On the 1st July, 1916, under heavy enemy fire, the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment were waiting in their trenches ready to go "over the top" in the first Battle of the Somme. Their objective was Montauban Ridge.
Captain WP Nevill, attached from the East Yorkshire Regiment and commanding "B" Company had purchased four footballs for his platoons to kick across No Man's Land "subject to the proviso that proper formation and distance was not lost thereby". Captain Nevill promised a reward to the first platoon to score a "goal" in enemy trenches.
At 7.27 a.m., led by Nevill, "B" Company climbed out of their trenches and the attack commenced. In the face of murderous fire, and sustaining heavy casualties, they charged across the intervening ground with the footballs bouncing encouragingly before them. The combination of Nevill's initiative and their gallantry proved successful and they gained their objective on the Ridge. Sadly, Nevill was not there to pay the reward. He had been killed just outside the German wire. Two of the footballs were found there later in amongst the German wire. The Regiment celebrated the return of one of the footballs at a ceremony on 21st July 1916 at the Regimental Depot in Kingston.
One of the footballs is displayed at the Museum of the Queen's and Princess Of Wales's Royal Regiments in Dover Castle. The other was sadly destroyed in the fire at Clandon House in April 2015.
The Regiment's valour did not go unrewarded that day. The 8th Battalion was awarded two DSOs, two MCs, two DCMs and nine MMs.
This football, supplied by Captain Wilfred Percy “Billie” Nevill, was kicked over the top by Private A A Fursey, 6th Platoon, B company, 8th (Service) Battalion, The East Surrey Regiment from Carnoy trenches, Montauban, The Somme 1st July 1916
In Dover College is a First World War Memorial which lists the names, on six panels, of 187 “Dovorians” who sacrificed themselves for their country in the Great War. One was Captain Wilfred Percy “Billie” Nevill.
Billie was born on 14th July 1894 in Canonbury, NE London into a family of coal merchants. In 1907 at the age of thirteen he was enrolled at Dover College where he was to spend five happy years. A member of the Officer’s Training Corps he was also the Head Boy and captain of the cricket and hockey teams. He left the school in 1913 to study Classics at Jesus College, Cambridge.
At the outbreak of WWI Lord Kitchener appealed for volunteers. Billie left college on 5th August 1914 and completed application forms for a commission. These reveal his desire to join the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regt and that he was 6 feet tall and weighed 12 stone. He request was not met and on 27th November 1914 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion the East Yorkshire Regiment. He was transferred to B Company the 8th (Service) Battalion the East Surrey Regiment and promoted to Captain in April 1915. He was posted to ‘the front’ in France and on 28th July 1915 landed in Boulogne and by November that year had been accepted as a regular soldier as opposed to a volunteer. He was promoted to Captain in March 1916 and given command of B Company.
“Billie” had three sisters and three brothers. During WWI Elizabeth (Else/Elsie), the eldest child, born in 1877, was an artist and married Arthur Bond on 2nd May 1916. His second sister Amy, born in 1879, was a nurse working in the General Hospital in Etaples-sur-Mer, France. Stanley Thorpe born in 1883 was a Captain in the Royal Flying Corps. Dorothy (Doff) was born in 1885 and married Lionel Bond in 1917. Walter Howard born 5th September 1887 was an Assistant Paymaster (by December 1930 Paymaster Commander) in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. He was one of only 14 survivors on board when HMS Louvain was torpedoed. Thomas Seymour the youngest was born in 1901 and was a pupil at Dover College during the war.
Captain Nevill was shot in the head and killed just outside the German wire. The attack lasted over nine hours and only about 250 men reached Breslau Trench unwounded. Casualties on the Somme that day were over 57,000. Out of 120,000 who left the trenches more than 20,000 died in the first 30 minutes, the bloodiest day in British history.
In Britain Nevill became a national hero standing for courage and strength of character, whilst in Germany his act was regarded as British madness.
Two of the footballs were found the next day and returned to England. One of these, marked 6 B (signifying the 6th Platoon B Company) is now on display at the Queen’s Regiment and Princess Wales’s Royal Regiment Museum in the Keep Yard of Dover Castle.