In the weeks before the Somme, Nevill had been worried about his men. The Cambridge-educated coal merchant’s son, a sportsman and a born leader, was looking for ways to help them cope with the terrors of battle.
East Surreys v Bavarians, kick off: Zero Hour
On leave in London in May 1916, Nevill and his fellow Royal East Surrey Regiment officers heatedly discussed what they should do. He came up with the perfect idea to bolster their morale under withering fire: Football.
Neville, who was just 21 and “loved by everyone”, bought two leather balls and took them to France. On one he wrote: The Great European Cup-Tie Final. East Surreys v Bavarians. Kick off at zero. The other had the words NO REFEREE in large capitals, which was Nevill’s way of telling his men that they must deal as harshly as possible with the enemy.
At 7.30am on 1 July 1916, the first day of The Somme, he climbed from his trench at Carnoy and booted one of the balls into no man’s land. Either Lt Soames or Private A.A.Fursey kicked the other. For 300 yards, through murderous enemy fire, Nevill and the East Surreys dribbled, kicked and passed the balls as they battled to the enemy trenches at Montauban.
Nevill was killed just in front of the German wire, shot as he prepared to throw a grenade. He was two weeks short of his 22nd birthday.
Fursey and Soames were also killed, but The East Surreys pressed on, kicking the footballs over the enemy trenches, which they eventually captured.
Courage... or just craziness?
The East Surreys “Football Charge” was huge news in Britain and around the world, lauded as an outstanding example of British courage. The German newspapers dismissed it as an outstanding example of British insanity. In the Daily Mail, house poet Touchstone wrote a tribute:
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.
On 12 July, the Daily Telegraph reported that one East Surreys officer had taken a bottle of champagne with him on the attack, adding that “at 12.22pm the libation was duly quaffed.”
But the headline concentrated on the main event: GALLANT EAST SURREYS. A CHARGE WITH FOOTBALLS
“The platoon commanders kicked off and the match against Death commenced,” read the report. “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 on-wards, with hoarse cries of encouragement or defiance.”
Mystery of the four footballs
The balls were later recovered by the men who survived the attack. One is on display at the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment Museum at Dover Castle. The other was destroyed in 2015, in a fire at the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regimental Museum, Guildford.
Nevill’s morale-boosting idea may have been inspired by London Irish Rifles regiment Rifleman Frank Edwards, who dribbled and passed a ball with three comrades during an advance through chlorine gas at the Battle of Loos in September 1915.
There is much disagreement over how many balls Nevill used, with some reports claiming there were four, one for each company of 8th Battalion. Historians conclude that the evidence most likely points to just two.
The Great European Cup Tie Final. East Surreys v Bavarians. Kick off at zero.What Capt Nevill wrote on one of the footballs
There was an intriguing incident in 2011, when George Majin, a 13-year-old schoolboy from Kent, visited Nevill's grave at Carnoy as part of a history project.
In a café at Pozières, George noticed an old football on top of a fridge. Owner Dominique Zanardi said that when he was a boy he’d found 10 British backpacks buried in a field. On one was written “18 Manchesters”, the 18th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, which was to the right of Nevill’s unit on that day. The football was in one of the backpacks and on it was the word Gamages, of a London shop which sold sports equipment.
No one can confirm whether this was one of Nevill’s balls. It is likely that it is one of many footballs taken to France by soldiers, who played the game, always with great dedication and sometimes to an extremely high standard, behind the lines.
“As I write, the shells are fairly haring over; one gets sort of bemused after a few million, still it’ll be a great experience to tell one’s children about.”Wilfred Nevill’s letter to his sister before the Somme attack
As head boy of Dover College, 6ft Wilfred Percy Nevill was a great all-round sportsman, playing for his school’s rugby, hockey and athletics teams and captaining the cricket side. When war broke out he quit his classics studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, to join up.
He was born in Islington, North London, and grew up with three brothers and three sisters at the family homes in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent and Twickenham. His father, who later ran Kelly’s Directory, a Victorian version of the Yellow Pages, had died in 1903.
On the eve of battle Nevill wrote to sister Else: “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. So long, old thing, don’t worry if you don't hear for a bit. I'm as happy as ever. Yrs ever, Bill.”
After Nevill’s death, 2nd Lieutenant C W Alcock, the only fellow officer to survive the attack, wrote to his sister: “The Company went over the top very well, with Soames & your brother kicking off with the footballs. We had to face a very heavy rifle & machine gun fire, & nearing the front German trench, the lines slackened pace slightly. Seeing this, Wilfred dashed in front with a bomb in his hand, & was immediately shot through the head, almost side by side with Soames & Sgt Major Wells.
“The surviving... men of B Coy (now, alas, a mere handful) had the greatest admiration for Nevill’s qualities as a soldier & a Company Commander; but in addition to this, his personal charm & never failing good humour & courage, the interest he took in every individual under his command, made him loved by everyone.”
Peter Shilton Remembers Captain Nevill
Remember the Somme
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.
Make your own commemoration to one of the casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.