This football, supplied by Captain Wilfred Percy â€œBillieâ€ 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 this week’s Spectator, Jeremy Clarke visits the WWI Somme Battlefield.
Phone calls aside, the only human contact I had on my ten-day Somme battlefield tour was with the lady who ran the bed and breakfast establishment. My bed was on the upper storey of a disused light railway station in a clearing in a beech wood. Madame lived with her husband in a modern bungalow 100 yards down the line, but came along each morning to cook my bacon and eggs. The greater part of her clientele consists of British Great War buffs. But Covid-19 had kept them away and I had the breakfast table, the old station and indeed the Somme battlefield entirely to myself.
The dining room was once the waiting room. In here the walls were decorated with trench maps and other Great War memorabilia, including a tribute to Captain Billie Nevill of the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment, who famously led his men over the top on 1 July 1916 by drop-kicking a football into no manâ€™s land. Heâ€™d written on the football: â€˜The great European Cup-Tie final, East Surreys v Bavarians.â€™ Displayed on a stand was a punctured leather replica of this celebrated football.
[Actually, Captain Nevill Captain WP Nevill, “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.]
After a careful study of the trench maps, one day I went and found the spot from which Captain Nevill had punted his football. Then I followed his path between the British and German front line trenches. The distance was about the same as three football pitches laid end to end. History records that the East Surreys gamely chased the football up the long uphill slope but were scythed down by a German machine gun on the left wing. Captain Nevill reached the German wire and was about to chuck a hand grenade when a late tackle in the form of a bullet to the head ended the match for him. Every morning he looked levelly out from his framed portrait and watched me eat my bacon and eggs off a plate decorated with a design of red poppies. The tablecloth was a pattern of red poppies. Madame invariably served breakfast wearing a diaphanous shawl hand-embroidered with poppies.