Joseph Neall was born on 16 October 1895, the eldest son of Henry Neall and Emily, formerly Dunderdale, née Fowler. Henry Neall had worked as a railwayman, bricklayer and labourer. Joseph Neall had four half-siblings, three of whom also served in the war, and four younger full siblings. He grew up at 11 Morley’s Yard in Brigg, Lincolnshire. A bright boy, he was awarded a scholarship to Brigg Grammar School in 1908. He was also an able sportsman, playing football for the school. He left in 1913 to become an assistant teacher at the Brigg National School.
In August 1915 John Thomas Dunderdale, Emily Neall’s eldest son, was killed in action while serving with the 6th Lincolnshire Regiment at Gallipoli. He left a widow and four children. John T. Dunderdale enlisted in 1914 and with his unit had been deployed to Gallipoli with the 33rd Brigade of the 11th Northern Division. Two of his brothers were also in military service, and survived the war: Charles Ernest Dunderdale also enlisted into the Lincolnshire Regiment and served with the 8th and 5th Battalions, reaching the rank of Corporal; Albert E. Dunderdale enlisted into the Lincolnshire Regiment but was subsequently transferred to the Royal Defence Corps.
At the outbreak of war, Joseph Neall was working as a student teacher in Brigg National School. In order to qualify as a teacher he entered St Peter's College, Peterborough, but due to the war this college was closed not long after Joseph Neall began his studies there, and the college’s remaining students were transferred to Bede College, another teacher training institution, in Durham.
On 2 December 1915, before his training at Bede College was complete, Neall enlisted at Sheffield into 21st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, and then joined his unit at their training camp at Duncombe Park, near Helmsley. Also in the same cohort were James Proctor (another Peterborough College man), Robert Kellett, and Jacob Crabb, the four Bede men all serving together. The battalion entered France on 6 May 1916.
On 15 September 1916, as part of the 41st Division, Joseph Neall's battalion advanced from Delville Wood in attempt to capture the village of Fler during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (noted for the first use of the tank), which, despite heavy losses, was a qualified success for the allied forces. Neall was one of 128 men in his unit to lose their lives in the day's action. A full detailed description of the attack is given in the battalion’s war diaries (WO 95/2643/4).
In the following weeks James Proctor wrote a piece recalling "My first experience of real fighting" and his thoughts on the loss of his Peterborough and Bede comrades.
After twenty months of continual active service in Belgium and France, I must consider myself very fortunate to be alive to write this account of an experience which, like so many more, I had during my time on foreign soil. All my Bede comrades who were in the same Battalion have been killed so I am alone in being able to give a description of the first time we went over the parapet.
It was a fine September morning, all was calm, and no one would have imagined that there really was a war raging or that a battle was imminent. We were in "no man's land" ready to dash on the Germans as soon as zero hour approached. The sector was just in front of Delville Wood. We could see the pretty villages of Flers and Gueudecourt in the distance. In front of us also were fields of ripening wheat, which were all destroyed on the same day.
At last zero hour approached, the guns "boomed" and the German front line was bombarded. This was a barrage, the first I had seen. We had to wait until the barrage was lifted and the second line was bombarded before making our attack. It was 3.30 a.m. when we received the order to advance. We were having a meal of bread and jam at the time so had very little idea of our real duty. We soon discovered what we had to do, and before long we had taken several hundred prisoners. The tanks were advancing with us, this was the first time they had been used. Continuing our advance we reached Flers. This place was strongly defended with machine-guns. Jack Spraggon and Joe Neall were both killed while helping to capture this village. Before 7 a.m. it was in our hands, but at what price, we had already lost five hundred men. The village which we had seen earlier in the morning was now beyond recognition. As with its capture our final objective was reached, we had to dig a new line of trenches on the further side of Flers. While this was being done our brave Colonel the Earl of Feversham was killed. I was not at all comfortable for I began to wonder when my time was to come. What a relief it was when at 11 p.m. the same day we were relieved by a Yorkshire battalion. Out of 1100 strong only 252 answered the roll. Jake Crabb was one of them but was unfortunately killed a few days later.
I have been in several attacks since that memorable one, but that is one I shall never forget, for I had lost two of my four Bede Comrades. Their resting place is in Flers village.
I shall always cherish the memory of Bede and shall rejoice when the time arrives for it to re-open, for indeed I look forward to spending the few remaining months of my College career there when the war is over.
The Bede magazine, vol. 14, no. 2, April 1918.
Proctor later contributed another fuller account for The Bede magazine in August 1918, "At the capture of Flers", describing the action and this time detailing how Jack Spraggon and Joseph Neall died.
I have very vague recollections of the actual advance at Flers. The task of marching up to the front was very gruelling indeed. We began our march at 5 o'clock in the evening and did not reach the hastily constructed front line until 4 a.m. the following morning. The trench was very narrow owing to insufficient digging, for the completion of the work had been prevented by the heavy shelling of Delville Wood. On our arrival our first thought was of a good meal so we commenced eating our rations. I remember having a loaf of bread and a tin of jam, so I enjoyed a very good meal. Our next task was to fix our telephone which was easily done. One fortunate man was detailed to stay behind and operate the telephone, so he was thought comparatively safe. Before finally leaping the parapet we laid our wire on the ground as near to the German front line as our courage would allow.
The time for leaping the parapet came at last. I was half asleep at the time so that I cannot remember much. I looked to the left of me and to the right. On the left was the New Zealand Division, on the right the Guards' Division. It was one endless line of khaki. The barrage suddenly commenced so we made a dash for the German front line. Prisoners soon streamed in towards our line only after unwillingly leaving their machine guns, which played havoc in our line although fortunately they did not hit me. We soon reeled our wire out and were very quickly in communication with the operator in our front line. Three important messages were sent by me, under the Colonel's instructions, which were not long in being received at Brigade Headquarters. The contents were chiefly relating to our present position and success. Our wire having run out, we had to leave another signaller to operate this second telephone. We had lost heavily owing to machine gun fire, but had advanced a mile and a half, and had captured Flers. This place was practically unrecognisable. All I can remember is the capture of a field battery and the destruction among the German Infantry caused by one of our tanks which helped us considerably in the capture of the village. Our only communication, now at this point, was by runner and aeroplanes. I did not see much air fighting but many machines were brought down. All my attention was devoted to the opposition which we had against us.
After reaching the far side of Flers, our first thought was to erect a means of defence in case of a counter attack. We hastily dug a new line of trenches to defend the village. At first we were not subject to much shelling, but as soon as the enemy discovered our position by observation by aeroplane we were subject to very heavy bombardment. We knew a counter attack was impending for we could see the Germans massing. So we informed our artillery who practically annihilated the opposing force. We had at this time spent eight hours in these trenches. I was very tired indeed and could hardly keep awake. After two more hours we were relieved by a Yorkshire battalion and were not long in leaving.
During all this time I was separated from Spraggon and Neall, who were acting as bombers. My work of signalling caused me to go with the Signal Section. So my knowledge, as to how they met their end, is only gathered from people who were with them. Spraggon was the first to be killed. We were advancing on Flers when a shell burst near him, killing him instantly.
Neall advanced much further than Spraggon. According to accounts received from others, Neall's pouch was hit by a bullet, his bullets exploded and severely wounded his side. He did not die immediately, but only lived a few minutes. I saw Neall in the trench before going over, he was very high-spirited at the time.
Crabb was corporal at this time, he was in charge of a section of bombers. I never saw him once during the attack, but I conversed with him when we finally reached Fricourt. We were both unshaven, unwashed and fearfully dirty. All we could say was 'Give me Bede College again.'
The Bede magazine vol. 14, no. 2, August 1918.
While Proctor notes only 252 answered the roll call at the end of the day, out of 1100 men of the battalion to start the advance that morning, the war diary records more exactly, 4 officers and 54 other ranks killed, 10 officers and 756 other ranks wounded, and 70 other ranks missing. In contrast to Proctor's accounts, the war diary also notes that the battalion "suffered rather heavily through getting too near to our own barrage". R.P. Kellett was killed in March 1917.
Joseph Neall’s obituary in the Lincolnshire Star reads:
We much regret to announce that Rifleman J Neal (sic) of the 21st Batt. Kings Royal Rifle Corps has been killed in action in France, his mother, Mrs. Neal of Morley Yard receiving the official notice yesterday (Friday) afternoon. It will be remembered by his many friends that Rifleman Neal, who was a clever youth, won a scholarship for the Grammar School and at the time of enlisting was at Durham College where he was training for the teaching profession. He was only 21 years of age on October 16th and his mother had had a large decorated cake made, to send to him to celebrate the occasion, which will not, it is to be regretted, ... [be] required. Much sympathy is felt for the mother who has previously lost another son in the Dardanelles, and in addition to that she has another son who was wounded in France, only within a few days of his brother's death, and still another son is serving in Ireland which is, we think, a good record of patriotic service.
Lincolnshire Star, September 1916.
In the same patriotic tone, Brigg Grammar School's magazine included the following poem entitled 'In Memoriam J.R.S. and J.N.' dedicated to Joseph Neall and to John Riley Salisbury, another former pupil killed on the Somme.
BEHOLD the rich green flow'ring fields of wheat,
Clothing the fertile valley slopes, and soon
To yield th'expectant yeoman their rich boon
Of golden grain matured by summer heat!
But far away on hills, where wild goats bleat
Their plaintive protest, broke the storm, which filled
The vale with floods, and swept the fields well tilled
With patient toil, and doomed their prospects sweet.
So these we mourn gave promise, for the years
To come, of richest fruit; but war's mad rage
Destroyed their youth, and turned our hopes to tears
And yet life's crown falls not alone to age,
And years are not the measure of man's life,
But sacrifice and courage in God's strife.
The Briggensian magazine, 1916.
Joseph Neall's sacrifice is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. At Brigg Joseph Neall is remembered in the Church of St John the Evangelist on a triptych memorial and in the Royal British Legion Brigg Branch Book of Remembrance. The Brigg war memorial includes the names of Joseph Neall and his half-brother John Thomas Dunderdale. The war memorial of the Sir John Nelthorpe School at Brigg also records Joseph Neall alongside the names of other former pupils who gave their lives in the first world war. Neall’s name is also recorded on the the Bede College 1914-1918 Cross, Plaque, and Roll of Honour.