A Contribution from TGWS Member Phil Thorneycroft

My Father's Service with the AEF

Off to War
Matthew Thorneycroft in 1917

Dad After Combat
My Dad, Sgt. Matthew R. Thorneycroft, was a member of the 33rd Division and was decorated by England, (Military Medal) and Belgium (Croix de Guerre) for his actions at Chipilly Ridge on August 9/10-1918 and by the US (DSC) for deeds at Consenvoye on October 10-14, 1918. While still a private, but acting as a corporal, he was awarded the British Military Medal and Belgian Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action on the night of August 9-10, 1918, at Chipilly Ridge in the Somme Offensive. The British citation read:

"At Chipilly Ridge, 9th Aug 1918 being Corporal in charge of a Lewis Gun squad consisting of only three men, displayed unusual gallantry under heavy machine gun fire, putting three of the enemy's machine guns out of action and capturing nine prisoners, thereby saving the lives of many of his comrades."

Later, he was cited by no less than General Pershing himself for his actions during the Meuse-Argonne battle and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. That citation reads:

"Near Consenvoye, October 1-14, 1918, Sergeant Thorneycroft brought his ration detail up to the front line daily and kept two companies fully rationed, although he had to lead his detail through continuous shell fire."

Inexplicably, when Matt was asked about his medals, the only story he ever told to the end of his life in 1981 was the one published in his home town newspaper, the Elmhurst (Illinois) Press, in its issue of Friday, December 6, 1918. Under the headline:


58th Division Memorial
At Chipilly Ridge
The paper said:

"The following citation was received by Sergeant Matthew R. Thorneycroft for bravery in action while attached to the 58th London Division of the British Army:

'Domine Dirige Nos. The 58th (London) Division. Pte. Matthew R. Thorneycroft, 1st Batt. 131st Inf. Reg., American Expeditionary Force. I have read with much pleasure the reports of your regimental commander regarding your gallant conduct and devotion to duty in the field on the 9th and 10th of August, 1918, and have ordered your name and deed to be entered into the record of the division. J. RAMSAY, Major-General Commanding, 58th London Div.'

"The following letter will give a little idea of what our boys are doing for one another on the field of battle, which will remain on the records of brave deeds of the American Army.

33rd Division

"October 31, 1918

Dear Folks,

Five months from yesterday, we landed in France. Five months is not very long ordinarily, but these last months have been the longest of my life and full to the brim of excitement and experience. While we have been in the trenches almost continuously ever since we have been here, we are only given credit for four battles. A battle consists of going over the top only, so that means we have "hopped over" four times. The battles are, in the proper order, Chipilly Ridge, Gressaire Wood, Dead Man's Hill and Consevooye [Consenvoie]Wood. There are five organizations which can boast of a record like that for the same length of time, and very few have seen as much fighting as we have, in spite of the foreign service chevrons they wear.

Our division is well known all over France for the good work it has done. Our Regiment has been cited twice that I know of in dispatches but before we're through this old "Dandy First" will be the Dandy First of the whole army instead of only Illinois.

In letters I've received recently I notice that you folks have received a false impression about me being decorated. If you will read my other letter again I feel pretty sure you will see that I said I received "Honorable Mention" and that my company commander said "The decoration will follow."

However, we were moved from the British Command and sent down here, and we have never heard from the British since. So I have not been decorated with a medal but did receive honorable mention which is about as good, I guess, although not so showy. I'm sorry you misunderstood my letter, but I expect you have received my honorable mention from the British Major General by now and know all about it.

You asked for details of that stunt and now that is "old stuff" I guess it won't hurt any to tell you.

I was sent out on a daylight patrol to mop up dugouts and hunt out snipers. I took three men and set out. We had to cross the Somme River in a row boat taken from the Huns, so I left a man with the boat to guard against a hasty retreat. The other two men and I went up the river bank to a line of dugouts and huts to look for snipers. We had worked well along and hadn't found anything to arouse our suspicions when a shot rang out. One of the men called out "I'm hit." I laid him down behind a fallen tree and started to bandage him when another shot sang and he took it in the right shoulder. I had him in my arms when the second shot got him. I dragged him behind a hut and bandaged him. One shot was through the left wrist and one in the right shoulder, both arterial wounds and bleeding terribly. I put tourniquets on to stop the bleeding but the shoulder wound was a wicked one and I couldn't do much with it. I left the wounded man behind the hut, put the other man behind a tree to cover my advance and crept out alone to find the sniper. I looked for half an hour but saw no trace of him.

The wounded man was bleeding so terribly I did not dare stay out any longer for fear he would bleed to death, so crawled back to where I had left him. Then came the real problem--how to get him back. We had to pass open space of about 30 yards in plain view of the sniper. I thought for a long time of ways and means of getting back but no sensible way presented itself. It was early morning so we couldn't wait for darkness. I had to get my man back in a hurry or he would bleed to death. He couldn't crawl because both arms had holes clean through.

Finally I decided, and tied a big bush on his coat, lay on my stomach and pulled him on my back. I left one man there to guard our retreat. Then I wormed my way along a few inches at a time, with the wounded lad on my back. The bush on his back partially disguised us. As we'd move a few inches and then stop still, no one would notice the bush moving unless he happened to look that very minute. It was a desperate chance to take but I could see no other way out.

As we moved back to our own trenches it became easier with huts, trees and mounds of dirt to hide behind. The man on guard moved back as we did, guarding us from the rear.

Well, it sounds like "movie stuff" now, but it was real enough at the time. Needless to say we made it alright, and the wounded man is getting along nicely in a hospital in England, only he lost so much blood he nearly died there, and he'll never be a doughboy again. Enough of story-telling for this time.


The 33rd Division Marches Forward
Accompanied by a British Band

A second letter written on November 6, 1918, by Sgt. Thorneycroft to his sister and family gave another view of his service in France:

33rd Division

My story for you this time is about my worst experience so far. I never lost my nerve so completely in my life and hope never to do so again.

It was during our drive on the Somme River, the same that we got so much credit for, that this accident happened. We were going forward one night. Through the town of _______ [Matt did not reveal which town, so his letter would pass the censor] (the town undoubtedly was …tineham) which the Australians had taken two days before. (The Australians took …tineham the night of August 11-12, so the experience Matt describes here occurred on the night of August 13-14.) The front line was a half mile ahead of the town and was just a series of shallow ditches and shell holes. We had been delayed by one of our platoons and had to hurry because we were to start a bombardment at 12:30 and we knew Fritz would reply by bombarding this town.

We were moving along in single file, at almost a run, as our guide had his "wind up" so the Tommies say. When in about the center of the town we smelled gas and quite a few gas shells landed close. We put on our masks and kept on. It was pitch dark and absolutely impossible to see with the gas masks on. The inevitable happened. The chain of men broke. A man in my squad lost his leader. The first thing I knew about it was when I heard him shout out for his leader. No answer came and I made my way up to the head of the line where the break came. There we were, a platoon and a half of men lost in a town that we expected to be bombarded in a very few minutes.

I took off my mask and ran up and down several streets, trying to find the company. The gas was terrible. It was tear gas and made one sneeze and cry. Finally I took the men and started them digging in at the edge of the town facing Jerry's lines. Then I started out alone to look for the company.

I had no idea where they went. I didn't know where our trenches were, nor where the Germans were. I had to trust to luck. It was a pitch black night and by this time the shells were falling fast. As I walked along I cocked my pistol and carried it in my hand with my rifle on my shoulder. I walked until I heard men digging. I sneaked up slowly and listened. Listened for the language. If they spoke in German I must sneak away, if American I might get directions. They were Americans. I asked about my company. No one knew where they were. An entire new relief had gone in that night and no one knew the ground.

I went on, repeating the performance several times. The shrapnel fell all around me, even hit me, but I was unhurt. No lights went up, so I was wandering in absolute darkness. I came suddenly on a trench from whence no sounds had come. I peered in and saw a man lying there with white chalk all over his uniform. I covered him with my pistol and started to ask him about the company. But he lay so still I sensed something wrong and I investigated. It was a dead German. Then I started to get the "jimmies." I began to notice the hail of shrapnel. I wanted to go back, but when I thought of the lads back in the town depending on me to find the way out, I had to go on. I was getting scared, more scared every minute. I went forward and noticed a dark line ahead and to the right. I remembered hearing that D Company was to take position on the bank of the river. I made my way toward the dark line and soon made it out to be a line of trees. That meant either a river or a road in France. I heard the sound of men digging. I sneaked on, making no noise. Suddenly I heard voices talking in a low tone. Two men were there. I couldn't make out the language they were using. I didn't know whether to try and sneak away or not. Finally I raised my pistol and aimed it at one of the men. My hand shook as though with a chill. I tried to steady myself but I was frightened nearly stiff. If they were Germans, I might get one, but the other would get me. There was a whole lot of them behind the two, digging in and I knew it would be all over for me, if they were Germans and I fired.

Finally I decided. I raised the pistol again and covered my man. Then I said quickly, "What are you -- Yanks?" And one answered, "Yes -- what do you want?" They were from my own company and were wondering where the rest of us were. Oh, how relieved I was. I felt about twenty years drop off my shoulders. I started back for the lost men, but found them coming in, in charge of an Australian who had found them in the town.

That's the story of the one time in my experience that I absolutely lost all my nerve. I'm frightened lots of times, but have always retained some small vestige of nerve to keep me from going to pieces. The dead German did it that time. I hate to see dead at any time, especially in the dark and to talk to them would be a little too much for even a brave man.

Iíve bored you enough for this time. Iíll close now, wishing you all at home the best of health. God bless you all and keep you well. I send my love and kisses to all.

Your loving brother, Matt

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