Famous Somme football charge recreated on anniversary of fire which destroyed WWI collection

By Tim Richardson | 29 April 2016

One of the most famous episodes from the first day of the Battle of the Somme is being recreated in England and France

A photo of World War One re-enactors going on a march to honour the Somme fallen
© Tim Richardson
A year ago, a fire broke out at Clandon Park, the National Trust house in Surrey. The devastating blaze reduced the property to a shell, destroying treasures in the main house and hundreds of items from the collection of the Surrey Infantry Museum in the basement.

One of the precious items lost was the Nevill football – an ordinary leather football purchased in Surrey before the Battle of the Somme.

Several balls were bought by Captain Wilfred 'Billie' Nevill of the 8th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, part of the 18th Division. Nevill, who had risen through the ranks, came up with the idea that if, as his men began their attack, they kicked the footballs towards the German front line, it would take their minds off what they faced.

The attack took place on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1 1916. At 7.30am, whistles blew. The British Army climbed out of their trenches and advanced towards the enemy lines.

In the southern section the Surrey’s target was the village of Montauban. Billie Nevill kicked off into No Man’s Land. More than 60,000 British soldiers were casualties that day, and 20,000 died.

a print showing soldiers with fixed bayonets kicking footballs across No-Mans-Land
The Surrey's Play The Game, by Richard Caton Woodville, 1916© Courtesy The National Football Museum
The attack by the 18th Division was one of the few successes but Billie Nevill was one of those who fell. He lies at rest, the final whistle blown.

Two of the footballs were recovered and returned to the East Surrey regimental depot in Kingston on Thames. The British press lauded the Surreys, although the German press said the English did not take war seriously, treating it as a game.

This weekend, World War One re-enactors carried an Edwardian-style replica leather football, marching and cycling over two days on the first anniversary of the fire.

Their march started in Guildford, the old depot town of the Queens West Surrey Regiment, and proceed to Kingston-on-Thames, the depot town of the East Surreys.

On Friday July 1 2016 the ball will be kicked off on the spot where Billie kicked the original. Billie and those Surrey footballers of the Somme will not be forgotten.

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