One of the most famous incidents of the Battle of the Somme, indeed of the Great War itself, took place here in these fields at the southern end of the British-held sector of the Somme exactly one hundred years ago today, early on the morning of 1st July 1916.
The 18th (Eastern) Division began taking over this sector from the French in late August 1915, the 30th Division doing likewise beyond the trees to the right of these first two photographs, with the French-held sector now beginning to their immediate right (in the far distance).
It was here that Captain Wilfred Percy ‘Billie’ Nevill (below, lighting a ‘gasper’), in an effort to encourage his men, provided two footballs for them to kick across No Man’s Land as they attacked the German defences in front of the village of Montauban. We are standing on the approximate position of the British front line looking north east towards the village (on the horizon); the German front line, Breslau Trench, crossed the field only a short distance ahead of us at this point, not far beyond the two trees, as you can see on the trench map you will encounter shortly.
There’s an article I put together a few years back now on the Exploring Surrey’s Past website that delves into the myth about the ‘football charge’ that began to grow almost as soon as the action had taken place. Click here if you fancy taking a look.
This part of the line had seen, as in many other places, extensive underground warfare, and a number of mines were exploded in this corner of this very field, slight indentations still being visible all these years later.
These photographs are all taken from roughly the position of the British front line where you can see the number 8 near the centre bottom of this wonderful trench map. The mine craters I just mentioned are marked, pretty much crossing the whole of No Man’s Land, itself not much more than 120 yards across at this point, and it was German machine guns firing in an easterly direction from these craters that caused many of the East Surrey casualties that morning. On 1st July 1916 the 7th Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) held the line directly opposite the craters, with the 7th Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) on their right, and the 8th East Surreys holding the section (marked as a pink line on the map) immediately to the right of the Queen’s.
Looking east towards the 8th East Surreys’ section of the line (beyond the dip) and the trees of the Talus Boise, the boundary between 18th and 30th Divisions. The trench map shows how the British front line looped round the northern part of this small line of trees, just to the right of where the East Surreys held the line.
View from the pile of tyres visible in the previous photo, looking almost due south towards the British rear area. Note the traces of support trenches visible in the ploughed field in the distance.
And from the same place, looking along the old British front line, north west towards the road (just beyond the coach); another glance at the trench map shows that one of the main German support trenches, Breslau Support, followed the line of the road north east towards Montauban.
Billie Nevill, along with many of his officer colleagues, would not survive the first day of the battle, but, unlike the failures north of the Albert-Bapaume road, here to the south, many of the first day objectives, including the capture of Montauban itself, were successfully achieved*. The 8th East Surreys’ war diary records that by soon after midday they had advanced as far as the road to the west of Montauban, and that not much more than an hour later the village was in British hands.
*The role of the 30th Division in the liberation of Montauban will be the subject of the next post.
Being with the Friends of the Surrey Infantry Museum on this particular trip, you’ll understand why this section of the line was on our agenda,…
…and why our next stop was just down the road at Carnoy Military Cemetery, where Billie Nevill is buried.
The British took over some seventeen miles of the Somme front from the French in the summer of 1915, the first burials at Carnoy Military Cemetery being made in August that year.
Stone of Remembrance.
By the time the cemetery was closed in March 1917, more than 850 British burials had been made here.
Of these only thirty are unidentified, perhaps explained by the fact that once Montauban had been captured, and the battlefield was no longer in line of sight of the Germans, early battlefield clearance, German artillery notwithstanding, proved somewhat easier than in many places.
Ractliffe? I don’t think so. I think you’ll find that Ratcliffe is correct. Which rather makes me wonder whether Sapper William Ratcliffe has ever had any visitors. He has now.
You can find the cemetery plan here, courtesy of our friends at the CWGC.
At the western end of the cemetery…
…a row of special memorial headstones along the boundary wall remember eighteen men who are ‘known’ or ‘believed’ to be buried among the unidentified burials in the cemetery.
In the row in front, the graves of two men executed for desertion. Private Ernest Walter Harris, known as Jack, had already deserted twice from the Lancashire Fusiliers and was under a suspended sentence of death when he decided that the best course of action was to desert for a third time. It wasn’t. Driver Robert Murray, Royal Field Artillery, failed to return from leave and was later discovered living in the south of France with a prostitute who, following an argument, shopped him to the local police. He was subsequently arrested, his fate sealed when he was turned over to the British.
Both men were executed on 3rd February 1917.
But the main reason we were here, of course,…
…was to lay a wreath at Billie Nevill’s grave (above, alongside other East Surrey casualties of 1st July).
And so we did. Note that Billie’s headstone is inscribed with the East Yorkshire Regiment, whom he had originally joined before transferring to the East Surreys. It’s a shame, really, as he only ever saw action with the Surreys.
Time, I think, to introduce some of the other players in this tragic act, and, thanks to Billie’s illicit camera, and the permission of the Surrey History Centre to publish some of these photos for the first time anywhere, I can. The two headstones above (see also three photos back) are each inscribed with two names, all officer colleagues of Billie’s who were killed alongside him that morning.
Lieutenant Robert Ely Soames, Billie’s company second-in-command.
He lies here in a grave with Lieutenant George Henry Stuart Musgrove.
Next to Soames and Musgrove, two more of Billie’s fellow officers, Captains Flatau and Pearce, also lie together in a single grave.
Captain Theodore Alfonso Flatau (misspelled by Billie) pictured, you will note, in a house. Flatau was actually born in New South Wales in Australia, emigrating to Britain, along with his two sisters, in the early years of the 20th Century.
Captain Charles Stanley Pearce, on the left in this shot, alongside the Battalion Medical Officer, Captain ‘Gimmie’ Gimson, R.A.M.C., one of the few survivors of the attack, and one of three 8th East Surrey recipients of the D.S.O. following the capture of Montauban that day.
Other Surrey officers who lost their lives on 1st July.
As we depart the cemetery, I’ll leave you with some more pictures from Billie’s photograph album:
Billie flanked by Second Lieutenant Claude Wilson Janion (left) and Lieutenant Bryan Dolphin Paull. Janion, the first East Surrey to reach the German trenches, was the only unwounded officer in Billie’s Company at the end of the day. Reputed to have personally killed fifteen Germans, he was awarded the D.S.O. for his exploits. Paull, only nineteen and soon to be promoted to Captain, would also survive the attack that killed most of his friends, only to die three months later as the battle dragged on into the autumn.
Billie demonstrates the difficulties, or possibly the approved technique, of digging in a gas mask,…
…and my personal favourite photograph from the album; if you know your Bairnsfather, then you’ll understand the joke.
Group photo, Billie second from right. In one of those strange twists of fate, who else but the 18th Division would be responsible for the recapture of Montauban on 26th August 1918 following the German victories earlier that year. Sadly few, if any, of the smiling faces above would have been there to see it.
1st July 1916, when nearly 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives and tens of thousands of others became casualties, is now a hundred years ago, but we must never, ever, forget the sacrifice of young men like these throughout that long, dreadful, war. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”