Posted on 8th September 2010
Footballer who received Victoria Cross to be honoured
This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.
In an era when words such as “hero” and “bravery” are thrown about like confetti it’s all too easy to forget the sacrifices made by previous generations who really did live up to that billing.
This Sunday the life of one of the few footballers ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross will be remembered at a ceremony in northern France, which pays tribute to him and thousands of other young men who died during the First World War. Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell lost his life in the Battle of the Somme on July 10th 1916 and was posthumously awarded the VC for an act of unbelievable courage.
Bell was born on December 3rd 1890 and played as an amateur with both Crystal Palace and Newcastle United before turning professional in 1913 and signing for Bradford Park Avenue. However, the Harrogate-born left-back’s professional career was to prove a short one as events across Europe spiralled out of control following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914.
Within weeks Germany had declared war on France and Russia and then, on August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Bell courageously volunteered for service, personally persuading Bradford Park Avenue’s Directors to release him from his contract in the process, and joined the 9th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment – known today as the Green Howards.
Joining the military as a Corporal in 1914 Bell was sent to France only two days after his wedding in the summer of 1915. By the following summer the opposing forces were caught up in an horrific battle of attrition along the Western Front, the Somme offensive itself is estimated to have cost the British army half a million men. Enemy soldiers were often only yards away and hand-to-hand combat was commonplace.
It was in this environment that Bell and his fellow soldiers were ordered to capture “Horseshoe Trench” but as soon as they left their trenches they were fired upon by a German machine gunner.
“Bell, supported by Corporal Colwill and Private Batey, tried to destroy the gun position,” according to the official Yorkshire Regiment records. “They crept towards it and then suddenly made a dash across open ground. Bell, who was a superb athlete, moved with incredible speed and surprised the occupants of the machine gun position, shot the gunner with his revolver and blew up the remainder with Mills’ bombs. He then threw bombs into the nearby trench, killing over 50 of the enemy.”
Bell’s actions were credited with saving many British soldiers’ lives and earned him the VC for the “most conspicuous bravery”. Writing to his mother he even played down the incident declaring it “the biggest fluke alive”. Tragically, Bell never received the VC which was awarded posthumously as his good fortune ran out only five days later when he was killed in another attack on a German position at Contalmaison.
The spot where he fell was marked with a wooden cross which became Bell’s Redoubt in 2000 – a memorial to the fallen soldier jointly financed by the Green Howards and the Professional Footballers’ Association.
This weekend the Friends of the Green Howards Museum will again visit the monument along with the PFA, members from Bell’s family and the Mayor of Contalmaison to lay wreaths and pay tribute to Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell and his fellow soldiers.
“As we near the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, we are proud to return to Contalmaison to remember Donald Bell’s sacrifice,” said Major David Nicholson of the Friends of the Green Howards Museum. “We are pleased that the PFA, who were so helpful in the commissioning of the memorial a decade ago, are once again able to join us to remember one of their players, and that members of Bell’s family will be with us, too, to mark his heroism, and that of other Green Howards, almost a century ago.”
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