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Remembering Allen Foster, 100 years on

8 August 2016

Commemorating a century since our forward's death at the Somme

100 years ago today, on 8th August 1916, Reading forward Allen Foster made the ultimate sacrifice.

Foster was one of nine Biscuitmen that died in service during the First World War; in the early hours of a Tuesday morning, he went over the top at the Somme and suffered wounds which would ultimately end his life later that day.

In 2010, Ady Williams, Mick Gooding, Trevor Senior and Brian McDermott visited the graves of the fallen in Northern France.  In our matchday programme for our fixture against Norwich that season, we paid our tributes to those nine that lost their lives and the others that served their country during the battle.

The words from our tribute are below.

Many things have changed in football, but goalscorers have always and will always be heroes. In that regard, Allen Foster was undoubtedly the first true darling in Reading Football Club’s history. A swashbuckling forward with fabulous talent, he was also a larger-than-life character who drew attention and adulation with every rumbustious performance in a Reading shirt. The type of man that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be near.

He came to Reading’s attention after a couple of fine displays for Bristol City against our reserves and a £75 fee (paid in two instalments!) brought him to Elm Park in August 1911. From then on it was success all the way for the brilliant left-footed forward. Virtually ever-present over the next four years, Allen topped our goalscoring list in each of those seasons, netting 67 Southern League goals in 146 games and creating many more with his wide range of accurate passes. However, his most famous goal came in the FA Cup – a stunning volley that knocked First Division Aston Villa out of the competition in February 1912, a goal and a performance that prompted a huge £750 bid from Villa. Despite continuing financial problems, the directors turned down the bid and their decision was rewarded by a series of consistent displays that saw the popular player being tipped for an England cap just prior to the outbreak of war.

So with the footballing world at his feet, one can only imagine how this son of a Yorkshire miner must have felt when his country called and he was sent into battle. He remained in fine spirits and kept a cheeky tone when he wrote home of his experiences at Delville Wood: ‘We made old Fritz hop about! They were running about like lost sheep but we were popping away at him like blazes. I don’t think he expected us to be quite so near to him. We had to pay for being so near but as luck would have it, I managed to get back without a scratch. It’s very trying to the nerves, lots of fellows get what they call shellshock. You won’t last long out here, but there’s no need to worry, I’m A1. I often wonder how long it will be before we are back to the old times again. Sometimes I think it will not last long. We can’t tell, we can only hope and trust it will not be for long.’

At 4am on 8th August 1916 in a field in Guillemont, just a stone’s throw from Delville Wood, Foster was in the trenches preparing to go over the top and, just like on the pitch at Elm Park, he was ready to tackle his opponent head on. Waiting 20 minutes for the whistle to blow, Foster and his fellow soldiers dutifully went into battle, but within a short space of time Allen had been shot in the thigh, abdomen and arm.

Four incredibly brave stretcher bearers ducked the fire and shelling to retrieve Foster from the battlefield, and after what would have been no more than a patch up, he was taken 16 miles by ambulance across dusty roads to a hospital in Corbie near Amiens.

“The attack was later described as an abject failure, and every single person bar one who made it to the German line was killed, captured or wounded,” military historian Jon Cooksey explained. “Foster would have been bleeding badly, and one can only imagine the journey to the hospital, with no pain relief, jolting up and down for 16 miles. To be brought back by stretcher bearers suggests two things: he didn’t make it very far once he went over the top, but also they thought he had a chance of surviving.”

Trevor Senior lays a wreath at Allen Foster's grave.  “You feel so much for the families, great grandchildren who are perhaps alive still today," he said at the time.  "My own father died three years ago, I can visit his grave within driving distance but this is some trip to come over here. So I am privileged to come across, lay this wreath and it is very moving.”

Allen didn’t survive. He had the wherewithal to give the nurse his address - 14 Kent Road, merely yards from Elm Park - and when news made it home the Reading Observer newspaper wrote, ‘The news of Allen Foster’s death came like a thunderclap and the death roll of Reading Football Club players is slowly mounting up. It seems impossible to believe that the fair-haired centre forward with a caustic tongue but lovable disposition would entertain us no more. One’s thoughts instantly flew to the quiet little woman and tiny babe.’

Harry Matthews, secretary and manager of Reading Football Club then, wrote in a letter to Foster’s wife, ‘Allen I cannot imagine ever had an enemy. He was liked by all and has done a great deal for the club. I’m quite sure we shall ever miss his company, and he will leave us all with an ever fragrant memory. Of all the players, I devoutly hoped he might be spared to come back and be with us all again. I’m hoping when the better days come to the club, they can do something in appreciation of his good deeds.’ In those better days a benefit match followed, and despite appalling weather £100 was raised. Reading played against the Footballers’ Battalion, and his old pal Ted Hanney was injured but so desperate to pay his respects that he picked up a flag and ran the line.

The site of the battle in which Foster fought now seems so normal, a quiet pleasant-looking field opposite a small farm in Northern France. As McDermott, Senior, Williams and Gooding stand at the side of the very same field, it is difficult to comprehend the horrors that once took place here. Senior, a legendary goalscorer himself, commented, “None of it really bears thinking about. When you talk about going over the top, you’re going out in the open to be shot and killed. It’s literally pot luck but these guys like Allen Foster, they didn’t think about it, they went.”

Trevor Senior's note of remembrance at the grave of Foster.  Ady Williams also added: "All four of us played in a team sport and the thing that sticks with me is that in a war, in your team, if your pal is lying screaming next to you there might still be nothing you can do."

Our quartet then make the very same journey that Foster took in his final hours, travelling to Corbie to pay final respects to this incredible man. Trevor Senior reads the cemetery register and finds Allen Foster listed as ‘Son of George and Sarah, Plot 2, Row A, Grave 70.’ There he lays a Reading Football Club wreath with a handwritten message. Senior said, “It’s difficult to put it into words but I just wrote on the note ‘From one goalscorer to an even better one. With greatest respect, Trevor Senior.’ I just think about the character of the fellow, there have been some lovely words said about him. For me this is an honour, it’s the least I can do, just write a few words, it’s very emotional and he won’t be forgotten.”

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