The Nevill Family: Nursing in France

Billie Nevill, a Captain with the 8th East Surrey’s, gained renown after kicking footballs out over No Man’s Land on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916. Aged just 22, Billie was shot just outside of the German front lines. His bravery and his actions were widely reported in the press, and the footballs were recovered and displayed. The Nevill family, like many families of the time, all made contributions to the war effort. The Nevill brothers also served in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Reserve, whilst Billie’s sister, Amy, and his aunt, Ann, served as nurses in France.

Amy Nevill

Amy Nevill, 1916 Image Courtesy of Billie: The Nevill Letters (1991)

Both Ann and Amy were stationed at the 24 General Hospital in Étaples. Largely under canvas until 1915, the conditions at the hospital were difficult. Ann Beadsmore Smith had begun her nursing career at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, before heading out to South Africa with the Army Nursing Service Reserve during the Boer War. Her excellent nursing skills were even praised by the Kaiser prior to the war after she and another sister nursed his staff surgeon back to health. Amy applied to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment at the age of 36. She had to meet a variety of requirements; engage in work in a hospital in England, gain certificates in first aid, obtain a reference and attend an interview with a matron. By September 1915, as a result of the Battle of Loos, Amy found herself in France.

In a letter dated 30th September 1915, Amy writes “I am absolutely happy & love being in the wards, the orderlies do all the heavy work, & the whole morning I’m helping Sister with dressings. You see the wounds are bad, & they take two to do them always & that’s my job.” [1] Aunt Ann inducted Amy into nursing life, and as a matron, may have provided Amy with a few additional perks: access to transport and the use of the matron’s hut, for example.

In some of her letters, Amy talks of the injuries she came across: “How I wish they would hurry up with helmets, our head cases are too terrible, & we had an amputation in yesterday, such a boy.” At the outbreak of war in 1914, troops were not offered helmets. Instead, they went into battle with cloth or leather hats which offered no protection from modern weaponry. The French Army were the first to introduce steel helmets as a result of huge numbers of head wounds. The Brodie helmet, designed by John L. Brodie in 1915 was eventually introduced as part of the British uniform, which reduced casualties. It was not until the summer 1916 that the British steel helmet could be issued to all. The East Surrey’s received theirs in Easter 1916: “Everyone has a steel helmet now, and I suppose you’ll be pleased to hear I always wear on in the village”, wrote Billie to his family.

Billie Nevill

Billie Nevill, Image Courtesy of the Twickenham Museum

Later in the war, Amy was stationed at the hospital in Abbeville, in the area of the Somme, and then went on to work at a convalescent home for officers in Dieppe. In late 1917 Amy found herself in Genoa at the No. 11 General Hospital where she remained until 1919.

The story of Billie and the Nevill family will be further explored in blog posts on Village Stories throughout 2016. A dance theatre event commemorating the Battle of the Somme is planned to take place at Richmond Riverside on 1st July 2016. The Twickenham Museum will commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on Saturday 2nd July 2016 in an exhibition 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:


[1] Billie, The Nevill Letters, Ruth Elwin Harris 1991 p. 84

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