On Saturday we came together in Tooting and Wandsworth to honour our renowned ‘Dustman VC’ Corporal Ted Foster. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his extraordinary act of bravery at the village of Villers-Plouich near Cambrai on 24th April 1917. The day began with a magnificent formal unveiling of commemorative VC stones for Ted and two others VCs, Reginald Haine and Arthur Lascelles at Wandsworth Town Hall. Participating in this was Johnson Beharry, awarded the VC for his acts of valour in Iraq in 2004. We then moved down Garratt Lane to 92 Fountain Road where Wandsworth Council have placed a green heritage plaque on Ted Foster’s old home. Following that we set off on a Guided Walk of key Foster locations. ‘Tiny Ted’s Tooting Tour’ concluded at his grave in Streatham Cemetery. On that walk I mentioned that this weekend, on the other side of the world, in a small town in the hills of northern India, local people would also be remembering a First World War VC hero from their community.
Within touching distance of the Himalayas, the state of Uttarakhand in northern India is known as the ‘Land of the Gods’. It borders Tibet and contains two of the holiest of Hindu cities, Rishikesh and Haridwar. The Beatles spent time in Rishikesh in the sixties and it is considered the yoga capital of the world. Haridwar hosts the extraordinary Kumbh Mela when up to ten million devotees descend to bathe in the Ganges. The western part of the state is home to the Garhwali people and the renowned Garhwhal Rifles. In the spring of 1915 a soldier from a small village in the moutains near Chamba died on the same day as a soldier from Summerstown.
Burmester Road is a pivotal Summerstown location for so many reasons. One of the broadest streets in the area, with The Hindu Society at one end and the Anglo American Laundry, spectacularly revealing itself around the corner at the other, it has a unique character. On top of that it would have been on the southern edge of the area leading to Robert Sadler’s Copenhagen Running Grounds. No25 is at end of the road, one of seven houses in what I call ‘Laundry No-Mans land’. The story goes that these were caught up in an expansion row between two rival laundries and if Mrs Creeke had got her hands on them they were earmarked for destruction. The rival laundry purchased these houses to prevent this and the family of Robert Stanley Belben Lake were resident there sometime between 1910 and 1914. The houses survived the Laundry War and had another close miss in June 1944 when a flying bomb landed in the laundry yard behind then killing six people. In the later First World War years the family of another Summerstown182 soldier Mark Archer lived at the address. The road was home to the Meikle brothers, Edward Benning, John Davis and Ernest Pelling. We haven’t written anything about it for a while, but this was the cat-infested street, once inhabited by magicians, footballers and ventriloquists.
The Lake family had their origins in the west country – a baker by trade, Robert’s father, Robert Belben Lake was born in 1871 in Bideford, Devon. In 1892 he married Annie Williams from Mitcheldean in Gloucestershire and the following year Robert Stanley was born, baptised at St Paul’s Church, Clapham on 24th January. They were living then at 34 Motley Street. Its tucked up against the tangle of railway tracks and sidings to the south of Queenstown Road, Battersea. There is a great post on the Rootschat website about a newspaper clipping from around 1910 which details a street fight between three women in Motley Street, one of whom was someone’s granny. One of them ‘used a cat’ to defend herself with and then proceeded to assault the others with a skipping rope.
In the 1901 census the Lakes lived at Victoria Cottages in Edmonton. At this point Robert was trying his hand as a blind maker using a material called sail cloth. Robert junior was nine and he had a brother William who was five and a sister Winifred aged three. The two youngest children were born in Mitcham. Another son Joseph aged seven was absent. They clearly couldn’t decide whether they liked north or south London because by 1904 another son Sidney was born in Merton. In 1910 they were back in Wandsworth at 25 Burmester Road, tucked in a few doors away from Mrs Creeke’s flourishing Anglo American Laundry. But so much had changed. In 1909 Robert Belben Lake had died aged 38. The 1911 census sees Annie living with a widower called Alexander George Hieron. It was a busy household, there were four Lake children including Robert, now nineteen and two Hierons. Obviously this was an arrangement that would have been frowned upon in many circles but it surely made sense for all concerned for the two families to share one roof. Certainly George and Annie appear to have stayed together for a long time. There is no indication of what job Robert Lake did but his step-father was a Dusting Foreman and quite possibly had a young Tiny Ted Foster under his wing. Tiny was still doing the bin round when Robert Lake was in uniform and about to come into the orbit of another extraordinary young soldier who would go on to hold the Victoria Cross.
Robert Stanley Belben Lake from Burmester Road was a Lance Corporal in the 1st/3rd London Regiment (the Royal Fusiliers). He attested at Edward Street in Hampstead and set foot in France on 6th January 1915. Known as the ‘Third Londons’ the regiment first spent a brief spell in Malta. The British Army was now ready to emerge from its winter in the trenches and was reinforced with fresh troops many of whom had come from the other side of the world. On 10th February the Third Londons joined the Garhwal Brigade in the 7th (Meerut) Division and prepared to be at the forefront of a large British offensive in the Artois region. Neuve Chapelle was a small village located roughly midway between Bethune and Lille, around 20 miles south of Ypres. It was the gateway to the strategic high ground of Aubers Ridge.
Here in the early hours of 10th March, four divisions, comprising 40,000 men, two of whom were Robert Lake from Burmester Road and Gabar Singh Negi from Manjood in Uttarakhand, gathered on a sector of the front just a few miles wide. The infantry attack began with an unprecedented thirty-five minute bombardment which apparently consumed more shells than the British Army had used in the whole of the Boer War fifteen years earlier. It was still dark when the soldiers began their advance that morning. We have no idea how Robert died that day and his body was never recovered. Many of the Third Londons were killed in the initial charges and in total 8 officers and 340 other ranks would be lost in the battle.
Just a little further down that line and also advancing that morning was a young man from the village of Manjood in the foothills of the Himalayas. The nearby town of Chamba had fallen to the British in 1845 after the Anglo-Sikh Wars. They soon realised that the local men were good fighters and in the hill station town of Landsdowne they established a base for the Garhwal Rifles Regiment. Born on 21st April 1895, Gabar Singh Negi was the youngest of three brothers. His father died of cholera in 1911 and two years later he enlisted in Landsdowne, a gruelling four day trek from his home. The 39th Garhwal Rifles sailed from Karachi on 21st September 1914 and alighted in Marseilles on 13th October. By the end of the month they were in the trenches south of Ypres. It was here at Festubert that another Garhwali, Darwan Singh Negi became the second Indian soldier after the Pathan, Khudadad Khan a month earlier, to be awarded a Victoria Cross. When presenting his medal, King George enquired if he had a personal request. Darwan Singh Negi famously asked that a school be built in his home village of Karnaprayag. It still stands today.
In her wonderful book ‘For King and Another Country’ Shrabani Basu writes an extraordinarily moving passage about the fate of Gabar Singh Negi at Neuve Chapelle and the reaction of his young wife. ‘The day would belong to Gabar Singh Negi. Bayonet in hand, his senses on high alert, he was the first to go round each traverse, facing the full onslaught of the German attack. Letting out a fierce war cry, he charged at them bayoneting and killing several Germans as he swept through the trenches. In the clash of steel and helmets and relentless fighting his officer was killed. The 22 year old Garhwali who had once tended goats on the hillside of his remote village, took command and carried on driving the Germans on despite his injuries. As the shells rained down around him, Gabar Singh fought his way through, not stopping till he had forced the Germans to surrender. He had taken the call and secured the trench, but Gabar Singh’s war was soon to be over. Fatally injured, he drew his last breath. He died in the rubble of his hard-won trench still clutching his bayonet, a soldier to the last. His body was never recovered. For his gallantry, Gabar Singh Devi was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross’.
‘Thousands of miles away in her village in the hills, Satoori Devi, barely fourteen, would be informed of her husband’s death by an officer from the headquarters at Landsdowne. Her heartbroken cries filled the silent hills. She had barely known her husband and now he was gone leaving her to face the rest of her life alone. Gabar Singh’s mother joined her daughter-in-law, wailing a Garhwali song for the dead and circling in a trance for the son she would not see again. The lamps burnt low in their Garhwal home that night. The family huddled under the blankets in the chilly March night and prayed for their loved one. Their only consolation was that he had upheld the honour of his regiment and would be awarded the Victoria Cross. Satoori Devi would never remarry. She would look after the extended family, tend the cattle and carry firewood, wearing the Victoria Cross pinned on her sari all her life. Villagers would salute her as she passed by’. The Gabar Singh Memorial in Chamba was built in 1925. Each year on 21st April, the date of his birthday, the Garhwal Regiment pay tribute to the brave warrior whose courage continues to inspire the young men and women from the hills of Uttarakhand to join the Indian Army. In Chamba, since 1971, an annual fair has been held in his honour. A procession of Manjood villagers place their floral tributes to the sound of the traditional Dhol drum. Satoori died in 1981 and would have attended, naturally wearing her husband’s VC medal.
Robert Lake has his name inscribed on the Le Touret Memorial. The day we visited him in 2015, as we took photos at the entrance a beautiful butterfly flitted around and seemed to want to be in all our pictures. Gabar Singh Negi is on the Neuve Chapelle Memorial. This was where the Indian Corps fought its first major action as a single unit, forming half of the attacking force. More than 4,000 of them perished here and it is the highly symbolic location of The Indian Memorial. Robert Lake and Gabar Singh Negi died on the same day, in the same battle, they were roughly the same age and both had recently lost their fathers. There was much in common between them. We celebrate that in our community by hosting an exhibition called ‘Far from the Western Front’ in Tooting later this year. The extent of the involvement of soldiers from overseas is quite astounding. One and a half million men from ‘undivided India’ (comprising present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) including soldiers and non-combatants, were recruited into the British Indian Army during the First World War. One in every six soldiers of the British Empire was from the Indian subcontinent. Look out for this brilliant exhibition outlining some of their stories and experiences which will be St George’s Hospital University Library, hopefully in September.