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

Captain W.P. "Billie" Nevill in the trenches (Surrey History Centre ref ESR/25/NEVI/1

Captain W.P. “Billie” Nevill
in the trenches
(Surrey History Centre
ref ESR/25/NEVI/1)

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.

Captain Wilfred P Nevill's football

Captain Wilfred P Nevill’s football

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 visit the on-line exhibition of Woking borough WWI memorials.

Click here to see the research guide (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.

Wilfred “Billie” Nevill, an Old Dovorian was honoured on Remembrance Sunday 2018 when a statue is unveiled at Dover College. He represents all the Old Dovorians whose lives were impacted by conflict.

Watch a video of the unveiling on YouTube by clicking the links below:

22 thoughts on “East Surrey Regiment’s ‘football’ charge July 1st 1916”

  1. andy rayfield says:

    Hi, I thought you might be interested in something that I found inside the backing of an old picture that I bought at auction couple of years ago. Its a photo of a soldier of the East Surrey Regt and a letter from the soldiers partner. The letter names the soldier as 4723 Pte Jame Robert Collins MM. I did a little research and found that he was in the 8th bn and died on the 1/7/16..first day of the Somme. He was one of the nine men awarded the Military Medal that day. Ive read the story about the 8th bn dribbling the footballs forward during the advance…I wonder if he was part of this and how he won his MM. He is mentioned in the London Gazette dated 19/2/17. Ill try and scan in pictures of photo and letter. I though you might be interested. Kind regards. Andy Rayfield.

  2. andy rayfield says:

    Picture of Pte Collins MM

  3. andy rayfield says:

    Picture of the letter

  4. andy rayfield says:

    picture of Pte Collins MM Medal Index Card.

  5. Paul Sparham says:

    One of the footballs survives and is on display at the regimental museum, Clandon Park.

    It seems unlikely that Nevill should have bought only two footballs. He offered a prize to one of his four platoons – the first to score. Pte. L.S Price, 8th Royal Sussex recalled what happened. “I saw an infantryman 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.” (The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook).

    Of course no prize was claimed as Nevill was dead.

    1. All the evidence, as opposed to assumptions, points to just two footballs, and, excellent writer though he is, Mr Middlebrook’s book perpetuates this inaccuracy. The evidence suggests that, as Lieuteneant Allcock stated within a month of the attack, “…the papers didn’t quite give the right story…”. The Nevill family, by the way, were also adamant that only two footballs were bought.

      1. alan barrell says:

        my grandfather William George sexton was one of brave men who took part in the football match on the first day of the battle of the somme he badly injured but survived and on his returned home to Ipswich married and had two children and worked as a upholster for over forty years and passed at age of ninety two

      2. Sue Carter says:

        My Granddad was Lieut C.W. Alcock and the family didn’t know about his time in the Somme until my father bought the Neville book!

  6. lalala says:

    They are heroes

  7. Brian George says:

    An interesting piece of history.

    My late father had an Uncle – John Archibald George – who was a Private in the 8th Sussex and may have played in this footlball match. He died on Ist July in the Battle of the Somme. The same day the football match took place.

    Unfortunately we do not have a photo in the family that can be definitely identified as John Archibald, although the rest of the factual information fits his profile, so to speak.


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  9. Mildred Beerling says:

    My father was in the battle of the somme his name was Albert Victor Ayliffe he was very lucky to survive and died in 1983, in his 85th year. He had the Wilfred P.Nevill football card to which I now have, are there many about.

    1. Paul Martin says:

      And i was told this story by my grandad. Albert Victor Ayliffe when i was very small. He told me about the German machine guns firing at them as they kicked the footballs. I have never forgot his words. Paul Martin

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  11. Mike briggs says:

    I am a familly friend of charles alcock familly above and have written a small article about him and the 1st day of the somme 8th east surrey. This and a map will provide a small display at bernafay wood bed and breakfast on show from feb 2016 to commemorate the 100 years. Feel free to e mail me for a copy

    1. Peter Davis says:

      My grandad, William Arthur Bone, died on the first day of the battle. He was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for his actions on that day.
      Please be so kind as to send me copies of any related documents that you might have.
      Peter Davis

  12. Pete Smee says:

    Unfortunately the Football was lost in the fire at Clandon House 29 April 2015 together with many other relics of the East Surreys which were in the basement where the fire started.
    Incidentally the Soames referred to as having kicked off the second ball and falling alongside Neville was Lt Robert Eley Soames who is remembered on the All Saints, Woodham War memorial. His parents lived on St Georges Hill and his younger sister Nora was married at All Saints in 1926.

  13. Carole Beynon says:

    a medal for a Lieutenant Robert Eley Soames has come into my possession. has anyone got any information about him or indeed is a descendant of his. i understand he was killed at Montauban Ridge in 1916. he was in the East Surrey Regiment. Did he win the Military Cross?

  14. Pieter Meere says:

    I am asking for help on two matters:
    – list of men of the 8th Bn East Surrey (or officers of A, B, C and D companies).
    – information on Ernest Cheney Laughton (KIA 1st july ’16), Company Sergeant Major 8th Bn East Surrey, Service Number 4910.
    I hope you can help me.

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