The Norfolk soldier who lined up for the Somme’s ‘football charge’

B Company of the 8th East Surreys. Charlie Wells is stood middle row 4th from the right and Billie N

B Company of the 8th East Surreys. Charlie Wells is stood middle row 4th from the right and Billie Nevill is sat centrally. - Credit: Archant

Amid the slaughter of the Battle of the Somme, it was an episode which stands out for its poignancy.

Trench map of the Battle of the Somme, where the 8/East Surreys were put in the front-line north of

Trench map of the Battle of the Somme, where the 8/East Surreys were put in the front-line north of Carnoy facing the German line at Breslau and Valley Trench. - Credit: Archant

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.

The view from where the 8/Norfolks went over the top and is looking towards the 8/East Surreys posit

The view from where the 8/Norfolks went over the top and is looking towards the 8/East Surreys position. They were situated in the field in the distance and to the left of the tree line. - Credit: Archant

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.


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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.

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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.'

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 stevesmith1944@hotmail.com or call 07903 859507.

Do you have a First World War story? Email kim.briscoe@archant.co.uk

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