Captain Billie Nevill
1894 - 1916
The Christmas Truce has captured the popular imagination to become the iconic footballing passage of the First World War. But the first ball kicked in anger during that conflict was at the Battle of Loos in 1915, and a similarly audacious act followed a year later, in July 1916, on the Somme. Occupying the foremost section of trench closest to the German line were the 7th Buffs. The 8th Norfolks were positioned to the left of them with the 7th Queens to the right. To the right of them and chosen to lead the charge were the 8th East Surreys. The Company Commander was Captain Wilfred Percy ('Billie') Nevill, from Twickenham, formerly of the East Yorkshire Regiment. Writing to his sister Else on June 28 1916, he described how the heavy British bombardment of the German positions failed spectacularly to destroy the enemy machine gunners. '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.'Like Frank Edwards, a young rifleman at Loos the previous year, Nevill planned to provide his men with a reassuringly familiar rallying point, which would back at home epitomise grit, determination and raw courage, but would in Germany be viewed as a clear example of British madness.
A survivor recalling zero hour tells of how when 'the gun-fire died away I saw an infantry man 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.' One of Nevill's fellow officers later wrote to his family: '...the company went over the top very well, with your brother kicking off the company footballs.' Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later reported in The British Campaign in France and Flanders, 1916: 'No sooner had the troops come out from cover than they were met by a staggering fire which held them up in the Breslau Trench. The supports had soon to be pushed up to thicken the ranks of the East Surreys - a battalion which, with the ineradicable sporting instinct and light-heartedness of the Londoner, had dribbled footballs, one for each platoon across No Man's Land and shot their goal in the front-line trench.'
Fierce fighting raged for some time around a crater formed by a mine explosion. An officer and a sergeant of the Buffs killed twelve Germans and cut off their flow of reinforcements, while half a company of the same battalion cleared up the crater and captured a machine-gun post. The brigade was making headway against hard German resistance. The objective was to attack Montauban at 10 a.m. Failure to do so meant the difference between victory and defeat. And it was at this critical moment that Captain Nevill dashed to the front, re-formed his own men and led them onwards. By 07.50 the Battalion was in the first line of German trenches. Seven of the 8th East Surreys' officers were killed in the attack, including Nevill's second in command, Lieutenant R.E. Soames, who had kicked off the second football.
Billie Nevill himself lay dead just outside the German wire where two footballs were found the following day.
Widely recognised as the blackest day in British military history, by nightfall 57,470 casualties out of the 120,000 men who had left the trenches that morning had fallen. Some 21,000 men had been killed in the first 30 minutes of the attack. No fewer than 12 divisions suffered over 3,000 casualties each. The 1st Hampshire's and the 10th West York's were decimated in under a minute. The British press took up Captain Nevill's exploit as the one redeeming feature out of unmitigated disaster. Policy at the front had clearly shifted from nine months earlier when the gloom and despair following the failure at Loos found no boost to morale at home. Billie Nevill became a national hero almost overnight and his name joins those of 120 other young men on the Memorial Cross in St Mary's churchyard, listing all those from the parishes of St Mary's, Twickenham, who fell in the Great War.
Source: Ed Harris: The Footballer of Loos. Extract (unpublished) 2007