East Surrey Regiment’s ‘football’ charge July 1st 1916

Captain W.P.

Title: Captain W.P. "Billie" Nevill in the trenches
Description: (Surrey History Centre ref ESR/25/NEVI/1) by-nc

One of the most famous incidents to occur during the carnage of the first day of the battle of the Somme was the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment’s famous ‘football’ charge towards the German trenches at Montauban.

Read more about the 8th East Surreys at Montauban – Billie Nevill and Carnoy Military Cemetery on the With the British Army in Flanders website.

Widely reported in the press within days of the attack, the story of how Captain W. P. Nevill provided four footballs for his platoons to kick across No Man’s Land as they advanced had soon captured the imagination of the British public.

And yet, as with so many stories, the truth may have been slightly different to that reported in the papers. Certainly, the East Surreys did kick footballs in front of them as they advanced. But how many? Were there really four footballs, as appears to have been generally accepted ever since? Or does the evidence suggest otherwise?

The following is an extract from “Billie” – The Nevill Letters by Ruth Elwin Harris.
I am afraid the newspapers didn’t give quite the right story of the footballs [Second Lieutenant C.W. Alcock told Doff on July 27th]. There were two footballs, and on one was printed:- ‘The Great European Cup-Tie Final. East Surreys v Bavarians. Kick off at zero.’ On the other in large letters was this:- “NO REFEREE”, which was W.’s way of telling the men they needn’t treat the Hun too gently.
“Gallant East Surreys. The captain of one of the companies had provided four footballs, one for each platoon, urging them to keep up a dribbling competition all the way over the mile and a quarter of ground they had to traverse. As the company formed on emerging from the trench, the platoon commanders kicked off, and the match against Death commenced. The gallant captain himself fell early in the charge, and men began to drop rapidly under the hail of machine-gun bullets. But still the footballs were booted onwards, with hoarse cries of encouragement or defiance, until they disappeared in the dense smother behind which the Germans were shooting. Then, when the bombs and bayonets had done their work, and the enemy had cleared out, the Surrey men looked for their footballs, and recovered two of them in the captured traverses. These will be sent to the Regimental Depot at Kingston as trophies worth preserving.” (click the following link to see the full article) Daily Telegraph 12th July 1916 (SHC Ref ESR/1/12/12).

"The Surrey's Play the Game" by R. Caton Woodville SHC Ref ESR/25/NEVI/3

“The Surrey’s Play the Game” by R. Caton Woodville, published in the Illustrated London News, 27th July 1916 (Incorrectly captioned as occurring at Contalmaison) (SHC Ref ESR/25/NEVI/3)

Click here to read the poem:
‘An Incident of the Great War: THE GAME’

The following is an extract from letter dated 3rd September 1916 from Captain C. Thorne, Officer Commanding B Company, to the mother of one of the soldiers killed on July 1st: (Click here to see the original extract.)

….Pollard then went on with the rest who, thank God, successfully captured the trench and finished off all the Germans in it.This took place in the attack on Montauban. You may have seen a lot in the news-papers about the East Surrey’s charge with the footballs. That was the charge. Captain Nevill (who was killed) himself kicked off one of the two footballs which the company dribbled across, and you will be proud to hear it was actually your son who kicked off the other one on that historic day the memory of which will live for ever in the records of the Regiment, and indeed of the British Nation.”

Extract from a letter dated 15th July 1916 from Second Lieutenant C.W. Alcock to ‘Billie’ Nevill’s sister:

Five minutes before ‘zero’ hour (7.30 am) your brother strolled up in his usual calm way and we shared a last joke before going over. The Company went over the top very well, with Soames and your brother kicking off with the Company footballs.” (Click here to see a copy of the original letter.)

Extract from a Regimental letter dated 13th June 1966:

The Company Commander, Capt W P Nevill, whilst on leave in England in May 1916, purchased two footballs and took them back to his company in France.” (Click here to see a copy of the original letter.)

The Regiment celebrated the return of one of the footballs at a ceremony on 21st July 1916 at Kingston Barracks.

Click here to read more about the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment.

Click here to read a summary of the arrangement of the records of the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment held at the Surrey History Centre.

Click here to see the research guide (pdf PDF) “Tracing military records at Surrey History Centre“.

The story of the East Surrey’s famous football charge is featured in a documentary tracing the history of the British Army’s football regiments during the First World War, which has been produced for the ‘FIFA Futbol Mundial’ programme for the Eurosports Channel. The DVD is part of the Local Studies Library collection and is available to watch at Surrey History Centre.

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