THOMAS SMITH 1888-1916

80111 Private Thomas Smith, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 31st Infantry Battalion was killed in action 7 April 1917.[1]  He was 27 years old and is commemorated on the Ypres [Menin Gate] Memorial, Ypres, Belgium and the West Auckland War Memorial and the Roll of Honour in West Auckland Memorial Hall.

Family Details

Thomas Smith was born 17 May 1888 at West Auckland, the son of John and Mary Ann Smith.[2]  In 1901, Mary was married to William Coates, a 34-year old coal miner and they lived at Chapel Street with 12 year-old Thomas and Mary’s 76 year-old father, also named Thomas, a widower.[3]  In 1910, Thomas married Edith Florence Ventress. [4]  By 1911, they lived at 1 Leslie Street, St. Helen’s with their 1-year old son,[5] Thomas.  24-year old Thomas worked as a brewery clerk.[6]

At some time after 1911, he [and family?] emigrated to Canada.[7]

Military Details

Thomas Smith attested 19 January 1915 at Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  He was 26 years 8 months old and worked as a “bookkeeper”.  He stood 5’8” tall, had a dark complexion, grey eyes and dark brown hair.  His religion was Church of England.  Mrs. M.A. Coates of West Auckland, Durham, England was recorded as his next of kin[8] which infers that his wife was not.  Had she died? [9]

The 31st Canadian Infantry Battalion [10]

November 1914:  The 31st Canadian Infantry Battalion was formed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel A.H. Bell under authorisation published in General Order 36 of 15 March 1915.  The battalion was mobilized in Calgary and recruited in Edmonton, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Wetaskiwin, Youngstown, Claresholm and Pincher Creek.  The battalion embarked at Quebec on 17 May 1915 aboard “Carpathia”, disembarking in England on 28 May 1915.  Its strength was 37 officers and 1122 other ranks.

By October 1915, the battalion was in the line south of Ypres, Belgium as part of 6 Brigade, 2 Canadian Division.  Not until St. Eloi in April 1916 did the battalion suffer its first major casualties.  The toll was relentless thereafter.[11]

3 – 9 April 1916: Action at St. Eloi [12]

The sector was an irregular line of at least 17 mine craters to the south of the devastated village of St. Eloi on the forward slope in full view of the enemy.  It was exposed to artillery fire from the front and behind the left flank.  Trenches had been severely knocked about, full of mud and water up to waist deep in places, with large numbers of dead and wounded.  On the 4th April, 31st Battalion was ordered to relieve the 12/Yorks, 4/East Yorks and 7/King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.  These men were in a state of exhaustion due to heavy bombardment of their positions.  There was little accurate information available and no maps.  Guides had difficulty recognising trenches due to recent heavy shelling.  It was within this context that the relief took place.

Enemy bombardment continued on the night of the 3rd and 4th through to 5pm.  On the night of the 5th into the day of the 6th, enemy bombardment was heavy and continuous lasting last 17½hours according to the report of Major Daly in command of D Company.  Private T. Smith served with D Company and they held their ground all day under heavy bombardment.  All dug-outs other than 2 at position S19 were flattened.  An estimated 150 Germans attacked No 4 crater but were repulsed by rapid rifle fire.  Heavy rain fell during the night of 6th and 7th.  There was no heavy bombardment – conditions were relatively quiet.  Reinforcements were brought up after dark when it was considered to be safer and they were in position by 8.30pm, although another bombardment of extreme violence took place at 5pm – in comparison to others this was described as a quiet day.

It was intended for D and C Companies to be relieved on the night of the 6th and 7th but this did not materialise.  It was planned for the next evening but due to the poor state of the trenches resulting from previous bombardments, it was delayed until daylight.  Shelling continued throughout the morning and afternoon of the 8th, increasing in intensity at 5pm., and then again at 7.30pm.  Relief was finally completed by 11.15pm.

Casualties totalled 180 as follows:

  • Officers: 6 wounded
  • Other Ranks: 174 comprising 29 killed, 141 wounded and 4 missing

Lieutenant-Colonel A.H. Bell’s report states: [13]

“All carried out their duties with courage and determination.  The work of the Company in support was quite as dangerous as for those in the front line, as they had the carrying of the rations etc.  “D” Company spent the whole of the first two nights on this work and “A” Company when relieved from the front line, though they had no sleep for two days and nights carried on with their work at every halt the men falling asleep standing up. “D” Coy’s time was a very trying one as owing to the expected relief in the night of the 7th – 8th no rations or water had been sent up to them.”

In conclusion, it was considered that:

“Tactically the position was thoroughly unsound, the enemy had the advantage and was determined to press it to the limit.”

80111 Private T. Smith was killed in action 7 April 1916.  He has no known grave.  On that day, 446241 Private A. Attard, 79310 Private E. Loughborough, 446225 Private J. McWilliams and 434315 Private F.V. James serving in D Company were also killed in action.  All have no known grave and are commemorated on the Ypres [Menin Gate] Memorial.[14]

It is assumed that Private T. Smith entered France before 31 December 1915 in which case he would have been awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War and Victory medals.


The Menin Gate is one of four memorials to the missing in Belgian Flanders which cover the area known as the Ypres Salient. Broadly speaking, the Salient stretched from Langemarck in the north to the northern edge in Ploegsteert Wood in the south but it varied in area and shape throughout the war.

The Salient was formed during the First Battle of Ypres in October and November 1914, when a small British Expeditionary Force succeeded in securing the town before the onset of winter, pushing the German forces back to the Passchendaele Ridge. The Second Battle of Ypres began in April 1915 when the Germans released poison gas into the Allied lines north of Ypres. This was the first time gas had been used by either side and the violence of the attack forced an Allied withdrawal and a shortening of the line of defence.

The site of the Menin Gate was chosen because of the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields. It commemorates casualties from the forces of Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and United Kingdom who died in the Salient and in the case of United Kingdom casualties, only those prior 16 August 1917 (with some exceptions). United Kingdom and New Zealand servicemen who died after that date are named on the memorial at Tyne Cot, a site which marks the furthest point reached by Commonwealth forces in Belgium until nearly the end of the war.

The YPRES (MENIN GATE) MEMORIAL now bears the names of more than 54,000 officers and men whose graves are not known. The memorial, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield with sculpture by Sir William Reid-Dick, was unveiled by Lord Plumer on 24 July 1927. [15]

Private T. Smith is commemorated on the West Auckland War Memorial and the Roll of Honour in the West Auckland Memorial Hall.



[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975

[3] 1901 census Note name could be viewed as Snaith but in this context is clearly Smith

[4] England & Wales Marriage Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.298 Auckland 1910 Q1

[5] England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p.235 Auckland 1910 Q2

[6] 1911 census Note It is assumed to be the correct Thomas Smith

[7] Another assumption – this TS was a clerk and the CEF soldier worked previously as a bookkeeper, seems reasonable to assume that it is the same person, particularly when there were not that many clerks in West Auckland

[8] Attestation papers

[9] England & Wales Death Index 1837-1915 Gateshead Vol.10a p.1267 Gateshead 1911 Q3 [possible]

[10] “31st Battalion C.E.F. 1914 – 1919” complied from its diaries & other papers by Major H.C. Singer.


[12] Canada at War: CEF 31st Battalion War Diary and other reports – my interpretation

[13] Report dated 23 February 1929 from A.H. Bell to Col. A.F. Duguid, Director of Historical Section Dept. of National Defense

[14] CWGC 434112 Private P. James is also recorded but I have not traced his burial/commemoration.

[15] CWGC