Bois Quarante

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Alston Road really makes for a most delightful stroll if you are coming from Summerstown and heading in a Tooting direction. Particularly in summertime when the legacy of its horticultural past springs forth. This was once of course daffodil land, the home of Bell’s Farm with its exotic nurseries and bountiful allotments. In fact, Miss Bell of Park Hill who owned most of this and a good deal of Tooting was known as Lady Bountiful. Smallwood School may no longer hand out their daffodil-growing certificates, but there are some giant sunflowers at the northern end of the road and a lot of fruit dangles over the pavement from the gardens as you reach its southerly point, close to the Recreation Ground. On more than one occasion its been described as ‘provençale’. By me, most likely.

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Born in 1871, William Bolton senior was an engineer’s labourer and in 1901 he lived with his wife Sarah and five children at 26 Etruria Street in Battersea. This has now disappeared from the map, but was off the Wandsworth Road, near what is now the site of New Covent Garden Market and an area soon to be dominated by the new American Embassy. William Henry, born in 1893 was the eldest of five children. By 1911 they had moved to Summerstown and were at Alston Road, there were now eight children, five boys and three girls. The first stretch of houses on the left at the Smallwood end of Alston Road, including No8 where the Corbens lived for 99 years, are at an angle to the road. After No26 things even out a bit and No40 directly faces Bertal Road. The photo with the horses dates from 1905-07 and was taken on the other side of the road from the junction of Rostella Road. The door with the ‘Glass Cut’ sign is No33, the house with the sunflowers. William had moved from machinery to stone and now worked as a mason’s labourer. With all the building going on and the proximity of so many cemeteries, he hopefully wasn’t short of work. William Junior, now 18 was employed as a van boy and his brother Edward was a tailor. They would have certainly known the Baseleys at No18, young Charlie Corben at No8, Butcher’s Boy Alfred Quenzer just across the road in Bertal Road and William Warman who lived almost opposite him. All these lads would soon be measuring themselves up for a uniform.

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William Bolton joined the 12th (Bermondsey) Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment in Kingston. We know from the 1918 electoral roll that his two oldest brothers, Edward and Frederick were also in the army. Edward in the Royal Engineers, Frederick in the Royal Fusiliers. William was fatally wounded in an attack on a place called Bois Quarante on the German-held Wytschaete Ridge, south of Ypres, near St Eloi. He died a few days later on 7th September 1918, just over two months before the end of the war. This was ground well known to the 12th Battalion who had been part of the great Messines attack of 7th June 1917 when 19 huge mines were simultaneously exploded.

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By the late summer of 1918 the Americans were in the thick of it and the tide was turning. But there was still grave danger to be faced and a large number of the Summerstown182 were killed in this period. The 12th Battalion war diary tells us that on 1st September the battalion moved to Abeele on the Franco-Belgian border. This was the site of an aerodrome from where Jamaican born, William ‘Robbie’ Clarke, the first black British pilot flew out. The following day the Battalion moved east to relieve troops of the American 27th Division. There is a very vivid account of what happened next in ‘The History of the 12th (Bermondsey) Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment by John Aston and L M Duggan. Clearly there is a cloud hanging over what went on in the next few days but it was in the attack on Bois Quarante that I believe William Bolton was fatally wounded. ‘We left the billets at Wippenhoek in the gathering dusk on 2nd of September and soon were amazed to see American troops passing us in little bunches. ‘Go on, Tommy, we’ve got them on the run!’ was how some of them greeted us as they passed. Private Snell of D Company tells how one of the ‘Yanks’ shouted that we should need running shoes to catch up the Boche’.

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It wasn’t to be. William Bolton and his mates discovered that there was no proper handover or guide to what was going on. Ground that was supposed to have been cleared was found to be strongly held. Communication was further thrown into disarray when their command HQ was gassed on the 3rd September, putting a number of key personnel out of action. Aston and Duggan were in no doubt where the fault lay ‘The fact was that most of the American troops at the time were quite unused to war, and their staff work was hopeless’. Two companies began their attack on Chinese Trench that night, moving through to Bois Quarante. They met with stiff and determined resistance which resulted in over 200 casualties. In the space of twenty four hours, the Battalion’s strength was reduced by a quarter. Although no gains were made, Aston and Duggan were full of praise for the younger new recruits ‘It is to the great credit of the 12th, particularly the younger soldiers who had only been with us a few months, that in the face of such opposition they accomplished what they did’. William ‘died of wounds’ and he must have been moved to one of the casualty clearing stations behind the lines where he passed away a few days later. This was the pretty village of Esquelbecq.

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In a quite remarkable aside, Adolf Hitler had a very strong connection to Bois Quarante, also known as Croonart Wood. In his book ‘Walking on the Ypres Salient’ historian Paul Reed mentions a story told by a local resident who for many years ran a museum on the site. Hitler had been awarded his Iron Cross near here in 1914 and returned in 1916 only to be wounded. Apparently he was placed in a concrete bunker awaiting evacuation. Later that night there was a British trench raid and an officer entered the bunker. He pulled back the blanket and drew his revolver, but the sight of the pathetic sickly figure beneath it made him pause for reflection. ‘I won’t shoot you, you’ll do no harm’. Hitler lived, William Bolton was mortally wounded, the rest is history.

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William’s family lived on at 40 Alston Road until the late sixties. With their connection to St Mary’s Church they would have witnessed the excitement of the building of a new Sunday School Hall just a few doors down the road from them. Seemingly the 1921 census had revealed a need for the Parish of St Nicholas in Tooting to shed some of its flock and as a result, the Fairlight area was passed to St Mary’s. To establish a presence in the district it was felt that a new Sunday School was needed. Reverend William Galpin now had 14,000 people to look after but he seemed to revel in the task and his propaganda machine went into overdrive to finance it. In one memorable plea for funds he produced an advert linking his new building’s construction very deftly to the knocking down of the nearby ‘Dust Destructor’ chimney. This was the site of the council’s refuse incineration facility. Very familiar with that place was ‘Chief Inspector of Dust’ and another East Surrey man, Corporal Edward Foster AKA ‘Tiny Ted’. He lived just round the corner at 92 Fountain Road. Look out for our walk commemorating the centenary of the award of his Victoria Cross on 22nd April. We are calling it ‘Tiny Ted’s Tooting’ and it will climax with a visit to his grave in Streatham Cemetery.

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The ‘Dust Destructor’ site was started in 1898 on the site of a clay quarry and brickworks. Its 153 foot high chimney was a great local landmark and jobs ‘on the dust’ were much coveted. Fountain Road Recreation Ground was laid out in 1932 as a scheme for the relief of unemployment. The adjacent Anderson House is named after the Rector of Tooting, John Hendry Anderson who was a champion of such schemes, most famously in the case of what we now call Tooting Bec Lido. Amidst much excitement in Alston Road, Alderman Cresswell laid the foundation stone for the new hall on 8th June 1931 and it opened in September. Sadly the new Sunday School Hall didn’t last long and in 1970 it relocated to the wooden construction behind the church and a Shaftesbury Housing block emerged on Alston Road. In this process the ‘Sunday School Three’ tablet rather bafflingly found its way to the bottom of the St Mary’s vicarage compost heap. Fortunately eagle-eyed Reverend Roger Ryan came to the rescue and the ‘Sunday School Three’ have been restored to their former glory.

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William Senior died in 1949 aged 78 and his wife Sarah passed away four years later aged 81. Some of William Bolton’s siblings lived on at the property until the late sixties. There were still Summerstown182 connections in the street then, half a century after the end of the First World War. The names Leicester, Corben, Baseley, Hayter, Port and Jeffries all appear on the electoral roll. William’s two youngest sisters, Louisa and Ivy both lived to a very great age. Louisa married Edward Thurbon in 1927 and died aged 92 in 1994. Ivy married George Wood in 1936 and passed away aged 95 in Bournemouth in 2006.

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We thought it would be easy to find William’s cemetery at Esquelbecq on our last trip to France in October. Its only about 25 kilometres from Dunkerque and close to the Belgian border. Various delays at the port coupled with some very confusing road closure signs soon scuppered that idea. It seemed they were digging up the village square and all roads in and out of the town were marked with ominous big yellow signs which rather put us off the scent. We abandoned the car and went searching on foot. We found it eventually and as always, it was well worth the effort. The sun came out and dazzled the graves and the golden leaves glowed in the late afternoon autumn sun. A little spider ran up William’s grave as I took one photo and there were some very splendid scarlet roses just starting to shed their petals in front of it. The care and dedication that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission take to look after these special places never fails to move me. No respect to any of the 182 who share their memorial or cemetery with their fellow Summerstowners, but it always feels right when one of them has a graveyard to themselves. Somehow it then belongs to them forever. Lance Corporal William Bolton from Alston Road will always be Esquelbecq.

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