Maj Gen Sir Henry Thornton, American in the British Army

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As a collector of American medals to foreigners and foreign medals to Americans, I often see unusual combinations of awards. However, in some cases, the medals are not extraordinary, but the back-story is. The US Army Distinguished Service Medal to Major General Sir Henry Worth Thornton falls into that category.

Thornton was an American by birth, having been born into a wealthy family in Logansport, Indiana, in 1871. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1894, he joined the Pennsylvania Railroad, rising quickly through the ranks. In 1911, he was made the General Superintendent of the Long Island Railroad. In 1913, Thornton left the United States and took over as head of the Great Eastern Railways in England. With the outbreak of World War I, Thornton was appointed to the Executive Committee of Railway General Managers, which was established to operate Britain’s entire railroad system to support the war effort. Thornton coordinated the intricate movements of trains to and from the Channel ports to maintain the flow of supplies to France and to deal with the casualties streaming back to hospitals in England.

In 1916, Thornton was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Engineers, serving as Deputy Director General of Movements and Railways and, later, as Inspector General of Transportation, with the rank of major general. For his work during the war, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (LG, 1 January 1919). He also received the Belgian Order of Leopold, officer (LG, 20 May 1919); French Legion of Honor, commander (LG, 8 March 1920) and the American Army Distinguished Service Medal (LG, 12 July 1919). The US Army cited Thornton “As Paris representative of the Director-General of Movements and Railways in London, he rendered great assistance to the American Expeditionary Forces in procurement of hospital trains and supplies. He furnished us with information which proved most important in the development of the American Transportation Corps.” His Army Distinguished Service Medal is numbered “627″ on the edge.

The award of the KBE was problematic for Thornton. As an American citizen, he could not accept the knighthood, but could accept the award without the knighthood. Thornton chose to renounce his American citizenship, take British citizenship and become Sir Henry Thornton.

In 1922, Thornton became president of the newly formed Canadian National Railways (CNR), moving to consolidate many of Canada’s main railroads and integrate the Canadian National Steamship service in the national transportation system. He also moved the CNR into the development of hotels and resorts. The result was the movement of a significant part of the Canadian population to the interior of the country. He established a radio system to support the trains and it evolved into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thornton’s lavish lifestyle and political connections caused major problems when the government changed in the Great Depression. Thornton was forced to resign and stripped of his pension. He returned to New York and died there in 1933.

The US Army reported that the Distinguished Service Medal was awarded 1881 times for World War I service. Of that number, 526 went to foreign officers. However, as far as I can determine, Major General Sir Henry Thornton was the only American serving in foreign uniform to receive one.

 

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