Footballs Used on the Western Front

 The following article is published with the kind permission of the author George Wilson,  Hertfordshire Constabulary Great War Society and Dr. F.R.J. Newman PhD - editor of Trench Foot Notes.


By George Wilson

A number of Great War historians have written about the use of footballs by British personnel during the Great War, in particular a game played during the truce on Christmas Day 1914, between a number of German and British troops. Also well documented is the kicking of footballs across no-mans-land towards the German lines by the 8th (Service) Battalion East Surrey Regiment at the start of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916 organised by Captain Wilfred Percy (Billie) Nevill. A lesser known instance of use of a single football came when the war ended on 11th November 1918 when at precisely 11am, a RAF pilot - Lieutenant Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman, flying over British lines dropped a football amongst waving British soldiers.

Although Nevill’s forenames were Wilfred Percy, he was invariably called ‘Billie’ by his family, friends and army colleagues. The family were quite wealthy, his father before his death in 1903 aged 53, owned a coal mine and was the managing director of Kelly’s Directories.

After preparatory school Nevill attended Dover College, where he excelled at cricket and hockey. In autumn 1913 he was accepted by Cambridge University as an undergraduate to read classics. At the outbreak of war, he was a member of the University Officer Training Corps and applied to join the East Surrey Regiment. Despite being gazetted aged 20, as a 2nd lieutenant on 27th November 1914 in the East Yorkshire Regiment, all his army service was spent with the 8th East Surreys, part of Kitchener’s New Army.

The recruits for the 8th East Surreys came from diverse parts of the country, Welsh miners, Sussex farmers, and 300 Norfolk and Suffolk men. To provide cohesion, the adjutant assigned Londoners to A Company, the Welsh miners to D Company, most Suffolk men to C Coy, whilst B Coy subsumed the remainder. The officers and NCOs also came from various backgrounds - one captain was a London University Professor, whilst the NCOs included a middle aged barrister and a steam crane driver.

Amongst the private soldiers were City clerks, grave diggers and a prison warder – some fellow recruits were keen to avoid him.

The battalion was assigned to 55th Brigade of 18th (Eastern Division); the divisional commander was Major General Ivor Maxse, an excellent trainer, who ensured when the division moved to France between 25th and 27th July 1915, its 13 infantry battalions and supporting arms were one of the better trained formations.

Nevill settled well into army life, after training at the Staff College at Camberley, and at various places with the division before moving to France with the 8th Surreys. After six weeks on the Western Front, he applied for and was granted a commission in the Regular Army. The 8th Surreys including Nevill spent eleven months in and out of the front line in the Picardy area, during this time he was appointed 2IC of C Company, promoted captain effective from 14th April 1916, and shortly afterwards given command of B Company.

His regular letters to his family were invariably cheerful, frequently using the words “ripping” and “topping”, and were very informative about his surroundings and companions. As a strong family orientated individual, he often, albeit flippantly, assured his family he was not in any particular danger.

As the tempo of British preparations for the Somme offensive gathered pace (made more urgent to try and relieve some German pressure on the French Army around Verdun), the officers of the 8th Surreys discussed how they and their men would react in a major battle. Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Irwin, the battalion commander, recalled “A few days before the battle he [Captain Nevill] came to me with a suggestion. He said that as he and his men were equally ignorant of what their conduct would be when they got into action, he thought it might be helpful – as he had 400 yards to go and he knew where it would be covered by machine-gun fire – if he could furnish each platoon with a football and allow them to kick it forward and follow it. I sanctioned the idea on condition that he and his officers really kept command of their units and didn’t allow it to develop into a rush after the ball”

Whilst on leave in England in May 1916, Nevill purchased footballs for his company. There is a dispute how many footballs were used (if one per platoon was issued there should have been four). His family is adamant that three were bought, not four, and only 2 taken by Nevill to France. Before the battle began, on one football was printed the words “THE GREAT EUROPEAN CUP-TIE FINAL. EAST SURREYS v BAVARIANS. KICK OFF AT ZERO”. On the second ball were just two words – “NO REFEREE”.

The task of 18th Division on the first day of the Somme Battle (1st July 1916) was firstly to secure the western end of the fortified village of Montauban Ridge then advance and occupy the high ground south of Caterpillar Wood. The 8th Surrey’s first objective was to seize Breslau Trench; to achieve this B and C Companies would lead the assault, advancing a distance of 400 and 120 yards respectively, before reaching the German positions.

The battalion war diary entry for Saturday 1st July 1916 (dated 6th August) shows at 07.27 hours, B Company left their trenches with Captain Nevill leading the assault. Both B and C Companies were met with a hail of fire, especially from the ubiquitous machine-guns. Some reports say Nevill was killed instantly shortly after the attack began, although the regimental history states he was found dead just outside the German wire, where both footballs were found the following day. The battalion war diary at the National Archives, shows his death was witnessed by 2nd Lieutenant N F Rose of the Machine Gun Corps (55 Company) and 64802 Private Ivey of the 8th East Surreys.

B and C Companies suffered very heavy casualties; by mid-afternoon each was reduced to one officer and about twenty other ranks. All told the battalion’s losses were 8 officers and 140 other ranks killed, 274 wounded and twenty missing. Despite the casualties, great bravery was shown by the battalion on 1st July, which was recognised by the award of 2 DSOs, 2 MCs, 2 DCMs and 9MMs. Captain Nevill, together with other members of the 8th East Surreys killed are buried in the CWGC Cemetery at Carnoy.

The two footballs recovered near to the German trenches were brought back to England, where a special parade was held at Kingston Barracks, and the home of the East Surrey Regimental Museum. One ball was inflated and brought onto the parade ground before the assembled troops. With the passage of time especially during the last three decades, the amalgamations of many infantry regiments, including various Surrey formations occurred, this plus the closure of regimental museums meant that artefacts and archives were moved to different locations or kept in storage. Currently one of the footballs is in the safe keeping of the Queen’s Regimental Museum at Dover Castle; unfortunately the other football was destroyed in a disastrous fire at Clandon Park, near Guilford Surrey.

Clandon Park, an early 18th century mansion set in extensive grounds was gifted to the National Trust in 1956 by the 6th Earl of Onslow. Following the closure of the 8th East Surrey Regimental HQ and Museum at Kingston-upon-Thames, its artefacts were put into storage (including the other WWI football). After strenuous efforts by Colonel J W Sewell, agreement was reached with the National Trust for use of several ground floor rooms in the basement of Clandon Park House. The museum opened in 1981, and following major upgrades, the museum was renamed the Surrey Infantry Museum.

During the late afternoon of 29th April 2015, a major fire occurred at Clandon House, and despite the best efforts of Surrey Fire Brigade and volunteers, the building was severely damaged, resulting in thousands of items belonging to the National Trust and Surrey Infantry Museum destroyed. The museum curator confirmed that the WW1 football was one of the items lost. Six Victoria Crosses were also destroyed, but fortunately they were replicas.

As already indicated, this article does not describe the game of football played on Christmas Day 1914. The second use of a football I describe took place on Armistice Day – 11th November 1918, and involved a single RAF Pilot – Lieutenant Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman.

He was born on 17th January 1899 in British Guiana, where his father was a successful merchant. The family moved to England when he was four years old and he was educated at Cheltenham College. Whilst at school and anxious to serve in HM Forces he volunteered in 1917, becoming a 3rd Class Air Mechanic on his 18th birthday and shortly afterwards an officer cadet.

However his training was severely interrupted when he contracted chicken pox and was also diagnosed as a carrier of cerebro-spinal meningitis, resulting in his admission to Aldershot Isolation Hospital. Following his recovery he underwent pilot training at Thetford and Narborough gaining his ‘Wings’ on 11th January 1918. Following further training at Worthy Down, he was posted to No 10 Squadron RAF on the Western Front where he served until the end of hostilities.

Like the majority of World War One pilots, Ivelaw-Chapman accepted that flying was a dangerous occupation, either through combat, or accidents to their machines. On incident graphically illustrates the ever present danger. By now a Captain, he and his observer Lieutenant Fletcher, flying from their base at Abeele were tasked to carry out a routine artillery observation mission in their Armstrong Whitworth machine. As usual, they were carrying 4 Cooper bombs to drop on a target before using their guns.

Following their two hour flying stint, they were returning to their base having dropped their bombs, when for some reason Ivelaw-Chapman decided to check that the four bombs had fallen clear of the undercarriage. He asked Fletcher to check who a few minutes, later passed him a note saying three bombs had gone, but the fourth was lodged in a V-strut which was now just a dangling undercarriage just below the fuselage.

Their peril was obvious, the bomb was such that when it had fallen off the bomb rack, it activated the detonator and if they attempted to land their aircraft it would explode immediately below both men. Ivelaw-Chapman’s initial thought was to try to drop the whole assembly in the North Sea, but as he passed over Zillebeke Lake, he thought of another plan.

It can be succinctly described: “Then the thought struck me I could get the bomb loose by gravity. So I pulled it up in a normal loop, but instead of completing the loop I hung on my back for quite a long time. … At that time we were both hanging onto our straps as we were in inverted flight. Then I felt the very thing I had been hoping for a dull thud on my backside when the bomb fell off the damaged strut, onto the fuselage just below me and slithered off. I righted the aircraft and looked down. There to my wild delight I found the waters of Zillebeke Lake in a wild eruption and the bomb had found its way home quite peacefully”

Ivelaw-Chapman aware that the Armistice would come into effect at 11am on 11th November, decided to celebrate in a unique manner reminiscent of Captain Wilfred Nevill’s use of footballs on the first day of the Somme Battle. He put himself on the patrol due to take place over the front lines at that time. After confirmation that the Armistice would take place when the allied troops would halt at the positions they had reached, he persuaded some of the RAF mechanics in his flight to give him a football which he took up in the air with him.

In Ivelaw-Chapman’s own words: “At 11 o’clock I swooped down pretty low on our front line troops and they waved at me; thereupon I dropped the football amongst them. It was quite a pleasure to watch them kicking it around having dropped their rifles on the ground”

Unlike Nevill, Ivelaw-Chapman survived the Great War and remained in the RAF until 1957; during his 36 year career, he progressed from Lieutenant to Air Chief Marshal. His distinguished career encompassed numerous assignments including operational flying in India, Iraq and Afghanistan, 5 years as a test pilot, intelligence and leading advanced training for pilots. At the outbreak of World War 2, he was on the directing staff at the RAF College. During the conflict he served at Bomber Command HQ interspaced with periods as OIC at various RAF Bomber Command stations. Having returned to the Air Ministry he was closely involved in the planning and preparation for the invasion of Northern Europe, before returning to operational duties at RAF Elsham Wold.

On the night of 6th/7th May 1944, as an Air Commodore he was granted permission to accompany one of his crews on an operation. The aeroplane was badly damaged by a German night fighter; only Ivelaw-Chapman suffering from a badly damaged shoulder and Sergeant Ford managed to leave the stricken aircraft. He was captured two days after D-Day and spent months in hospital before being taken to a POW camp. On 16th April 1945 he was freed by American forces. Following recuperation in England he was sent to France to assess the feasibility of setting up an RAF Escaping Society to help those in occupied countries who had helped British aircrew to evade capture during the war.

Ivelaw-Chapman continued his career serving in various senior roles at the Imperial War College, the MOD, before being promoted to Air Marshal on secondment to the Indian Air Force as Commander in Chief on 23rd February 1951. Nearing the end of his time in India, be contracted a rare tropical disease requiring his repatriation to Britain and a spell in the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. Initially not expected to recover, he pulled through and until his retirement in 1957, he held several other very senior posts including Vice-Chief of the Air Staff in 1953. He died aged 79 on 28th April 1978.

The military experiences of Wilfred Nevill and Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman could have not been more different, what connected them was the use of footballs on the Western Front. Had Nevill survived, to witness Armistice Day on Monday 11th November 1918, perhaps the comments of Sergeant Major Richard Tobin, Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division, would have resonated by both individuals:
“The Armistice came, the day we dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killing had stopped. We were stunned…I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste and the friends I had lost”