Robert Clarence Thompson of Prince Edward County surely must be among the youngest soldiers to serve (or who tried to serve) in the First World War. Not quite as young as twelve-year-old Sidney Lewis, who has been authenticated as the youngest British soldier to fight in the war, he still joined up at the mere age of fourteen and was on the Western Front by fifteen. I read about Thompson in the locally-published book Stories of Prince Edward County, which is a series of articles originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard, written and collected by Alan R. Capon. I thought I had better investigate this one.
With this I stray a bit out of the realms of Kingston history, but I’m intending to include history from the surrounding areas of Kingston in this blog, so this is the first of a coming series. Anyway, it’s an interesting story.
First off, according to a quick check, Robert Clarence Thompson was born on December 12, 1901, indeed making him an underage soldier. He was born in Hastings County, but at the time of World War I was living with his family in Hillier, Prince Edward County, and attending Prince Edward Collegiate Institute in Picton. According to one of his brothers, Thompson first tried to enlist in 1915, at the age of thirteen:
He wore short pants when he went to the collegiate and borrowed some long pants to enlist. He was in 33 days until my father got the authorities to release him [. . .] Robert re-enlisted at Wellington on March 16, 1916 with the 155th battalion and went overseas in September, 1916. He was 14 years old.
The earliest attestation papers for Thompson that can be found at Library and Archives Canada were signed on February 25, 1916, about two and a half months after his fourteenth birthday. Therefore, I’m not sure whether his brother was mistaken, or whether there was an earlier attempt to enlist that the records are unavailable for – I don’t know how complete the Archives are. In this attempt, Thompson gave his true birth date of December 12, but moved the year back to 1897, making him eighteen. He gave his occupation as “Factory Hand” and stated one year of military experience in “Cadets.” He was recruited into the 59th Battalion.
The second set of attestation papers were signed only three weeks later in March 1916 for the 155th Battalion, just as was quoted. There are some noticeable differences: Thompson’s occupation is given as “Student” this time, and he admits no previous military experience. Also, the form appears to have been filled out somewhat carelessly; although Thompson gave the same faked birth year, his age has been put in as nineteen!
According to the (cut-off, it seems) photograph below, the 155th trained at Barriefield before heading to England. So there’s your Kingston connection.
The article continues:
After six months training in England, Pte. Thompson went to France and served with the 224th battalion for six months and took part in the battle of Vimy.
The army authorities discovered his age then was 15 years and he was returned to Canada in October, 1917 and discharged.
February 7, 2015 update: The high numbering of the 224th Battalion suggests it would have been broken up among existing units in France, but I haven’t investigated this. The Battle of Vimy Ridge began on April 9, 1917 so Thompson would have arrived in France just in time to take part in it if he was discharged that October. However, back home in Hillier, he still couldn’t rest easy.
Thompson enlisted for the last time on November 22, 1917 in the 1st Depot Battalion, Central Ontario Regiment. Once again there are changes: his birth year has been moved to 1898, perhaps evidence of a somewhat chastening discharge experience; his occupation is “Chauffeur” this time, but he does admit previous overseas experience. Not surprisingly for a teenager, Thompson has also grown almost two inches taller, now being nearly 5’8″.
The Halifax Explosion occurred on December 6, 1917 and the 1st Depot Battalion was initially rushed there for relief work. Allegedly at some point Thompson rose through the ranks to become a sergeant-major (!), and was back serving on the Western Front until the end of the war. I didn’t find any unit diaries or historical records of the battalions that Thompson served with, so I don’t know any more information about his apparent promotion or movements during the war.*
After the war, Thompson went to work at his family’s egg and creamery business located in Teeswater, Bruce County, but that’s all the article reveals about his later life. Robert Clarence Thompson died in 1950, before the article about him was published.
What’s interesting is how this rather baby-faced boy managed to wangle his way into the Army at least three times without being turned away as underage. He was a little tall for a teenager but not strikingly so, and although photographs can be deceiving, he doesn’t look particularly mature in his portrait. As the war went on standards for recruitment were somewhat loosened, but not enough to let in the obviously under-aged. I guess Thompson was just lucky – if you can call it that – and was able to make a good impression.
It’s too bad the article didn’t reveal more about him, since he must have had quite a spirit. I hope he had a happy life – it’s certainly one that I’m left wondering about.
*I eventually found diary pages for the 1st Depot Battalion but they weren’t very illuminating, and I didn’t probe them too far. Since I’m no expert on researching the CEF it’s entirely likely there’s information out there I’ve missed, although I did try my best. If you want to do further research, go for it and let me know.
Additional biographical details were found with familysearch.org and findagrave.com
Attestation papers (Library and Archives Canada)
Capon, Alan R. Stories of Prince Edward County. Belleville, ON: Mika Publishing, 1973.