“On through the hail of slaughter, where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water, they drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them, is but an empty name;
True to the land that bore them, the SURREYS played the game.”
“Touchstone” in the Daily Mail
There had been a lot of misleading talk before the Battle of the Somme. Because of the heavy artillery barrage that had been ‘softening-up’ the German lines for the last seven days military command thought that the opening attack, scheduled for 1st July 1916, would be – literally – a ‘walk-over’. General Sir Henry Rawlinson said to his subordinates, “Nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it”.
Confidence was so high that instead of ordering the attacking troops to leave their heavy packs behind and charge the enemy trenches, they were told to ‘walk over’ – with bayonets fixed and rucksacks on their backs.
Waiting in a trench close to the enemy lines at Montauban Captain Wilfred ‘Billie’ Nevill of the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment, was less certain about the destructive powers of the Allied barrage. Writing to his sister Else on June 28th 1916 he described how the shell fire appeared unable to destroy the German machine guns facing them… “As I write the shells are fairly haring over; you know one gets just sort of bemused after a few million, still it’ll be a great experience to tell one’s children about!”
Aware that the East Surreys would be leading the attack in his sector ‘Billy’ Nevill wanted to find a rallying device to focus the attention of his men. Borrowing an idea used at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 when Rifleman Frank Edwards kicked a ball into no man’s land and charged after it ‘Billie’ Nevill bought two footballs. (Some unreliable accounts say that there were 4 footballs.) On one football Billie wrote “The Great European Cup-Tie final, East Surrey v Bavarians. Kick off at zero”. On the other “No referee”. Nevill told his men that the first soldier to kick a ball into the German trenches would be given a prize.
Captain Wilfred Percy Nevill (known as ‘Billie’) was born on 14 July 1894, the son of Thomas George Nevill, a coal merchant and later Managing Director of Kelly’s Directories and Elizabeth Ann Nevill. At the time of the War the family was living in ’Tennyson’s House’, 15 Montpelier Row in St Margarets.
Zero hour was 7.30am on the 1st July. As the whistles sounded along the Front and terrified soldiers climbed out of the trenches to face an undiminished enemy one survivor, Pte. L.S Price, 8th Royal Sussex reported…
“I saw an infantry man climb onto the parapet into No Man’s Land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football. A good kick. The ball rose and travelled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reported the same event in ‘The British Campaign in France and Flanders, 1916’
‘No sooner had the troops come out from cover than they were met by a staggering fire which held them up in the Breslau Trench. The supports had soon to be pushed up to thicken the ranks of the East Surreys – a battalion which, with the ineradicable sporting instinct and light-heartedness of the Londoner, had dribbled footballs, one for each platoon across No Man’s Land and shot their goal in the front-line trench.’
The enemy trench at Montauban was finally taken and both footballs were recovered the following day but no prizes were ever given. Captain Billie Nevill was found dead, just 2 weeks short of his 22nd birthday on the edge of the enemy trench, as was Private A. Fursey who had kicked off the second football.
By nightfall on the first day on the Somme of the 120,000 men who had left their trenches 57,470 were casualties. The 8th East Surreys lost 446 men, killed, wounded, missing and prisoners, mainly in the first 10 minutes of battle. In total some 21,000 men had been killed.
In the face of such grim statistics the press saw Billie’s Nevill’s bold venture as an example of British grit and determination. The Germans thought he was mad. As for Billie, a national hero, he was buried in Carnoy Military Cemetery in France. All his mother got back was a damaged silver flask, a revolver in a case, cheque books, a cigarette case, a steel knife, a game of pocket chess, a money wallet with photos, a leather photo case, a pocket book, a scarf pin and a book of stamps. Captain Billie Nevill’s name was later recorded on the Memorial Cross in St Mary’s churchyard in Twickenham. The one remaining football is displayed at the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment Museum at Dover Castle. The other was lost in a fire in 2015.
Precisely 100 years after the carnage of the Somme our nation has decided to disengage from Europe. In an epitaph relating to the Great War Rudyard Kipling wrote…
I could not dig: I dared not rob: Therefore I lied to please the mob. Now all my lies are proved untrue And I must face the men I slew. What tale shall serve me here among Mine angry and defrauded young?
THE STATESMAN – Rudyard Kipling
For me – and strangely – that epitaph still has relevance today.
— from Martyn Day