Wandsworth’s wartime links with village in France renewed with memorial unveiled to Ted Foster VC and gift of iconic red telephone box
Published: Friday 9th November 18
As the nation prepares to honour its war dead and mark the centenary of the moment the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War, a small village in northern France has seen its historic wartime links with Wandsworth renewed and commemorated.
Councillors from Wandsworth recently visited Villers-Plouich, near the town of Cambrai, which has ties to the borough dating back to 1917.
The Villers-Plouich memorial to Ted Foster VC
It was for the courage and determination he showed during the village’s liberation from German occupation in 1917 that Corporal Ted Foster – a council dustman from Tooting - was famously awarded a Victoria Cross.
Cpl Foster was among 1,000 men from the borough of Wandsworth recruited into a 'Pals Battalion' - the 13th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment – who fought a vicious battle for control of the village.
During the battle, which raged between April and the end of September, the battalion lost five officers and 87 men. More than 50 soldiers from the Wandsworth battalion now rest in a military cemetery in Villers-Plouich. They are among more than 1,264 British war graves in the village.
So to honour his memory and those of his comrades, councillors from Wandsworth unveiled a magnificent stone memorial to Ted Foster VC - and to underline our historic links with Villers-Plouich they also presented its residents with a world famous Gilbert-Scott designed red telephone box.
Both the memorial to Cpl Foster and the telephone box now stand in the village square - named Place de Wandsworth in recognition of its long-standing connection with the borough.
In September 1920 Wandsworth Council formally adopted Villers-Plouich as part of the British League of Help scheme which saw towns and cities adopting devastated French and Belgian communities to help rebuild them. More than £1,200 was donated by the people of Wandsworth to help pay for the village's reconstruction.
In 1928 the Mayor of Villers-Plouich gratefully wrote that the village had been rebuilt and that a tablet had been set in the wall of the Mairie (Town Hall) to commemorate Wandsworth's help.
In September 2000 the then Mayor Cllr John Garrett and council leader at the time Edward Lister travelled to Villers-Plouich to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Wandsworth's adoption of the village. The party were met at the Mairie by virtually the entire village and both councillors laid wreaths at its military cemetery.
And during a private visit to the village in May 2001, Cllr Garratt was invited to unveil a plaque naming the village square 'Place de Wandsworth'.
Cllr McCausland at the official handover to Villers-Plouich Mayor Raymond Machut
During their recent visit to the village The Mayor of Wandsworth Piers McCausland and colleagues visited the cemetery and laid wreaths to the fallen men of Wandsworth. Cllr McCausland was also able to visit the grave of his uncle who is buried in another military cemetery nearby.
The Mayor said: "Our links with this small village in northern France run deep and I was honoured and delighted to re-affirm those ties with my counterpart the Mayor of Villers-Plouich Raymond Machut.
The iconic red phone box now stands proudly in the village square
"Our histories became intertwined when young men from Wandsworth made the ultimate sacrifice in the fields and streets of this little village. Villers-Plouich is the final resting place for so many of them, most of whom were just a few years older than the school children who go on educational trips to the area today.
"Ahead of this year’s important centenary commemorations we were delighted to unveil this memorial to Ted Foster and to also present the village with a distinctive British red telephone box to mark a place that was once famously referred to as “a corner of a foreign field that is forever Wandsworth.”
Those words were written by Robert Harker in the Wandsworth Borough News in 1920. He had served as a lieutenant in the Wandsworth battalion and wrote an article for the newspaper describing Villers-Plouich and how those that fought there felt towards it, reflecting on the fact that so many men from the borough were buried there.
He wrote: "In the serenest spot of that once beautiful, now terribly scarred village, a piece of land has been consecrated, and here lie those gallant fellows who fell on the field of honour, their graves tended with wonderful care and pride by a venerable French fossoyeur. It is, in paraphrase of Rupert Brooke, 'A corner of a foreign field that is forever - Wandsworth'
As well as Cpl Foster's VC, the Wandsworth battalion was also awarded two Distinguished Service Orders, four Distinguished Conduct Medals, six Military Crosses and 21 Military Medals.
During their advance on the village, the troops were met by fire from two machine-guns which were entrenched and strongly covered by wire entanglements. Cpl Foster, who was in charge of two Lewis guns, rushed the German trenches and engaged the enemy. Initially one of the Lewis guns was lost, but Cpl Foster attacked again and single-handedly recovered the gun. He then destroyed the enemy position with bombs and captured their machine guns.
The stone tablet that names the village Square 'Place de Wandsworth'
His regiment the 13th East Surrey, had been raised two years earlier and had recruited 1,000 local men - including many from the ranks of town hall workers. The regiment was formed in 1915 after the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener approached the Mayors of London's councils in order to raise an army.
The Mayor of Wandsworth, Alderman Archibald Davis Dawnay JP, agreed to help raise an infantry battalion for the East Surrey Regiment, with the Town Hall designated battalion headquarters. Men from Battersea formed the 10th Battalion of the Queen's (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, at the behest of Battersea Mayor Councillor TW Simmons JP.
The telephone box and memorial were paid for by donations, including contributions from the borough’s library contractors GLL and Enable and also by BT. No public money was used to fund the trip.