Aged just twenty years old when he answered Kitchener’s call to arms in 1914, Billie Nevill found fame when he and his regiment kicked footballs out across the landscape of no man’s land on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. What followed was one of the deadliest days for the British Army – with 20,000 men killed.
Wilfred “Billie” Nevill and his family moved to Twickenham in 1903, to a house in Montpelier Road (now Montpelier Row). School holidays were spent in Marble Hill Park, or punting along the river. Following his enlistment, Billie received training at the Staff College at Camberley in November 1914. He spent Christmas with his family, before joining the 8th Battalion East Surrey’s Regiment at Purfleet, Essex. Billie’s time at Purfleet was mostly taken up with rifle and physical training, field exercises and drilling. His division finally crossed to France in late July 1915.
A British bombardment at the Somme began on June 24th 1916, which was intended to destroy German artillery and cut the barbed wire. The shelling reportedly was heard across the Channel in Britain. The East Surrey’s were called up to the Front in time for the bombardment, which lasted 5 days. While on leave during the spring of 1916, Billie purchased two footballs and brought them back to France. On the 1st July 1916, at about 7:30am, Billie and his Division were ordered over the parapet into No Man’s Land, along with the two footballs – a familiar symbol that Billie thought might ease his men. The balls were dribbled between the men as they stormed towards the Germans. Sadly, Billie was shot and killed in front of the German trenches. The East Surrey’s war diary entry for July 1st reads:
“At 7.27am “B” Company started to move out to their wire, Captain Neville [sic] strolling quietly ahead of them, giving an occasional order to keep the dressing square on to the line of advance. This Company took four footballs out with them which they were seen to dribble forward into the smoke of our intense bombardment on the Hun front line. At 7.50am the Adjutant reported that the Battalion was in the German trenches. Later it was known that Captain Neville [sic], Lieuts Soames, Musgrove and 2/Lieuts Kelly and Evans had also been killed.”
Billie’s actions on the 1st July 1916 were widely reported in the British press. His footballs were recovered and displayed. Following his death, letters of condolence from the men who had served alongside Billie were sent to his mother.
“It is seldom in the Army, that a man gains the love of his fellow men, but our feelings towards Capt. Nevill were deeper than mere admiration, & there wasn’t a man in the Battalion who would not have followed him anywhere,” – Sgt Humphrey Cunnington
“Though I was only a Sergeant and your son a Captain – I can safely say he was my friend. Therefore I feel that, as one who knew him well, one who sat with him for many hours in the trenches, one with whom he so often talked, I must write a few lines & tell you how we all loved him & respected him….Your son was a brave man he was a good man. He made us better men for having known him.” – Sgt Cutting
The story of Billie and the Nevill family will be further explored in blog posts on Village Stories throughout 2016. A dance event commemorating the Battle of the Somme is planned to take place in Richmond in July 2016. The Twickenham Museum will commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on Saturday 2nd July 2016 to run until the end of the year. Working with artist Jane Porter and young people from Orleans House Gallery, a large-scale depiction of the battlefield will act as the backdrop to Captain Billie Neville leading his platoon kicking a football.
With thanks to Ruth Elwin Harris, whose book ‘Billie: The Nevill Letters 1914-1916’ informed this blog. Purchase the book here: http://www.naval-military-press.com/billie-the-nevill-letters-1914-1916.html