charge of this memorial service to a brave and courageous soldier. Military personnel participating in the ceremony were members of the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. The Honourable Roger Teillet, P.C. addressed the gathering and unveiled the Memorial Cairn. Dedication of the Cairn was performed by Major the Reverend J.A.O. McKennitt, C.D., Protestant Chaplain and Major the Reverend A. Fortin, C.D., the Roman Catholic Chaplain.
Mr. Arthur Davison, President of the Historical Society of the Gatineau, as part of his address said: “These burial grounds were generously donated to the Society by Mr. Cecil Meredith. The cemetery contains the remains of many well-known early families in this area including the Churchs, Merediths, Chamberlins, Meechs, Hudsons and Camerons. Christopher Wright, a grandson of Philemon Wright, the founder of Hull, was buried here in l906." Mr. Davison paid special tribute to Fred Aubin of Chelsea who, single-handedly, installed the fence and performed most of the work on recent improvements to the entrance way. He also mentioned Albert Kuen's excellent masonry Work.
The solemn music of the Last Post was played by a bugler of the Royal Canadian Regiment which was followed by a one minute silence and the playing of Reveille. This impressive ceremony was then brought to a close with the laying of wreaths by Honourable Roger Teillet, P.C. on behalf of the Minister of Veterans Affairs; Mr. Douglas Cowden, representing the Thompson family in lreland; Mr. W.A. Hare, who represented the veterans of the South African War; Major-General Daniel C. Spry, C.B.E., D.S.O., for the Royal Canadian Regiment and Maior-General Roger Rowley, D.S.O., E.D., C.D., for the Cameron Highlanders. The Lament was played by a piper of the Cameron Highlanders during the wreath-laying. Prayers were offered by Major the Reverend A. Fortin and the blessing by Major the Reverend J.A.O. McKennitt.
As you leave the village of New Chelsea, driving north, you will come to a road on the left leading to the small cemetery. Two stone pillars mark the entrance, with the following inscription on their bronze plaques, one in English and the other in French:
THE ENTRANCE TO THIS CEMETERY
IS THE GIFT OF
SAMUEL F. THOMPSON
AND MISS DORCAS THOMPSON
NEPHEW AND NIECE OF
PRIVATE R.R. THOMPSON
The white stone Cairn stands majestically within the entrance with its inscription, in both official languages, which reads as follows:
THE ONLY CANADIAN SOLDIER
TO BE AWARDED
THE QUEEN'S SCARF
AND DISTINGUISHED SERVICE
SOUTH AFRICAN WAR
IN THIS CEMETERY
With this re-dedication, sixty years after his death, to the memory of Pte Richard Rowland Thompson, in the calm and peaceful beauty of the Gatineau Hills, a hero has been rightfully honoured. His Queen's Scarf is on public display in the National War Museum at Ottawa.
The National War Museum
The Public Archives of Canada
Mr. Douglas Cowden, nephew of Pte. Thompson's wife, who kindly loaned me his personal file
Mr. Ken Richardson whose whereabouts is unknown at this time. Without his research and determination to find the Queen's Scarf, this story could not have been told
My sincere thanks to all concerned.
This article by Lillian Walton of Ottawa was awarded Second Prize in the eighth annual Essay Contest sponsored by The Historical Society of the Gatineau — 1979.