Billie’s Ball 1916
Diameter 21 cm
Weight 410 g
It was apparently Capitan ‘Billie’ Nevill’s idea. A ruse to divert his men from brooding over the task ahead – the capture of Montauban Ridge. For eight, ear-splitting, earth-shaking days, the Allied artillery had been pounding the enemy positions.
But now it was time. Nevill produced four footballs, daubing two with a message: ‘The Great European Cup-Tie Final, East Surreys v. Bavarians. Kick off at zero. No referee’.
The first platoon to score a goal in the enemy trenches, promised Nevill, would earn a reward.
At 7,27 the next morning, B Company climbed over the top into No Man’s Land, Nevill and his second in command, Lt. RE Soames, at the fore, bayonets fixed, footballs at their feet.
In an instant the German machine guns tore through the East Surrey’s ranks. But still, somehow, the balls were dribbled towards the distant trenches until the ridge was taken. Two of the balls were later found, close to the wire. As was Capitan Nevill, short through the head.
The Battle of the Somme was barely hours old, and yet already this the bloodiest day ever in the History of the British Army. Some 57,000 were wounded, 19,000 lay dead. By mid November, casualties on both sides had exceeded 1,1 milion.
Such slaughter defies comprehension. Yet this humble ball, returned to Blighty, invites us to try.