Personal info

  • Name: John THOMAS
  • D.O.B: 10th May, 1886
  • D.O.A: 30th November, 1917
  • D.O.D: 28th February, 1954
  • Award: Victoria Cross
  • Occupation at time of action: Lance Corporal, 2/5th Battalion The Prince of Wales’s (North Staffordshire Regiment) (TF)
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The First World War 1917

1917

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The First World War 

The British and French public had been stunned by the appalling loss of life during 1916 at the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, neither of which appeared at the time to have broken the stalemate on the Western Front. In Britain this led to the replacement of Asquith as prime minister by Lloyd George in December 1916, with a mission to conduct the war in a more vigorous and efficient manner. However, at a further conference at Chantilly in November 1916 the generals had concluded that the military outlook was much better for the Allies than for the Germans. In terms of manpower alone, the Allies could deploy nearly 4,000,000 men as against the 2,500,000 of the Germans Forces. Even so, General Joffre declared that the French Army had the strength for only one further battle and that the British must take on more of the fighting. In December 1916 Joffre was replaced by General Robert Nivelle. He determined that the Spring offensive should, as in 1915, consist of a French assault on the German Lens-Noyon-Rheims Salient in Artois and Champagne. The attack would be along a broad front between Roye and the Chemin des Dames, north of the River Aisne, west of Rheims. Meanwhile the British Expeditionary Force would make a secondary assault on the area around Arras. In the course of March 1917 the Germans, reacting to their own massive losses, had rationalized and shortened their front line by retreating to strongly fortified positions, prepared in readiness that winter, and known as the Hindenburg Line. Only in the twelve miles either side of Arras did this coincide with their old line. The British had little alternative but to launch their assault here, which they did on 9 April 1917. The advance to the north of Arras was reasonably successful. In particular, four divisions of the Canadian Corps captured Vimy Ridge, a German stronghold which overlooked Arras. To the south the going was harder. On 11 April an assault at Bullecourt was repulsed and the Australians suffered their worst losses on a single day on the Western Front. On 14 April Haig halted the British attacks to wait for news of the forthcoming French offensive, which was launched on 16 April. The Germans were fully prepared for this and though the French made some gains, General Nivelle had raised expectations so much that his failure to achieve the promised breakthrough could only appear a disastrous failure. To help relieve the pressure on the French, the British relaunched their assault, capturing Gavrelle and Gemappe. On 3 May they finally took Bullecourt but their offensive was again halted on 23 May. At the beginning of the month the French army had begun to mutiny and on 15 May Nivelle was dismissed. Marshal Pétain, who replaced him, soon succeeded in restoring both discipline and morale but for the remaining months of 1917 the BEF had to carry the main burden of offensive action on the Western Front. Its Commander in Chief, Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, had a strong preference for campaigning in Flanders rather than on the Somme. Strategically, this might allow the Allies to capture the U-Boat bases on the Belgian coast at Ostend and Zeebrugge and to straighten out the Ypres Salient. As a first step, on 7 June 1917, the British attacked the German positions on the Messines Ridge, south of Ypres, which gave the enemy a commanding view of the Salient. The German line was destroyed by nineteen high explosive mines and the Ridge quickly captured. This triumph by the Second Army’s British and Anzac troops lifted spirits both on the Front and at home. Buoyed up by this success, the British prepared to advance north-east from Ypres towards the ridge at Passchendaele. The Third Battle of Ypres began on 31 July after a fifteen-day bombardment. The British made some progress, reaching the River Steenbeek and capturing St Julien and the Pilkem Ridge, but heavy rain made the boggy ground almost impassable. General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the Fifth Army, complained to Haig that it made no sense to continue in these conditions. Despite this, Haig insisted he persevere and, when Gough still failed to make the desired headway, decided to hand over the sector to General Herbert Plumer and the Second Army. Plumer concluded that the only way to make sustainable progress was to advance in small stages, which could then be defended against the inevitable counter-attack. He was also helped by a break in the weather which allowed the ground to begin to dry out. Consequently, in the second phase of Third Ypres, the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, which began on 20 September, the British were able to gain possession of the main ridge east of Ypres before the weather deteriorated again and a British breakthrough even seemed within grasp. Mightily encouraged, the British moved on to the third phase of the campaign, the First and Second Battles of Passchendaele. Of these the First Battle raged from 9 October to the 22nd October. During it, though some costly progress was made, it became clear that the hoped for breakthrough was not going to happen. The whole German line had been relieved by fresh troops and the effective collapse of Russia allowed further enemy troops to be diverted from the Eastern Front. Haig was nevertheless determined to press on to Passchendaele, though the German defenders on the ridge developed the concept of the ‘forefield’, a lightly defended front line separated from the main defensive positions by 500 to 1,000 yards. They hoped to lure the British into what would, in effect, be a ‘killing ground’. The Second Battle opened on 26 October and the British and Empire losses were very high. On the very first day the Canadian 46th Battalion suffered 70% casualties. Despite all this, on 6 November, a final thrust went in which overwhelmed the Germans by the speed of the assault and the Canadians captured what little remained of Passchendaele. Fighting continued until 15 November, creating a vulnerable salient beyond the village. The campaign brought British forces to the verge of exhaustion. Total casualties from Britain and the Empire were 245,000. French casualties were 8,500 and German probably around 230,000. The Germans for their part described their losses as ‘the greatest martyrdom of the war’. Searching for an alternative location to attack the Germans, the British now began to plan an assault by six divisions of General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army on the Hindenburg Line just west of Cambrai. Here, unlike Flanders, the firm uncratered ground offered an opportunity for the mass use of tanks. On 20 November 1917, a barrage of 1,000 guns and the advance of 378 British tanks opened the Battle of Cambrai. By noon they had penetrated four miles but nearly half of the tanks were out of action by the end of the day, mainly due to mechanical failure. The advance petered out because the British lacked the resources to follow it up. On 30 November, the Germans counter-attacked on the flanks of the British salient and their ‘Storm Troops’, who spearheaded the assault, broke through in the south. By early December 1917, when the battle ended, the British had relinquished half their territorial gains, and both sides had suffered an estimated 45,000 casualties.

Citation

 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 heavy machinegun fire. His 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. 

Supplement to The London Gazette of 12 February 1918. 13 February 1918, Numb. 30523, p. 2005

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