Donald Bell, VC: Part 2

10Jun14

World War One broke out at the end of July 1914, but professional football continued until the 1914-15 season had been completed, principally because the players were already engaged to professional contracts and it would been difficult and possibly expensive to break these contracts.

Some footballers were effectively conscripted to the Army immediately, these being men who were either members of the Army Reserve or the Territorial Army. The impact in Scotland was substantial: “practically every First League club will lose one or more players” noted the Dundee Evening Telegraph (5 August 1914); Aberdeen lost four men. However, the effects of this were minimal in England with the exception of Nottingham Forest who lost three Army reservists: Bill Fiske, Bob Firth and Jack Bell, and as a consequence they were given permission to sign loan players to replace them.

Shortly after the start of the 1914-15 season Donald Bell’s request to the Bradford directors to be released from his contract was granted and in November 1914 he enlisted in the 9th (Service) Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment as a Private. It is often suggested that he was the first professional footballer in England to enlist (i.e. sign up as a volunteer) for Army service during the War, but it has not been possible to confirm this. It is certainly the case that he was one of the first and by the end of November 1914 the only players that had volunteered for the Army apart from Bell were a handful of Southern League men from Exeter City, Llanelly and Plymouth Argyle. It was only following the formation of the Footballers’ Battalion in December 1914 that there was a gradual movement of players to ‘join the colours’.

The 9th (Service) Battalion spent the winter of 1914-15 at Belton Camp near Grantham, initially living in tents before tin huts were provided. As well as training for battle the men engaged in plenty of sport and Donald Bell was a valued member of the battalion football team which achieved success against other army teams, winning 10 and drawing 1 of the 11 matches played. He was promoted to Lance Corporal by April 1915 and then had a spell of active service in France before obtaining an officer’s commission.

The Yorkshire Evening Post reported in November 1915 that Second Lieutenant Bell was back in England with the Green Howards but soon afterwards he returned to France. He was home on leave again at the start of June 1916, when he married Rhoda Margaret Bonson, daughter of James and Mary Bonson, at the Wesleyan Methodist chapel in her home town of Kirkby Stephen.

Within days he returned to the front, where his battalion was held in reserve for the opening of the battle of the Somme. They were ordered into action on 5 July at Horseshoe Trench, south-east of La Boiselle. At 6 pm Bell’s company attacked and took the trench, but came under heavy enfilade fire from a German machine-gun post. Taking the initiative, Bell led a corporal and a private up a communication trench, then charged across open ground, shooting the machine-gunner with his revolver and destroying the post and the rest of the gunners with hand grenades. He was typically modest and wrote, in what turned out to be his final letter to his mother, that the general officer commanding had congratulated the battalion and personally thanked him. He talked down his deed as ‘the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing’, but he was proud for his father’s sake, ‘for I know he likes his lads to be at the top of the tree’. His father had criticized his preference for play above work but ‘my athletics came in handy this trip’. His faith is also clear: ‘I believe that God is watching over me and it rests with him whether I pull through or not’. It was for this act of bravery that he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

On 10 July 1916 Bell was with a bombing party that captured the village of Contalmaison, but the Germans counter-attacked, setting up a machine-gun. Bell led his party in a successful frontal attack on the gun, but was killed in the fighting. He was buried on the Mametz road out of the village, at a spot which became known as Bell’s redoubt. In the opinion of a fellow officer: ‘He was ready to risk his life many times over if only he could lessen the risk to his men and brother officers’. His batman, Private John Byers, wrote to Bell’s widowed bride: ‘The men worshipped him in their simple, wholehearted way … he saved the lot of us … by his heroic act’.

Donald Simpson Bell is quite rightly remembered for his bravery on the battlefield rather than his performances as a footballer, and is commemorated by a stained glass window in the chapel of Westminster College (now located in Oxford and part of Oxford Brookes University) and by a memorial at Bell’s Redoubt erected in 2000 and partly funded by the PFA, the Football Association and the Football League.

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