John Alexander Selter Thompson

Information about birth

Date of birth:
Place of birth:
Denver, Colorado, United States of America

General information

Last known residence:
Victoria Hospital, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Army information

Canadian Expeditionary Force
Service number:
Enlistment date:
Enlistment place:
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
 —  Canadian Infantry, 46th Bn. (South Saskatchewan)  (Last known unit)

Information about death

Date of death:
Place of death:
Heine House, Passchendaele, Belgium
Cause of death:
Killed in action (K.I.A.)


Points of interest 4

#1 Place of birth
#2 Last known residence
#3 Enlistment place
#4 Place of death (approximate)

My story

John Alexander Selter Thompson was born on 25 October 1897 in Denver, Colorado, USA. He lost his father at a very young age, and mother Emily remarried in 1904 to Thomas Beath, a Winnipeg doctor who, along with several other doctors, founded the Victoria Public Hospital in 1911, also John's last known home address. With his stepsister, Euphemia - or Effie for shorter - John corresponded regularly during the war.

The 18-year-old John interrupted his studies to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 26 September 1916 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was assigned to the 196th Battalion, also known as the Western Universities Battalion, which mainly recruited students and staff from the universities of Western Canada.

Arriving in England, John started training in Seaford and Bramshott, southern England. He spent some time there in quarantine. On 17 May, John finally crossed the Channel to France, where he was assigned to B Company of the 46th Battalion, "South Saskatchewan"; towards the end of the war, the battalion was also given the dubious nickname "Suicide battalion".

On 1 June, he left for the 46th Canadians, which he joined on 9 June near Lens. Part of the journey was by train; he noted that the work in the fields along the railway line was done by women, children and older men: "Every town we went through, there would be a bunch of kids along the line, all yelling for biscuits. It seems that they are used to getting biscuits from troop trains but they didn't get many from us. We didn't have enough for ourselves. We hardly saw a man the whole way. The farms were almost entirely worked by women & kids & old men, & an awful lot of the employees along the railway were women."

Once at the front, he endured life in trenches: constant exposure to German shelling, night chores, digging dugouts and trenches, and above all, boredom. Or in John's words, "It's an awfully monotonous life this, just eating & sleeping & doing a little work occasionally, & never seeming to get anything done at all". John notes his experiences in a very down-to-earth manner, often with humour. Behind the front, the YMCA provided entertainment, and John regularly used their tennis courts.

John's last letter was dated 9 October 1917, during a quiet period behind the front after which his battalion left the Lens sector to move north towards Ypres. He reported with great satisfaction that he was allowed to take up the position of stretcher bearer; it also offered additional advantages: no drill or chores, no carrying of weapon or ammunition during a march.

Barely a few days on Belgian soil, John was killed on 26 October 1917 in the 46th Battalion's attack on the German positions at Passchendaele, one day after his 20th birthday. On 26 October 1917, during the Canadian opening attack at Passchendaele, the 4th Division advanced to the heights of the infamous village. Advancing through the swampy valley proved impossible. The division could only attack with one battalion. Only a narrow strip along the railway line and the road from Broodseinde to Passchendaele proved dry enough. The front of the 46th Battalion (South Saskatchewan) was barely 550 metres wide and dominated by several German pillboxes. The 46th suffered heavy losses and would eventually lose 70% of its men. John's battalion the 50th (Calgary) was in the second line. At 9.40am it was sent forward in support of the 46th. Together they managed to take Decline Copse, the first objective of the attack, but otherwise there was no way through. After noon, German artillery fire increased and a German counterattack forced the 46th to retreat through the 50th's line to positions some 500 metres from their starting point under heavy machine-gun fire. That night, Harry's Battalion went in search of wounded, but German artillery fire hampered the operation.

John Alexander Selter Thompson fell at the age of 20. He was buried next to Passchendaele Street, some 500 metres from the starting point at Heine House. To this day, there is no known grave of him. His name is engraved on the Menin Gate.

Several preserved letters are participations addressed to John's mother Emily, from relatives, fellow soldiers, his company and battalion commander, the chaplain... He was sorely missed.

Files 2

Letters - Postcards and Diaries (Personal) View

Sources 5

Manitoba Historical Society
Sources used
Personnel Records of the First World War (Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa (LAC) RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 9646 - 47).
Sources used
The Canadian letters & images project
Sources used
War diaries: 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa (LAC), RG9-III-D-3, Volume number: 4939, Microfilm reel number: T-10745, T-10745--T-10746, File number: 437).
Sources used
War Graves Registry: Commonwealth War Graves (Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa (LAC): RG150, 1992-1993/314, Box 39-244; Box: 128).
Sources used