The Norfolk soldier who lined up for the Somme’s ‘football charge’
09:37 17 May 2014
Amid the slaughter of the Battle of the Somme, it was an episode which stands out for its poignancy.
As the men of the East Surrey Regiment share a laugh and a joke while huddled in their own trenches, the order for attack is given.
Four footballs are launched out into no man’s land and the soldiers head out after them - and into a hail of German bullets - as they attempt to kick the balls as they advance towards the opposing lines.
The so-called “football charge” is one of the battle’s most renowned incidents, but now a Norfolk historian has pieced together how a local man played a role in the attack.
Steve Smith, who is writing a book to mark the centenary of the First World War, has researched the career of Charlie Wells, who was born in 1888 and enlisted in Norwich when the conflict broke out. He served with the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment and was quickly promoted from corporal to company sergeant major.
He arrived in France on July 27 1915 and his company spent around a year positioned around Fricourt and Matmetz on the Somme as part of the 18th (Eastern) Division, serving in the same brigade as the 8/Norfolks.
They were largely kept out of the major action until the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a massive offensive planned by the British.
The football charge was the brainchild of his comrade, Captain Wilfred Nevill - known as Billie - who was worried about how his untried soldiers would react in the maelstrom of the attack.
Mr Smith, from Worstead, said: “Although the men had been over there a year, they had not seen any major action until that day. You read about those actions and when you’re over there [visiting the battlefield site] it becomes quite an emotional thing.”
The ‘football charge’
The first day of the Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.
By the end of July 1 1916, almost 20,000 British troops were dead of dying, with almost 40,000 more wounded.
The assault had been an attempt by the Allies to break the deadlock of trench warfare. It ground on for another four and a half months, until the offensive was halted.
By then, more than one million men had been killed or wounded. The issue of how successful the campaign was is still keenly debated by historians.
The East Surrey Regiment’s “Football Charge” is one of the most renowned events of the battle’s first day.
One of the balls was inscribed “The Great European Cup, The Final, East Surreys v Bavarians, Kick Off at Zero”.
Sergeant George Henry Stacey later wrote: “Exactly at 7.30am off went the whistle and over went four footballs.
“We went after them... but owing to the mine craters on our left flank, some of which the Germans had established themselves in, practically all the boys in the line were wiped out as their machine guns were cracking away for all they were worth and helped to thin the ranks in a matter of a few minutes.”
The Surreys, who were in the first wave of the attack, reached their objective.
He said the charge had been a reflection of “the spirit of the time”.
“It’s done in this jokey way,” he added. “But the seriousness was the impact - all those men went in one fell swoop.”
At zero hour, the men went over the top, with Wells and Nevill reaching the German wire. But enfilade fire from the left and staunch defence by the enemy in a place called the Warren held them up.
Nevill was killed at the German wire as he rallied his men and Wells died at his side.
Follow up waves including the 8/Norfolks were able to capture the German trenches and Montauban, a major obective, fell that day.
Wells has no known grave and is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. Cpt Nevill lies in Carnoy Military Cemetery. A plumber before the war, Wells had married an Elsie Todd, just a year before the war’s outbreak.
Mr Smith is also keen to research local companies that can trace their lineage back to the First World War.
If you can help Mr Smith, email email@example.com or call 07903 859507.
Do you have a First World War story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org