Picture Postcards from the Great War
1914-1918

The story behind a Great War postcard  - Tony Allen

(10) Footballs in no-mans-land

Another enduring legend to come out of the Great War was as bizarre as it was brave. The incident happened in the course of a battle at Contalmaison, near Amiens, and was recorded on a card, which although not strictly a picture postcard, does appear in dealers stocks from time into time and as such is shown here. On 1st July 1916, as British troops clambered out of their trenches on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, some were kicking footballs ahead of them towards the German lines, followed by massed ranks of men of the 8th Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment.

 

Captain Wilfred Nevill had given a football to each of his platoon commandeers and ordered them to boot it towards the German lines so that "proper formation and distance was not lost."  Nevill "urged the men to keep kicking the ball forward over a mile and a quarter of ground, which they had to cover in order to reach the German trenches." Nevill led by example and kicked before him a football on which he had written The Great European Cup Final – East Surreys v The Bavarians.

Presented free with the children’s comic The Rover, the card was from a series titled ‘BATTLES FOR THE FLAG.’ Although the illustration on the card is in colour, it was originally "after a black and white drawing by R. Caton Woodville from The illustrated London News." There is a brief description on the back of the card about the incident.

Within ten minutes of ‘kick-off’, German machine guns mowed down nearly 450 men from the battalion – including Nevill. However many others survived, and "still the footballs were booted onwards until the Surreys reached the German trenches." After bombs and bayonets had done their work and the Germans cleared out of the trenches, "the surreys looked for their footballs" and recovered two and later sent them to the Regimental Depot at Kingston-upon-Thames.

 

In 1998, Dominique Zanardi found an old leather football on a rubbish tip near the village of Coin. It was an area where in 1916, British troops were billeted just behind the front line. Zanardi found the battered old ball among a pile of WW1 British Army  equipment. Apparently, an old man had died in the village and after clearing out his house his grandchildren had thrown the army hoard onto the village dump.  Many years earlier the old man, - then just a boy - had been searching the former battlefield for souvenirs and had found one of Captain Nevill's footballs.
One of the footballs kicked into no-man's-land on 1st July 1916.



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