Company Sergeant Major Charley Wells
8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment
1st July 1916
At ‘Zero Hour’ the 8/East Surreys listed that they were positioned with the 7/Queens on the their left and the order then followed with the 7/Buffs, the 8/Norfolks the 6/R. Berks and the 7/Beds These battalions faced the German line opposite trenches known as Breslau and Mine.
The 8/East Surreys were positioned to the right of the Carnoy/Montauban Road situated to the north west of Carnoy. To their right this area, which can still be seen today, can be made out by using a tree line, which is now recorded as ‘La Longue Haie’ (The Long Hedge) on a modern day French IGN map. On a trench map from 1916 this is registered as ‘Talus Boise’ (Timber Slope).
The first thing that happened in this area was that, at 07:28hrs, a mine was fired under a German position known as Casino Point and 2 smaller explosive charges, known as ‘Russian Saps’ also at the western end of the 18th Division’s area where it was known there were machine guns sited to fire on the flanks of the advancing troops.
A flame projector was also fired on the German lines. This projector had been built and sited underground. Only the nozzle was out above ground and this pointed towards the enemy. Both the mines and the flame projector assisted the advancing troops, but the mines had not killed the Germans in the garrison and this held up the advance of the 7/Buffs, 7/Queens and 7/Royal West Kents who lost many men as the Germans were able to pour fire into them. The Germans were also able to man their first support trench, which became their front-line and ensured that the trenches to the rear of this position were also manned. This meant that as the British barrage lifted there were around 300 Germans who were able to defend the area, but fortunately the German’s artillery did not poured heavy fire onto the area. It was at this time that probably one of the most famous incidents of the first day occurred and it involved the 8/East Surreys.
An officer in the regiment was so worried about how his untried and untested troops would act in the heat of battle that he came up with an idea. Captain Wilfred Percy Nevill, known as Billie, decided to buy four footballs, one for each of his platoons and a prize was put up for the first platoon to get a ball into the German lines. At zero hour they did just that. The spectacle was witnessed by many people and would become immortalised afterwards,
Captain Alfred Irwin of the 8th East Surrey Regiment witnessed what happened from the British lines.
‘They went forward shouting with such energy, kicking the football ahead of them.’
From the war diary:
‘At 7.27 a.m. ‘B Company started to move out to their wire. Captain Neville strolling quietly ahead of them, giving an occasional order to keep the dressing square on to the line of advance. This Company took four footballs out with them which they were seen to dribble forward into the smoke of our intense bombardment on the Hun front line. The first part of “B” Company’s advance was made with very few casualties, but when the barrage lifted to the second Hun trench, a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire started from our front and left, the latter coming apparently from the craters and the high ground immediately behind them.’
Alongside Nevill would be Company Sergeant Major 4797 Charlie Wells. Charlie came from Norfolk having been born and raised in Coltishall village. They managed to get to the German wire, but enfilade fire from the left and staunch defence by the enemy in a place called the Warren held them up. They also had problems with the fact the battalion on their left was checked by staunch German defence.
From the Official History of the war:
‘The check to the 7/Queen’s delayed the advance of the 8/East Surrey on the right, and at 8.37 A.M., although this battalion had crossed the enemy front line, it had been unable to get beyond the support line, being held in front by the enemy in the Warren, and enfiladed from the left. It was not until half an hour later, when the establishment of the 30th Division in Glatz Redoubt and Train Alley, together with the advance of the 90th Brigade, threatened the line of retreat of these Germans, that the defence began to weaken, a number of men retiring by the communications trenches to and through Montauban. The 8/East Surrey, supported by two companies of the 7/Buffs, which was then able to get bombing parties forward into the enemy trench just short of its objective, Train alley; but by this time its three leading companies had lost all their officers but one, and it was difficult to organize a further advance.’
From the war diary:
‘The Adjutant reported that the Battalion was in the German trenches. Hand to hand fighting went on for a long time in the German trenches and news received that both Captain Flatau and Pearce had been killed and later it was known that Captain Neville Lieuts, Soames, Musgrove, and 2/Lieuts Kelly and Evans had also been killed. At 6.05 a.m. the Battalion Bombing Section was sent forward and at 8.07 a.m. 2/Lieut P.G. Heath i/c two Stokes Guns was sent out with orders to proceed as far as he could with reasonable safety, and report to the nearest East Surrey Officer and find out how best his Guns could be used. At 8.10 am, and again at 8.25 am. The Adjutant returning from our front line trenches reported heavy machine gun and rifle fire from the left and that apparently the craters and the high ground immediately behind them had not been successfully dealt with by the Battalions on the left.’
Nevill was shot in the head as he rallied his men at the wire and CSM Wells died at his side, Major Irwin, Nevill’s C.O., recounted after the war.
‘But so quickly Nevill and his second in command were both killed, plus his company sergeant major (Wells). I picked up all the chaps I could find and went over the parapet myself.’
The 8/East Surreys along with 2 companies from the 7/Buffs managed to get their men into the enemy trenches, but could not advance any further and had to be assisted by the 8/Norfolks. Their first and second objectives were Pommiers trench, Montauban Alley in that order. C and D companies from the Norfolks had lain out in front of the bombardment and their war diary actually quotes a distance of 30 yards from the German line!
The flame projector and the explosion of the Casino Point mine had helped their advance they, along with the 6/Royal Berkshires they had been able to advance and capture many German prisoners who had come out into no-man’s land. The war diary for the 8/Norfolks mentions that all resistance was,
‘…cowed and at once surrendered. C Company on our right took around 30 prisoners from the west edge of the Mine craters.’
By 07:40hrs Mine Support had fallen and the 8/Norfolks had been lucky in that they had suffered no casualties at this point. Bund support fell at 08:00hrs and the only resistance met by the 8/Norfolks was at a place called ‘The Castle’ and Breslau Support Trench, which held the advancing Norfolks to their right.
However the lead troops made good progress and found the wire cut and THE CASTLE soon surrendered leaving Breslau Support and Back trench to resist. But the 8/Norfolks continued onwards making for their next objective, which was called Pommiers Redoubt. Although they were checked by three German machine guns these were soon silenced or seen to retreat when a bombing party managed to surprise and rush one of the crews. By 07:50hrs the 8/Norfolks had captured part of Pommiers Trench. However it was here that they could advance no further due to enemy fire from Breslau Support. But this allowed the East Surreys to advance.
‘An intercepted message on the telephone told us that the Queens were held up in BACK TRENCH, and at the same time. Private_BILLSOM one of the Battalion Orderlies, who had been sent forward to remind Companies to wave their Artillery flags returned with the report that our men were now in the POMMIERES LINE, and a few minutes afterwards information was received from the F.O.O. that the Surreys were in TRAIN ALLEY. At the same time an Orderly from 2/Lieut Wightman brought in a report that the Brigade on the right were getting up reinforcements splendidly, and going ahead well A few minutes earlier 2 Huns ran into the Trench near our Battalion Headquarters crying for mercy. At 9.44 a.m. Major Irwin handed over command at Report- Centre to the Adjutant, and went forward to ascertain and if possible to bring back, news as to the actual position. At 9.49 am. a message was intercepted from the craters that the enemy was still holding out in the craters and the high ground. Strong point at the end of Craters. At 9.55 a.m. the Commanding Officer and Adjutant 7th Royal West Kent’s and numerous staff reported at Battalion Headquarters. The Adjutant sent 2/Lieut Wightman forward with 2 Signallers and a telephone line to proceed to POMMIERE and try to get into touch with Major Irwin. At 10.10 a.m. Lieut, Thorley reported that the Brigade on the right were advancing well, but that nothing could be seen on our front. The Adjutant reported the position to the Brigade which was that we had taken POMMIERS, but had suffered extremely heavy casualties in doing so and that the line was too weak to advance without reserves being put in. Thereupon at 10.23 am. A message from the Brigadier ordered 3 Companies 7th W, Kent’s to advance and pus the line forward. Their position in A. I. Sub sector would be taken by the Suffolk’s. The 7th W. Kent’s to detail 1 Company to consolidate the POMMIER LINE.’
By now the other brigades in the 18th Division had either captured, or were close to capturing all their first objectives and the battalion then consolidated their position. They could not assist the 6/Berkshires in the capture of a position called THE LOOP and it was only until supporting elements of the 18th Division and the advance in Montauban by the 30th Division had cleared most of the German resistance that the 8/Norfolks could assist in the capture of THE LOOP which happened at 15:00hrs when the division managed to advance to MONTAUBAN ALLEY which was captured and the 8/East Surreys managed to make contact with the 7/Buffs, the 7/Queens and the 6/R. Berks .
‘Major Irwin arrived with Headquarters and took command of all troops of the 55th Brigade West of MONTAUBAN. A number of Buffs and West Kent’s had arrived by this time and were ordered to hold on in MONTAUBAN ALLEY with the E, Surreys In close support. When Lieut HEATON, 7th Queens arrived he was ordered to extend the line to the left so that the whole Brigade objective was reached by 1.30 p.m. Captain Gimson had arrived close behind Major Irwin, and later L/C. Brame turned up with a bottle of champagne to be drunk: In MONTAUBAN “ON DER TAG” This bottle was sent round from officer to Officer, those who shared In it being Major Irwin, Captain Gimson, Captain Bowen, 2/Lieut Derrick, 2/Lieut Janion, Lieut Thorley 2/ Lieut Wightman, 2/Lieut Alcock, and Captain Clare, In fact all the East Surrey Officers engaged in the attack who had not been killed or wounded.
Our Officer casualties during the attack were Captains, Flatau, Pearce, Nevill, Lts. Soames,
Musgrove, 2/Lieuts Evans, Kelly, killed. Lieut. Ackerley, 2/Lts. Morse Hetherington and Pegg wounded. 2/Lieut. Pegg subsequently died of his wounds.
Casualties among other ranks were 140 killed, 272 wounded 20 missing.’
On 2nd July 1916 the battalion was relieved and moved back to Carnoy Valley.
I hold a copy of the letter, which I believe has never been published before that details what happened in this sector on 1st July 1916. This was written by G/5530 Sergeant George Henry Stacey of the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment and was written to his father after the battle. It is very much a soldier’s letter detailing what he saw of the footballs being kicked across the front and what happened to the East Surreys. Some of it is garbled and not very legible but I have managed to edit a transcript of what was written.
25th July 1916
We are back a little way behind the lines from the rest now but do not expect to be back long as this is required now although we have been made up to strength by men which are not half trained and the big majority are half hearted some of them have only carried a pack previously to coming here.
Well Dad you asked for a descriptive letter so I will endeavour to give you a short one.
Firstly we led the line in the bombardment which lasted 7 days and nights and of course does not mean that previously to that it increased in intensity as it went on. Of course during that time Fritz retaliated inflicting casualties on us and in some parts leaving our trenches to the ground but at no time during the bombardment were all our guns firing with the exception of 10 minutes before the advance when everything————————————-gun trench——mortars grenades bombs operated rapid firing and just before we went over the top their surface mines were first up which made communicating trenches between ours and Fritz.
Exactly at 7.30 a.m. off went the whistle and over went four footballs we after them the first line shortly followed second but owing to the mines 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.
To clean the front line the majority of which were in a heap of dirt owing to the excellent work of the artillery where the parts of the line the enemy was unable to man — he had fitted it with barbed wire and “ spikes “ and wooden stakes sharpened to a point so you can imagine what they were prepared for.
Before the 3rd and 4th lines had gone over the craters had been cleared. The first waves of reinforcements — and over they went for the support the link here the trenches were strongly held by bombers and machine guns and shrapnel was flying in all directions but of course that did not stop the boys advancing and with heart yelled the rush the trenches the Germans that were left alive making a run for it down the many short communications trenches for the third link which was being heavily shelled by us Resting for a few minutes to start coordinating for the next wave to come up the boys were ready for the third — which our boys strongly held. Immediately our boys left the trenches behind the barrage was lifted to the trenches behind but before the lads reached it several batches of Germans came running to meet them hands up but of course the majority of them fell before reaching our lines as Fritz had tried some of his tricks previously on us so we could not afford to be ——-
In these batches who wanted to give themselves up we found a considerable number of Red Cross but on examination of the bodies after the attack it was found the great majority had various badges sewn on their sleeves under their shirts to which denoted them in various trenches, bombers machine gunners etc
The machine guns that were captured were on bars with a blanket thrown over it so it would pass as a stretcher. With the third link captured with and as was properly demolished the trenches was once consolidated and reinforced we were up before one could say Jack Robinson.
The distance to the west link was just over 800 yards which was on top of a ridge and was therefore of great value to us as that meant that if we took it Fritz would loose all the observation posts he had so once again it was “ Get ready boys “ a shrill blast of the whistle off they went again.
The taking of the ridge was pretty easy as Fritz had to reinforce an important engagement he had few machine guns and soldiers tried to dispatch our advance it was no use as we had our objective which was very soon achieved and we could have gone on still further if we had desired but that was not advisable as there might have been possible of getting off as we were.
Practically the heads of the —- we had attained our objective of an advance of 200 yards in a little over 4-5 hours which was very much sooner than had been anticipated especially as there were three regiments holding Fritz trenches in the sector we took but of course it takes at least four of Fritz men to do what we did. Well we concluded up held the counter attacks and were for many hours following morning which we returned to Fritz—– the ——was heavily shelling to prevent him getting our reinforcements but it made no difference to us. In the early hours of the following morning it had been possible you would have been able to seen yours humbly sitting on the centre of a large—— of —- on the road to —— on Fritz side of the lines dishing up food on sandbags as I had enough bread to feed a battalion but the was only biscuit and bully so you can guess some of the boys enjoyed it especially as it was totally impossible to get rations up and were —- surprised strolling in the trench with it.
Of course I could give you a long discussion of the sights I saw but I leave it to your imagination to do so but of course the sights are gruesome in the extreme. In one of the trenches we took, the machine gunners were chained to their guns also as a further precaution they had barbed wire around them.
The Germans dug outs were far better especially the officers which had fitted up with electrics lights and were also well stocked with drink and eatables ——in fact after we had —– the boys were strolling about with cigars irrespective of the fact that they came out of boxes with the Kaisers photographs on them
Although it was a bit of hard work to imagine that —- as I walked over the battlefield over with the dead and wounded lay together for the handing over of the footballs at —- they are making a lot of fuss of them.
In the second attack my company was reported wiped out it as no communication could be got though owing to the shelling it was worse than anything we had experienced before although we had been in some warm place we are out for a few days before long as every available soldier is required.
Sergeant Stacey was promoted to CSM and was awarded the Military Cross and Mentioned in Dispatches later on in the war and survived.
Charlie Wells has no known grave and is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He was 28 when he died and was the son of Charles and Nellie Wells of Chapel Lane in Coltishall.
Billy Nevill is now laid to rest in Carnoy Military Cemetery close to where they went over the top on 1st July 1916.