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Monday, September 26, 2022
The Monuments Men – Part 2: Finding Private Ryan and the mystery surrounding one NOTL soldier
This image of young Charles Thompson is featured in the Niagara Historical Society's 1923 publication "Whose Debtors We Are."

On Saturday, June 4, the Legion and Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake celebrated the 100th anniversary of the iconic clock tower cenotaph with a ceremony and parade. In recognition of the cenotaph’s century of service through two world wars and beyond, NOTL historian Ron Dale has been researching the stories of the people – all men – whose names are engraved on it. This is one in a series of stories to document and remember the sacrifices these combatants made. Future instalments will commemorate those named on the Queen Street cenotaph and on the municipal memorial in Queenston.

Ron Dale
Special to The Lake Report

A mystery surrounds Charles Thomas Thompson, one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s casualties commemorated on the cenotaph on Queen Street.

It requires a bit of detective work to uncover the story of his service and the nature of his death.

Thompson’s name does not show up in a search of the Canadian War Graves Register Circumstance of Casualty and until recently his name could not be found in the index of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (known until 1960 as the Imperial War Graves Commission).

However, he is commemorated on his parents’ tombstone at Grace United Church in NOTL, which notes that he was killed in France in 1916.

He is also mentioned in a 1923 publication by the Niagara Historical Society, “Whose Debtors We Are,” by Catherine Creed.

Creed’s book lists not only the names of the fallen but their service numbers.

Entering that service number in the search engine of the Library and Archives Canada database revealed the service records for Pte. Charles Ryan.

For some unknown reason, Charles Thompson enlisted in Port Hope under the alias of Pte. Charles Ryan, on Feb. 19, 1915.

Thompson was one of the 10 children of John and Charlotte Thompson.

He was born in Niagara-on-the-Lake and attended the public school on Platoff Street before striking out on his own as a labourer.

The family moved to Niagara Falls but Charles seemed to be unable to settle down anywhere for long. The family considered him to be care-free.

According to Ryan’s enlistment documents he was born in Niagara Falls on March 17, 1889. His next of kin was listed as his father Thomas.

In fact, Thompson was born on March 17, 1879, in Niagara-on-the-Lake and his father was named John.

Perhaps he was concerned he would be rejected for overseas service if he gave his true age. Regardless, according to the army, he was now Charles Ryan.

He underwent preliminary training in Canada and then sailed to England aboard the SS Missanabie on June 24, 1915.

There he received more training and in mid-November he was sent to Belgium to join the 13th Battalion on the front lines.

Thompson was now in the thick of action, going through the horror of trench warfare on the Western Front. He wrote home to his family and gave them some sense of what he was going through.

On April 26, 1916, he wrote, “I have been in a terrible battle since I last wrote to you. It is a wonder I ever came out alive. For five hours, we, the Canadian, French and British underwent a severe bombardment from the German artillery and trench mortars, and shells bursting all around. Our trench was blown in, a lot of our battalion were killed and wounded.”

On June 13, a shell landed nearby, partially burying him and knocking him unconscious. He was taken to hospital where he soon recovered and was sent back to the trenches near Ypres, Belgium. A month later he was dead.

Charles Thompson, alias Charles Ryan, died on July 16, 1916. The official report of his death explained that he was hit in the temple by a stray bullet. He was rushed to a nearby first aid post but died shortly thereafter.

He was buried in the Railway Dugouts Military Cemetery near Ypres and his grave was marked by a wooden cross, under the name Charles Ryan.

The register of the burial of Private Ryan was forwarded to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Thankfully, even while official records continued to list Private Ryan as the man buried in Belgium, at home in Niagara, the locals knew the true story and engraved Charles Thompson’s name on the cenotaph.