Remembering the first footballer to earn the V.C. - Donald Simpson Bell

Donald Simpson Bell was a talented footballer but he left the sport behind to join up when the Great War of 1914-18 started. He saved many lives on the front-line during 5th July 1916 when he knocked out a machine-gun post. He was in the act of performing a precisely similar heroic deed a few days later when he meet his death. He became the only professional footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the war.

Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell, V.C. - Forces War Records Historic Library
Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell, V.C. - Forces War Records Historic Library

 

Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell, V.C. (3rd December 1890 – 10th July 1916) was born at Queen’s Road, Harrogate, Yorkshire to Smith and Annie Bell. Donald was the fourth child from a large family of seven other children.

Donald attended St Peter’s Church of England Primary School and Harrogate Municipal Secondary School and then attended Westminster College, where he did his teacher training. He was a keen and talented sportsman at college but chose football after working as a teacher.

His skill as a footballer saw him play for Crystal Palace, Newcastle United and Bishop Auckland and when the Great War broke out, Donald was playing for Bradford Park Avenue and became the first professional footballer to enlist into the British Army.

During 1914, Donald wrote to the directors at Bradford Park: "I have given the subject very serious consideration and have now come to the conclusion I am duty-bound to join the ranks."

Second Lieutenant Donald S Bell, V.C
2nd Lieutenant Donald S Bell

Donald enlisted in the 9th West Yorkshire Regiment better known as the Green Howards in November 1914. Though, disillusioned with Home Service and eager to get overseas a meeting in 1915 with the Commanding Officer of the 6th Yorkshire Regiment he was recommended for a commission. He then travelled to the front-line in France on the 25th November 1915.

On 5th July 1916, the fifth day of the Battle of the Somme, at Horseshoe Trench near La Boiselle, he was advancing with his fellow comrades from the 9th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment. During the attack, a very heavy enfilade fire was opened on his attacking company by a hostile machine-gun. Temporary Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson 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 gunner with his revolver, and destroying gun and personnel with Mills bombs. This brave act saved many lives and ensured the success of the attack.

In a letter home to his sister Nancy, he wrote: "I was lucky enough to knock out a machine-gun which was causing the lads some bother."

Just five days later on the 10th July 1916, the gallant and talented officer lost his life performing a very similar act of bravery when he joined the 8th Battalion for an attack on a trench during the Capture of Contalmaison at the age of 25.

"When leading a bombing attack, he received a bullet through the crown of his helmet which did not prevent him carrying on for another 20 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 entered his body through the shoulder and proved fatal." wrote Bell's brother Cpl William Bell.

He was buried where he fell and the grave as marked by a wooden cross. In 1920 he was re-interred in Gordon Dump Cemetery, Ovillers-la-Boisselle, near Albert.

It was announced on 8 September 1916 that Bell had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on 5th July 1916. Donald became the only professional footballer to be awarded a Victoria Cross during the conflict.

His Victoria Cross was presented to his grief-stricken widow Rhoda Bell – his wife of only five weeks – by King George V. The medals were kept by the family until 1964 when they were loaned them to the Green Howards Museum, Richmond, Yorkshire. On 25th November 2010, the medals were auctioned by London medal specialists, Spink and purchased for £252,000 on behalf of the Professional Footballers’ Association. They are now on loan to the National Football Museum, Manchester.

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, said the V.C. would go on show at its Manchester museum and added: “It’s an important part of the game’s heritage.”

Sources: BBC / Daily Mail / VC Online / Forces War Records – Historic Library

 

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