The gentle footballing schoolmaster who won a VC

“It was the biggest fluke alive”, wrote Donald Bell to his mother. “I only chucked one bomb but it did the trick.” The gentle schoolmaster was already a football star and the first professional player to volunteer for the war. Now 2nd Lieutenant Bell had become a military hero. Two weeks later he was dead – but had won the Victoria Cross.

It was July 5, 1916, five days into the Somme offensive, when Bell and two other men attacked Horseshoe Trench near La Boiselle. They took out a machine gun post before Bell threw a grenade into a dugout, killing 50 German troops. Another 150 surrendered. Bell was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery, the only English professional footballer to receive the honour. But five days later he was dead at just 25, hit by a mortar shell as he led his bombing party on another attack.

A talented cricketer and rugby player who could run the 100 yards in 10.6 seconds, Bell was born in Harrogate, North Yorks, in 1890. A big left-sided defender with a devastating turn of pace, he played football as an amateur for Crystal Palace, Bishop Auckland and Newcastle United. He was assistant master at Starbeck Council School, Harrogate, when he decided to boost his £2 10s-a-week income by signing as a pro for Bradford Park Avenue. Bell made his debut as full-back in April 1913 and played five games before war began, helping Bradford win promotion to the First Division. Club secretary T. E. Maley said: “He was about 6ft and 13st 8lbs. With it all he was most gentle. He played many fine games.”

"We did in about 50 Boche"

Weeks after war began, Bell asked to be released from his contract as a bitter row raged over whether the 1914­-15 season should continue. He volunteered as a private in November 1914 aged 24. He was a sergeant in 1915 and by June was a 2nd lieutenant in the Yorkshire Regiment, travelling to France in November. Home on leave in June 1916, he married Rhoda Margaret Bonson in Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria, but returned almost at once to fight at the Somme.

During the July 5 attack on the 1,600­-yard-­long Horseshoe Trench, a German machine gun opened up on the 9th Battalion, putting them in great danger. Bell, together with his team, Corporal Colwill and Private Batey, decided to put the gun out of action. Bell was modest in the letter he later wrote to his mother Annie: “When the battalion went over, I with my team attacked the machine gun and the trench and I hit the gun first shot from about 20 yards and knocked it over. We then bombed the dugout and did in about 50 Boches. The GOC (General Officer Commanding) has been over to congratulate the battalion and he personally thanked me."

"Pa’s always on about too much play and too little work, but my athletics came in handy for this trip" Bell after his brave attack

“I must confess that it was the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing. I only chucked the bomb and it did the trick. The GOC says I saved the situation for this gun was doing all the damage. He told me that I was to be recommended so there is a chance of me getting a Military Cross or something.

“I am glad I have been so fortunate for Pa’s sake, for I know he likes his lads to be top of the tree. He used to be always on about too much play and too little work, but my athletics came in handy for this trip. I believe that God is watching over me and it rests with him whether I pull through or not.”

By the time his mother got the letter, Bell was dead, killed five days later charging another machine gun.

"He saved the lot of us from being completely wiped out" Bell’s batman Pte John Bayers

Widowed after just a month, Rhoda Bell was presented with Bell’s VC by King George. The citation read: “This very brave act saved many lives and ensured the success of the attack. Five days later this very gallant officer lost his life performing a very similar act of bravery.”

Bell’s batman Pte John Bayers wrote to Rhoda: “I would to God that my late master and friend had still been with us, or, better still, been at home with you. The men worshipped him in their simple, wholehearted way and so they ought, he saved the lot of us from being completely wiped out by his heroic act.”

Bell’s VC was bought for £250,000 in 2010 by the Professional Footballers’ Association and given to the National Football Museum in Manchester, where it is on display. The spot he died is known as Bell’s Redoubt and marked with a memorial. In March 2014, senior football officials including Greg Dyke, Gordon Taylor and Howard Wilkinson took Bell’s Victoria Cross to his grave at Gordon Dump Cemetery, near where he won the honour.

His helmet, full of holes from the mortar blast, is on display at the Green Howards Museum in Richmond, North Yorks.

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100­year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to 2nd Lieutenant Donald Bell or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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