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Thursday, 18 October 2012

More Than A Game

 When a young man walked into a shop and purchased four footballs, the shopkeeper may have asked why, and Captain Nevill of the 8th East Surrey’s may have told him, or then again not. It was 1916.

Wilfred Percy Nevill was man of strong opinions. He took war seriously, standing up on the fire-step and shouting insults at the Germans across no man’s land. He did this most evenings.
Captain Nevill also had courage; he knew what made a man tick - a man of 1916. I doubt his example would resonate in Iraq or Afghanistan today, though no doubt it would confuse the enemy.

His problem was simple. His men were to lead the assault near Montauban. They had never led an attack before and he was concerned.

Hence the four footballs.

One for each of his four platoons.

He offered a prize to the first platoon to kick its football across all the way up to the German front line. When the whistle blew, they were ready. One platoon painted the following inscription on its ball:
The Great European Cup
The Final
East Surreys v Bavarians
Kick Off at Zero

Captain Nevill was the first to kick off. One eyewitness recorded:

'As the gun-fire died away I saw an infantryman 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.' (Pte L.S. Price, 8th Royal Sussex) 

They dribbled their four footballs for a mile and a quarter right into the German trenches. As 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.’

After the battle roll calls were held. 700 names were called. Less than a 100 answered – some of them winners of the football competition; they didn’t receive their prize – for Captain Nevill, too, had been killed.

Just before the battle, in one of his last letters to his wife,  (June 28) Captain Nevill wrote:
‘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.’

He never did tell his children but he did become a national hero and the subject of a tub-thumping poem.

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades Fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them
Is but an empty name.
True to the land that bore them-
The SURREYS play the game.

On without check or falter,
They press towards the goal;
Who falls on Freedom's alter,
The Lord shall rest his soul.
But still they charge the living
Into that hell of flame;
Ungrudging in their giving,
Our soldiers play the game.

And now at last is ended
The task so well begun;
Though savagely defended,
The lines of death are won.
In this, their hour of glory,
A deathless place they claim,
In England's splendid story,
The men who played the game.

Post script.
If  I've sound over light-hearted here it’s because otherwise I’d cry. And for those tempted to think that this was a Pythonesque ‘one off,’ an exception, read this and consider. Unlike Captain Nevill, Frank Edwards of the London Irish survived.

 He died in 1964 and may have been aware of the Beatles - or even the Stones.


LD Masterson said...

Wow. That was a fantastic post. Thank you.

Mike Keyton said...

Thanks, Linda. That postscript is true. I could easily cry

Maria Zannini said...

Nevill not only rallied his men but turned them into a single-minded team. His men must've admired and respected Nevill very much to give 110% to the effort.

It's an inspiring story even for today's jaded generation.

Mike Keyton said...

It is inspiring, Maria, but also bitter-sweet sad. Possiby raising more questions than answers, which are the very best topics to think on. Two of the footballs are presently housed in a museum, and one other, I think is in a French cheeshop - though I may have read that wrong/forgotten.