When the British Army launched its great Somme offensive in the summer of 1916, few people could have envisaged the devastation battle would bring. The opening day alone saw British casualties of almost 60,000 and by the time the slaughter had ground to a bloody halt in the November mud, Britain and her dominions had lost a staggering 400,000 men.
Among the dead was 25-year-old Donald Bell, a Second Lieutenant in the Green Howards who is believed to have been the first English professional footballer to enlist in the First World War and the only one to receive his country’s highest military award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross.
Born in the North Yorkshire town of Harrogate in 1890, Bell attended the local Grammar school as a child and it was here that he first came to prominence as a talented sportsman. A keen cricketer, Bell was captain of his school side and it is said he had the attributes to go further in the sport. Football was his first love however, and a move to London’s Westminster College in September 1909 gave Bell the playing opportunities that were restricted to him in Harrogate.
Soon after arriving in the English Capital, Bell joined a fledging Crystal Palace side, staying with them until he left London at the end of his studies in 1911. Bell subsequently returned to Harrogate where he got a job teaching English at Starbeck College. Nevertheless, football continued to play a significant part in Bell’s life and, after a brief amateur spell with Newcastle United, the 22-year-old signed his first professional contract with Football League Division Two side Bradford Park Avenue in 1912.
Comfortable in both defence and midfield, Bell made his Bradford debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1913 and went on to make five more appearances for the club as he helped them secure promotion to the English top flight. Events further afield were now about to impact on both Donald Bell and the country as a whole, however, as Europe was plunged into bloody conflict in August 1914.
With a promising footballing career ahead of him, Bell instead asked Bradford to release him from his contract so he could answer Lord Kitchener’s call for men and he is widely regarded as the first professional footballer to enlist in the British Army after joining the West Yorkshire Regiment in early 1915.
Bell excelled in military service and was soon commissioned as a Second Lieutenant into the 9th Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (Alexandra, Princess of Wales’ Own) – also known as the Green Howards. By late 1915 the British Army had suffered debilitating casualty figures and Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ of volunteers, newly-married Bell among them, were sent across the channel to prepare for the great summer offensive Field Marshall Douglas Haig had planned north of the Somme valley.
Bell and his battalion arrived in France in July 1915 and were initially sent into a quiet sector of the line known as the ‘nursery’ near Armentieres, before heading south to begin preparations for the upcoming battle.
The opening day of the Battle of the Somme saw the 9th Green Howards placed in reserve near the town of Albert, however, they were soon thrown into the maelstrom when they attacked a portion of German trench called the Horseshoe on 5 July. It was during this action that Donald Bell was recommended for the Victoria Cross.
As Bell and his battalion made their way towards their objective, they immediately came under heavy German machine gun fire. With his men caught in the open, Bell traversed down a communication trench and attacked the post with his revolver and mills bombs – reportedly killing more than 50 German soldiers. Bell’s bravery allowed his Battalion to eventually capture their objective and also saved the lives of many of his men. Bell was a reluctant hero, however, and wrote a letter to his mother soon after the action in which he said: “I must confess that it was the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing. I chucked the bomb and it did the trick.”
If it was luck, Bell’s share finally deserted him on 10 July during a similar attack on a German stronghold. Leading his troops across open ground near La Boiselle, the 25-year-old was cut down by machine gun fire and died where he fell. His body was later buried by his men and a wooden cross erected in his memory.
Just weeks after his death, news came through that Second Lieutenant Donald Bell had been awarded the British Army’s highest decoration for gallantry after his actions at Horseshoe Trench on 5 July. The awarding of the Victoria Cross was officially announced in the London Gazette on 9 September 1916 and read:
‘For most conspicuous bravery (Horseshoe Trench, France). During an attack a very heavy enfilade fire was opened on the attacking company by a hostile machine-gun. Lieutenant Bell immediately, and on his own initiative, crept up a communication trench and then, followed by Corporal Colwill and Private Batey, rushed across the open under heavy fire and attacked the machine gun, shooting the firer with his revolver, and destroying gun and personnel with bombs.
This very brave act saved many lives and ensured the success of the attack. Five days later this gallant officer lost his life performing a similar act of bravery.’
The medal was presented to Bell’s wife Rhoda in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace five months later by King George V. Bell was one of just two professional footballers to win the award during the entire conflict.
After the war, Donald Bell’s body was moved from its initial resting place and reinterred at Gordon Dump Cemetery located in the valley below Ovillers-La Boiselle. He lies there, amid its regimented rows of headstones, with another 622 fallen British soldiers.
The death of Donald Bell may have been just one tragedy in a war of many, however, for English professional football it represents a generation of young men that saw promising careers in the game cut short by the horror of war. In this respect, Bell can be seen as a symbol for all those that made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Despite the passing of time and the subsequent deaths of all those who experienced the horrors of the First World War, interest in the conflict is currently undergoing a growing resurgence. Battle tours are now big business and a swathe of new memorials have appeared in recent years.
One of these, unveiled in 2000, is sponsored by the Players Football Association and commemorates Donald Bell’s action at Horseshoe Trench all those years ago. Sheltered in a quiet cluster of trees, the stone memorial is a fitting tribute to a football career and a young life cut short in its prime.
In November 2010, as if to put some final closure on the death of Donald Bell, the PFA also bought his Victoria Cross and campaign medals at auction for a price of £21,000. They are now on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester.
Despite the years that have past, the story of Donald Bell still has the power to intrigue and sadden in equal measure. In a modern world when the word ‘hero’ is bestowed all too commonly, it is important to remember those that have truly earned that title. Men like Donald Bell VC, hero of both the football and battle field.
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