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, a couple of years later, we found ourselves back there once more; the following three photos were taken on this second visit, but frankly, apart from nicer weather, there’s nothing new to show you).
And so we head was just down the road to 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 (you will find his name on the Dumfries War Memorial). 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 shaving (above) and looking delighted at the prospect of a haircut (below)!
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.”
What brilliant photos. Well done.
Most kind Stan. Glad you enjoyed the post.
You gotta love the captions on those pictures…
“Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
Thanks for the story!
For you, Mrs. B, anything!
Rest in peace, you heroes who stepped into eternity a century ago this very day.
‘NO REFEREE’ 🙁
Indeed! Glad you checked out the other article Steven.
Hello and thank you for the information.
Captain Janion founded a school in South Africa called Pridwin Preparatory School for boys. He did this in 1923. We have 450 boys in the school and it is a reputable institution in Johannesburg for educating young boys.
We would love to get some more photos and history about our founder and perhaps you could lead us to some.
Chairman of the Pridwin Board
Hello Paul. I’m glad you found this post of interest. My suggestion would be to email the Surrey History Centre in Woking: email@example.com. They hold the archives for the East Surrey Regiment, including Billie Nevill’s photograph album, and there may well be letters and documents that refer to Captain Janion as well. They have a research service for those who cannot visit, for which they will charge you, but not a huge amount, and can give you a list of what they hold. You could then get copies of documents or photographs that interest you digitally photographed or scanned, again at reasonable cost, which could then be emailed to you. That’d be my advice. I should know. I work there.
I looked to see whether you have visited Carnoy cemetery, and you have; it is one I hope to visit later this year. A great uncle, Major Rainsford Balcombe-Brown MC, 56Sqn RAF, lies there. He was shot down in May 1918 over German lines while on a mission, and buried by the Germans, in a local churchyard initially. Post war, his resting place – which must have been well recorded, because the church and grounds were pretty much obliterated – was located and he was re-interred at Carnoy by the EWGC, part of the grave consolidation process no doubt. According to the CWGC website he is the only aviator there. Sadly and most unfortunately, family folklore always had it that he had no known grave, although in fact that was only true for a few years, so it would appear that he has never had any visitors. I intend to put that right later this year, all going well. Good to see your photos of Carnoy, thankyou.
Hello John. Thank you very much for your comment. Most interesting and of course a shame that the family at the time never knew he had a proper burial (I notice that the latest he could have been buried here was 1924, but it is interesting that there is no exhumation form for him). I wonder why they were never informed. I have heard of Major Balcombe-Brown MC; a New Zealander, I believe? As I am returning to Montauban in May, I may be revisiting Carnoy Military Cemetery again – I shall have to make sure I don’t pay my respects at the Major’s grave (a most odd thing to type) – don’t want to steal your thunder!
Glad you found this post, and glad you enjoyed it.
Thanks for your reply. Major Balcombe-Brown was the highest ranking NZ flyer to perish in WW1, being the commanding officer of 56 Sqn (so technically he shouldn’t have even been on a mission!). He has a personal inscription on his gravestone “Dominus Illuminatio Mea”, Psalm 27, and the Oxford Uni (where he was attending when he enlisted) motto, which translates as ‘The Lord is My Light’. Now each letter cost 3 1/2 p and had to be paid for. A handwritten note on the headstone inscriptions form shows that his mother (my great-grand-mother) provided the wording. So his resting place was indeed known from 1924-on. So quite why the family verbal history that ‘he has no known grave’ persisted down through the following two generations – and what my mother told me – is a mystery, but then it’s not the only family misconception on military service matters I’ve discovered. It goes to show that verbal history is to be taken with a grain of salt.
Should you visit Carnoy again and happen to pass by grave G50 my family would only be too honoured for you to acknowledge him, in no way would you be stealing anyone’s thunder! I hope to get there later in the year myself, very probably the first descendant to do so.
On another tack, I’m interested to see that on the Carnoy inscriptions form it’s noted (and I quote) CARNOY M. C. “B” To be stencilled on foot of headstones below ground level abbreviated thus :- CARN. M.C. Why there and not on the back perhaps in full view? Have you come across that before?
I visited the Carnoy cemetery in 2020 and found it interesting to see the grave of a R.A.F. officer: Major R. Balcombe-Brown MC. I made a picture and paid my respect to the poor man. I took my wife and parents in law to see his grave too. He did get visitors.
I’m afraid verbal history is like that. I recently published a post on Artillery Wood Cemetery, on the way to Passchendaele; there are two famous Great War poets buried there, and the more I looked into it, the more I discovered that the accepted date of death of one is primarily based on a single eye-witness report, and that none of the facts back it up! Normally when I travel to Flanders or France I go on my own and stay with friends so I can go anywhere I like, but my Somme trip in May is an organised trip so I shall have to wait and see whether we are returning to Carnoy, but we are certainly going to Montauban, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we return to Carnoy.
With regard to the stencils you mention, every single headstone in every CWGC cemetery, in theory, probably in practice, had the cemetery name (Carnoy M.C. – Carnoy Military Cemetery) stencilled on the back on what would be beneath ground level when the headstone was erected. This was to prevent mistakes as much as anything, because the headstones were being mass-produced in vast quantities at the time, for obvious reasons.
Great to read your stories and those of others. My Great Uncle, Pte Henry Gray, is in the same row as Capt Nevill. Had the honour to walk the Somme for 7 days in 2017 after discovering he was there, visited Carnoy on 28 June on the anniversary of his death on Y1 day. Frustratingly no war diary entries on that day (or for the next few days – I’m guessing they were far too busy moving up to the start lines for the first day) for the 8th, but the flanking units record shelling in the area of Carnoy and trench raids by the 8th in the preceding days before the battle (if memory serves) so I’m assuming he was either victim of shelling (likely) or a raid (not so likely). Either way the nearest aid post seems to be the Minden Post and he ended up in Carnoy, 2 graves to the right of Capt Nevill next to LCpl Lynn of the 8th, KIA on the same day, perhaps together. He is commemorated in the church in Kingston upon Thames with the location of Albert, which is miles from Carnoy! As a side note, my other Great Uncle, LCpl Charles Betts is interred in Eataples, volunteered in 1914 with the Bedfordshires and survived some of the worst battles of the war, only to succumb, like many others, to the flu and died 2nd December 1918.
Hello James. Thanks for commenting and adding some more to the story of Carnoy. If you’ve never been there, and even if you have, put Etaples in the Search Box and see what comes up.
Have come late to this post (no idea how I managed to miss it before) after Nick’s message on the daily Postcard No 48 post about one of the cards being Carnoy cemetery and following your link MF.
Was aware of the story about the footballs but seeing photographs of some of the men involved themselves adds a whole new dimension to the tale. Sends shivers down the spine ! Very moving.
Reminds of an excellent book I have about the war poet Noel Hodgson and other men of the 9th Devons who attacked that very same day not so far away at Mametz and suffered huge casualties too of course. To read their stories and see photographs of them inevitably adds a whole new dimension to things especially as so many of them lay at rest just a few yards from where they fell, Hodgson included.
The bravery and sense of duty all these men and countless others displayed throughout the war is both almost incomprehensible but immensely humbling too.
Well said Jon. You can imagine what a privilege it was to be the one to digitise the complete photo album for the very first time. I must read Hodgson’s book at some point.
It’s a very good book which certainly evokes the world before the war as much as the war itself.
Is also interesting as it partially refutes at least the “machine gun at the shrine” story as the cause of so many of the terrible casualties the 9th Devons suffered that day.
“Before Action – William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons” by Charlotte Zeepvat.
Always up for a good recommendation. Cheers Jon. Am currently reading a tome about journalists and war correspondents during the Boer War. Most enlightening.