During the tournament, we’ve been celebrating our footballing heroes with profiles of personalities from the past, linked to the beautiful game.
It’s one hundred years since professional footballer DONALD SIMPSON BELL was in action in France – not on the pitch, but playing his part in the earliest days of the Battle of The Somme.
Educated at St Peters School, Harrogate, Knaresborough Grammar and Westminster College, Bell went on to become a teacher at Westminster College where he turned out for Crystal Palace, before moving back up north to become Assistant Master at Starbeck Council School, where he signed and played as a professional for Bradford Park Avenue for which he was paid, helping to supplement his teacher’s salary. He also played for Newcastle and Bishop Auckland as an amateur.
Bell is, of course, one of our Victoria Cross holders; the first English professional footballer to enlist in November 1914 at the beginning of The Great War.
He worked his way through the ranks and was eventually commissioned into The Yorkshire Regiment (as the Green Howards were known at the time) in 1915.
In France, he was put in charge of leading bombing teams, and on 5 July 1916, shortly after the start of the Battle of the Somme, he and his men were ordered to capture an enemy position dug into a ridge near Contalmaison.
Bell’s actions that day led to the award of the VC.
The citation reads: ‘For most conspicuous bravery. During an attack a very heavy enfilade fire was opened on the attacking company by a hostile machine gun. Second 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 very heavy fire and attacked the machine gun, shooting the firer with his revolver and destroying the 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 very similar act of bravery.”
Bell’s brother described how Donald died.
‘When leading a bombing attack he received a bullet through the crown of his helmet which did not prevent him carrying on for another twenty minutes or more, during which time shell splinters cut through his helmet and damaged the front of his tunic without wounding him. Finally, a large shell splinter also taking a piece out of his helmet entered his body through the shoulder and proved fatal.’
The damaged helmet was retrieved from the battlefield and forms part of our museum collection. It is currently on display as part of our special exhibition; Somme. The Other Side of No-Man’s Land.
One of Bell’s schoolmates, and fellow Green Howard is another of our VC holders; Captain Archie White. He wrote about his friend in a letter to Regimental Secretary, Colonel John Forbes in November 1970.
‘Every schoolboy has a hero, and Don, who was about a year older than me, was mine. He had every quality that I envied, good looks, unusual strength and an even and kindly temper.’
Bell and his fellow soldiers are remembered on a memorial, dedicated in 2000 at Contalmaison in France.