Ernest Henry THOMAS

Rank Reg/Ser No DOB Enlisted Discharge/Death Board
Cpl 3651 31y4m 19 Aug 1915 29 Aug 1919 6

Corporal Ernest Henry Thomas (1883 - 1943)


Family background and early life

Ernest Henry Thomas was born in Brisbane on 13 April 1883, the second son of Henry William Thomas and Elizabeth Ann née Crouch.  In his youth he was a Warehouse Assistant and lived at 125 Terrace Street, New Farm.

Link to Saint Andrew's

When he was 17 years old he joined the Wharf Street Congregational Church where he became a Church Member and Sunday School Teacher.  Another member of the Sunday School staff was Miss Agnes Elsebe Johanna Bestmann and they married in Brisbane on 23 March 1910.  The couple moved to Masters Street, Newstead and their eldest daughter, Iris Eileen was born in 1911.  In 1920 their second daughter, Winifred Gwen, was born and soon after the family moved to Dan Street, Graceville where Ernest and Agnes lived until 1943. 

Enlistment and service

Ernie Thomas was 31 years of age when he decided to enlist in the Australian Infantry Force on 19 August 1915.  He was given Regimental Number 3651 and trained at Enoggera with reinforcements for the 25th Battalion. His unit embarked from Brisbane on 3 January 1916 on board HMAT Kyarra to join the British Expeditionary Force at Alexandria, Egypt.  (Agnes with her small daughter went to live with her mother, Mrs Bestmann at Austin Street, Newstead.)

Private Thomas was transferred to 2nd Pioneers on arrival at Zeitoun Training Base at Cairo. Pioneer battalions were used on a large scale on the Western Front during the First World War.  A pioneer battalion was allotted to each division and the 2nd Pioneers were the Pioneer Battalion of the AIF 2nd Division. They were essentially light military combat engineers organised like the infantry and located at the very forward edge of the battle area. They constructed defensive positions, command posts and dugouts and prepared barbed wire defences.

Their skills and capability were broad from building, construction and maintenance to road and track preparation and maintenance. They often fought as infantry as well.

Private E. H. Thomas was with 2nd Pioneers from its beginning in 1916.  After crossing the Mediterranean to Marseilles in late March 1916, the unit was soon engaged in action starting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm by mid-year.  He was appointed a Corporal while in the field in November.  His friends at home were interested in any news of him.  

A Sunday School report1 said: 

“Mr E. Thomas who was the first in the school to respond to the call is still in France and is heard of occasionally as one of Major Annand’s2 Pioneer Corps.”

Illness and injury

But 1917 brought illness and injury.  Corporal Thomas was treated at the 7th Australian Field Ambulance Hospital for boils and influenza in January and February and within days of rejoining his unit, he suffered serious gunshot wounding to his chest.

He was transferred to England for treatment at London then Dartford then Weymouth.  At No 2 Command Depot at Weymouth a doctor reported on 30 May 1917: 

“Condition poor; wound penetrated chest; evidently fractured rib which damaged lung; haemoptysis for few days; now dyspnoea on exertion.”

Corporal Thomas spent a further two months at the Command Depot at Perham Downs for rehabilitative training of soldiers too fit for convalescent camp, but not yet fit enough to be returned to their units.  He was given tasks of responsibility at various military locations in Southern England for the remainder of the year, acting at times as Sergeant and Sergeant Major.

Military Medal

In better health at the beginning of 1918, Acting Sergeant Thomas gained 1st class qualification at Lyndhurst Bombing School in January and on rejoining his old unit 2nd Pioneers in France in March 1918, resumed the rank of Corporal.  He was recommended for a Military Medal for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty east of Bresle on 16 April 1918.  He was engaged in taping out a line that was urgently required and in spite of heavy shell fire causing the death of Sergeant Jarman, he stuck to his job and was ready when the working party arrived to guide them to position.

“By his splendid behaviour and example it was possible to construct the line although a number of casualties occurred3.” 

It was at this time and in the months following that the enemy began drenching the woods and gullies around Villers-Bretonneux and other French villages with mustard gas. Corporal Thomas was seriously wounded by gassing on 18 July 1918, injuring his eyes.  He was evacuated immediately and treated over a period of three months at Abbeville and Le Havre. He rejoined 2nd Battalion Pioneers on 3 November 1918 and soon afterwards The Armistice was signed.

Return to Australia

Corporal Thomas returned to England in January and was granted leave for non-military employment at woollen mills in Manchester from 14 February till 14 April 1919.  His return to Australia began when the troop carrier Ypiranga left England on 15 May 1919.  He was discharged in Brisbane on 29 August 1919.

Post war

Ernie and Agnes Thomas and their daughter Iris continued their lives in Brisbane.  Ernie’s occupation remained that of Salesman for the rest of his life.  The Thomas family moved to live at Dan Street, Graceville.

He was welcomed back by the Sunday School Superintendent,

“…teachers and scholars whole-heartedly welcome the return of our good friend and fellow-worker, Mr E. H. Thomas who has nobly served his King and Empire in the Great War4.”

In May each year from 1921 till 1926 the Annual Sunday School Picnic was held at the Graceville home and property of Mr and Mrs Thomas. For a short period Ernie Thomas accepted charge of the school as Sunday School Superintendent. His report of 1926 shows his sense of commitment:

“At times the problem of the city school has caused us to wonder if our existence is justified,” he wrote. “Although our school is small in number, the regular attendance of the scholars simply compels us to carry on, for we could not allow any child to cease attending Sunday School because we were not at our posts5.”

Ernest Henry Thomas died in Brisbane on 12 June 1943 at the age of 60 years.  He would have agreed with the famous American essayist and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson who said,

“The purpose of life is not to be happy.  It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well6.”

Mrs Agnes Thomas died on 2 September 1952 and her daughter the following year 1953.

1. Wharf Street Congregational Church 1916 Year Book, page 12
2. See Frederick William Gadsby Annand’s story,  
3. 2nd Australian Pioneer Battalion. Army form W3121
4. Wharf Street Congregational Church 1919 Year Book, page 21
5. Wharf Street Congregational Church 1926 Year Book, page 20
6. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

• National Archives of Australia, military records
• Australian War Memorial - Unit histories, Embarkation Records
• Queensland Register of Births, Deaths, Marriages
• Wharf Street Congregational Church, Year Books, 1909 – 1944
• Electoral Rolls, 1908 to 1943
• Ancestry records on line
• State Library of Queensland

Compiled by Noel E. Adsett, Brisbane.  January 2016.   Edits and additions by Miriam King 2024 ©



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