Text written by Pia Chamberlain.
The following was previously printed in a pamphlet available at St Andrew’s Church, Kingswood, Battle of the Somme, 1st July – 18th November 1916, The Fallen of Kingswood and Tadworth.
Charles Stanley Pearce was born in 1893 in Snaresbrook, Essex, the only son of James Stanley and Florence Maryan Pearce. His father was a chemical manufacturer and the family lived in Wanstead for a number of years before moving to Priest’s Mere, in Tadworth. The Pearces had been associated for several generations with the firm of Spencer, Chapman and Messel Ltd, based in Silvertown and specializing in the manufacture of industrial acids.
Charles Stanley Pearce was educated at Rottingdean School and Winchester. He then went on to Christ Church College, Oxford, with the intention of reading for the Civil Service.
At the outbreak of war, he joined the Winchester Officers’ Training Corps on Salisbury Plain and received a commission a month later in the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment. The East Surreys left for France in July 1915. One of his fellow officers was Wilfred ‘Billie’ Nevill, who achieved fame for supplying footballs to his men to kick across No Man’s Land during their advance on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Find out more about the “Football Charge”.
It would appear that Nevill did not get on particularly well with Pearce, as can be gathered from Nevill’s letters; he refers to him as a ‘rather quaint man, but tolerable’. Nevill also got annoyed with him when he took over the only bed in their billet at Ribemont, leaving the other six officers to sleep on the floor.
The battalion was in the trenches near Fricourt on 22nd August 1915, where ‘C’ Company, of which Pearce was Officer Commanding, were having rather a hard time. They were subjected to frequent heavy shelling and on one occasion Pearce was blown into a dug-out. On 20th October the East Surreys suffered the detonation of a big German mine, which went off under ‘B’ Company, exactly where ‘C’ Company had been a short time earlier. Nevill recorded that it was the biggest mine that had been seen on the Western Front up to that point.
Pearce was granted leave in November 1915, leaving Nevill in command. Nevill was himself granted leave in December and on his return found that he was transferred to ‘D’ Company, so his contact with Pearce was much reduced.
On 20th March 1916 the Germans raided ‘C’ Company’s positions, with Pearce organising a counter-attack to drive them out, killing two German attackers and capturing one.
Although the first day of the Somme campaign was an overall disaster, the objective of 8th East Surrey to take Montauban was achieved, but at a terrible cost. The war diary of the 8th East Surreys records how from midnight on, on 1st July, the British front line was subjected to artillery fire which knocked in the trenches and dug-outs in several places and caused 3 to be killed and 10 wounded. At 5.30 companies reported that they were in position and that all necessary supplies had been issued. Both Nevill and Pearce reported to HQ, where the adjutant recalled them being in excellent spirits. ‘Both absolutely radiant and declaring everything for the best.’ At 7.25 came the explosion of two mines by 183 Tunnelling Company, which signalled the start of the British advance. It was at this point that the famous Football Charge occurred.
The generals had told the men that ‘nothing would be alive not even a rat’ after the heavy shelling that had preceded the battle. But Nevill had been out on night patrol in No Man’s Land and he knew differently. Aware that his men were likely to meet powerful enemy fire, he decided that they needed a distraction as they went over the top. He came up with the idea of kicking footballs as they advanced towards the German lines. So at 7.27 Nevill led his company out of the trenches and advanced towards the enemy front line, with the footballs accompanying them. German machine guns decimated the Surreys, but his company succeeded to take the ridge which had been assigned to them. On one of the footballs was written the slogan ‘The Great European Cup-Tie Final, East Surreys v. Bavarians. Kick off at zero’ and on the other ‘No Referee’, which implied that all methods were fair when dealing with the enemy.
The distance which Pearce and ‘C’ Company had to cross to the enemy front line was only 120 yards. Nevill was killed just before the German wire and Pearce died in No Man’s Land. Given the short distance they covered, both men can only have survived for a matter of seconds.
Shortly after midday the whole of the East Surreys advanced towards the road west of Montauban as part of a major attack and by 12.35 the entire village was in British hands, a bitter-sweet victory, considering how many lives had been lost in the process.
George Stanley Pearce was buried in Carnoy Military Cemetery. A stained glass window is dedicated to his memory in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Tadworth. His sister Phyllis revealed later on that her parents never really recovered from the loss of their only son.
The number of footballs used in the charge has been disputed. Some maintain that there had been four, others state categorically that there had only been two. People seem to agree, however, that two footballs were retrieved from the battlefield at the end of the day. One of these was on display until recently at the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regimental Museum at Clandon Park, Surrey, but was sadly destroyed in the fire that gutted the National Trust property in April 2015. The other rescued football is kept at the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment Museum at Dover Castle.
British casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme were the worst in the history of the British army, with a total of 57,470 casualties, 19,210 of them fatal.