French village “adopts” grave of fallen Wearsider

French villagers tend to the grave of a Wearside men on VE Day this year. Are you related to the fallen soldier William Thomson?
French villagers tend to the grave of a Wearside men on VE Day this year. Are you related to the fallen soldier William Thomson?
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Residents of a French farming community have launched an appeal to trace the family of a Wearside soldier who fell in battle in their village during World War Two.

Private William “Willie” Thomson, of 11th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, was wounded by machine-gun fire at Fosseux on May 21, 1940, and died soon afterwards.

Deptford Terrace in the 1940s - once home to William Thomson and his cousins Charlie and Margaret Warburton. Did you know them?

Deptford Terrace in the 1940s - once home to William Thomson and his cousins Charlie and Margaret Warburton. Did you know them?

He was buried in the village cemetery, in accordance with his final wishes, and his Commonwealth War Grave – the only one at the site – is still carefully tended by locals.

“We regularly blossom his grave,” said resident Regine Verguier. “I would like to know the history of this soldier, the circumstances of his death and also get in touch with his family.”

Willie, son of shipyard worker William Thomson and his wife Margaret Bell, was born in September 1918 and lived with his family in Deptford Terrace for many years.

No mention of other siblings is made in archive documents, but he is known to have had two cousins – Charlie and Margaret Warburton, who lived close by.

The grave of William Thomson in France.

The grave of William Thomson in France.

“There is no enlistment date for when he joined up, but it was probably September/October 1939,” said John Dixon, a lead researcher for the North East War Memorial Project website.

“He 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.”

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

“The men of William’s unit were absolutely slaughtered that day, while simply trying to move base. An awful lot of people were lost. They were sacrificed – absolutely!” said John.

“Many of those who miraculously managed to evade death or capture joined up with small groups of comrades to try and get across country, but they were in constant danger from Panzer forces.

“And, as the unit was so badly mauled, the men were scattered all over.

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

“Some of those who made it to safety would go help out at Dunkirk in June 1940, defending the perimeter and carrying the seriously wounded on stretchers to the ships for evacuation. Sadly, William would not be among their number.”

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.

Tragically, just minutes later, Willie was wounded by machine-gun fire – shot from what was probably a German reconnaissance motorcycle combination.

“He died shortly afterwards, but did express the wish to be buried where he fell,” said John, who has dedicated a page to Willie on the War Memorial website.

“William was officially listed as missing on June 20, 1940, but is now known to have died of wounds on May 21, 1940 at Fosseux.

“The Commonwealth War Grave Commission has confirmed that, having been interred in the local cemetery, his remains were not relocated like others – due to his final wishes.”

A memorial service for Willie, who was just 22 when he died, was held in Fosseux in May this year – to commemorate both his loss and the 70th anniversary of VE Day.

But, despite efforts in both France and Britain, all attempts to trace surviving members of Willie’s family – to invite them to the ceremony – failed.

“We believe his father died in December 1938, a year before war broke out, at the age of 45.

“His widow, Margaret, then lost her son, and only child, in May 1940,” said John.

“Although attempts at tracing relatives have so far proved unsuccessful, that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Our group, and the Fosseux villagers, would love to hear from them.”

l William’s DLI soldier number was 4457097 and he lived at 30 Deptford Terrace. Known relatives include the Warburton cousins, as well as an Aunt Isabella and Uncle William. Anyone with information can contact Sarah Stoner via email at sarah.stoner@jpress.co.uk. Further information is also available at www.newmp.org.uk/70brigade