The French villagers who remembered a Sunderland war hero - and not even the pandemic could stop them

A Sunderland war hero has been honoured in a tiny French community – by villagers who have paid tribute to him for more than 70 years.

Not even the pandemic could stop the people of Fosseux from remembering Private William ‘Willie’ Thomson, of the 11th Battalion Durham Light Infantry.

Private Thomson was wounded by machine gun fire on May 21, 1940, and died soon afterwards in the village.

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On VE Day, Saturday, May 8, Regine Verguier was one of the people who attended the poignant ceremony.

Regine Verguier at the graveside of Private Thomson.

She told the Sunderland Echo: “The mayor, his deputy and the flag bearer were allowed to go to the monument.

"Then, the flag bearer being my son, we went privately to the communal cemetery to pay homage, as every year, to Private William Thomson, killed in Fosseux in May 1940. We put down a small bunch of poppies.”

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Despite there only being around 140 residents in the tiny community (according to online statistics), locals have always remembered the Englishman.

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Regine places a small bunch of flowers on the grave of Private Thomson.

This year, Covid-19 restrictions meant only a handful of people could be at the ceremony but they made sure the tribute went ahead.

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Regine added: “Every November 11, since I was a child, the mayor, the flag-bearer and the inhabitants go to the cemetery and meditate at the graves of soldiers including that of William Thomson.

"With my grandmother, we used to drop flowers a few times. It was she who explained to me why there was this little white grave, different from the graves of our French soldiers.

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"I succeed to pass on my interest in history and local history to my son.”

A tribute to the fallen.
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Private Thomson was part of a labour division which was sent to France to build airfields. The men were not there to fight, but ended up right on the front line – despite not having the necessary kit or artillery.

And when German armoured columns attacked the 70th Brigade in Mercatel and Ficheux on May 20, 1940, dozens of the ill-equipped labourers lost their lives.

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It appears Willie was left on his own, but was trying to make his way back to British lines when he was shot.

Private Thomson’s search for his comrades led him to the outskirts of Fosseux a day after the attack, where a villager spotted him seeking cover from an approaching enemy column.

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The flag bearer at the graveside of Private Thomson.
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Information according to old people of Fosseux, showed that William Thomson was buried first at the place where he fell in the war. Then, after the liberation, he was buried in the Communal Cemetery.

William was the son of Margaret Bell and William Thomson who were married in Deptford, Sunderland District, on December 21, 1917. Research does show that William lived with his family in Deptford Terrace for many years.

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The flag bearer at the graveside of Private Thomson.
The Fosseux tribute to Private Thomson.