Spink, London

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24-11-2010 – 01-01-1970

Sale 1008, Orders, Decorations, Campaign Medals & Militaria

Spink sells only Victoria Cross Awarded to a Professional Footballer to the Professional Footballers’ Association

December 9, 2010 – The outstanding Great War July 1916 Somme Victoria Cross casualty group of four awarded to Second Lieutenant D.S. Bell, Yorkshire Regiment, was sold at Spink for £252,000. Four bidders in the room actively participated in attempting to secure the national hero’s Victoria Cross Group. In the end, the Professional Footballers Association took the item when the hammer fell.

In 1913 Donald Bell, having had spells as an amateur with both Crystal Palace and Newcastle United, signed professional forms with Bradford Park Avenue F.C. After the outbreak of war in August 1914, Bell decided to serve his country in battle, ended his contract with the Football Club and enlisted as a Private in the 9th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment. In the summer of 1916, Bell performed a heroic act that saved many lives and insured his place
in military history books. Under heavy military fire from a German Machine Post, Bell bravely rushed the hostile machine gun, killing the gunner with his rifle and taking out fifty other military personnel with bombs. His bravery saved many lives of British soldiers and ensured a successful attack. Sadly, five days after the attack, Bell lost his life performing yet another heroic act. Bell’s medals were estimated to fetch between £140,000-160,000 at auction.

Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association commented: “We are very pleased to have secured the Victoria Cross Group awarded to Second Lieutenant D.S. Bell for our National Football Museum in Manchester. I was sent here today by the Players to purchase this group as it is an important part of our history as a country and as an association. We all wanted this medal group to be in a place where it could be displayed for the general public to view as it is certainly a national treasure. We are pleased to be able to honour Second Lieutenant D.S. Bell in this way.”

Richard Bell, Grand Nephew of Bell, was present at the auction this morning and had this to say: “We are very happy that the Victoria Cross Group, awarded to my Great Uncle, was purchased by the Professional Footballers’ Association today. It was important to us that the group be available for the public to see as it is an important historical piece that should be on display.”

Donald Simpson Bell as depicted on a cigarett card. Source: Wikipedia.

History of a hero
Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell, V.C., was born in Harrogate, Yorkshire, on the 3rd December 1890, the youngest son of Smith and Annie Bell, and educated at Harrogate Grammar School, and Westminster College, London. An outstanding athlete, whilst at Westminster College he was captain of athletics, and in the College’s first team for cricket, rugby, football, hockey, and swimming. Standing six feet tall and weighing 14 stone, he had, as his childhood friend Archie White (later Colonel A.C.T. White, V.C., M.C.) put it: ‘the build of a hammer thrower – he never looked like a runner.’ Yet he had a unique gift of acceleration, and could reach his top speed within two strides. Whilst still at school he could complete the 100 yards in 10.6 seconds, and it was this lightening pace that he would later put to devastating effect. Football though was his main passion, and whilst in London he played a number of matches for Crystal Palace Football Club as an amateur. On leaving Westminster, Bell returned to Yorkshire to embark upon a career in teaching, and in 1911 was appointed an assistant master at Starbeck Council School in Harrogate, whilst on Saturdays played the occasional football match for Newcastle United, again as an amateur. However, in 1912 the salary of a young teacher, however well qualified, never exceeded £2 10s. a week, and so to supplement his income Bell signed professional forms with Bradford Park Avenue F.C., then in the Second Division of English football. He made his debut for the club at full-back on 13th April, 1913, against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineaux; the following season (1913-14) he was a key member of the team which won promotion to the top tier of English football.

At the outbreak of War in August 1914 Bell decided to join up, and obtained permission from the Directors of Bradford Park Avenue F.C. to be released from his contract. Enlisting as 15722 Private in the 9th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment in November 1914, reputedly the first professional footballer to join-up following the declaration of War, he quickly rose through the ranks, and in June 1915 was Commissioned Second Lieutenant in the 9th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards). He went with the Regiment to France on the 25th November 1915, and was there for New Year’s Eve, although not in the thick of the action: ‘Missed a lively time on New Year’s Eve, when our Battalion carried out a bombing raid which was highly successful. All our men came back with several slightly wounded. The Germans retaliated by shelling our line and our company had a hot time. Two of our officers were wounded, one slightly but the other very severely. As another officer is going on leave tomorrow we shall be shorthanded for our next trip into the trenches. Fortunately we are in the support which means lying low and nothing else.’ (letter to the recipient’s mother, dated 5.1.1916 refers).

Back in England the following summer on leave, Bell married Miss Rhoda Margaret Bonson at Kirkby Stephen, Westmoreland, on the 5th June 1916. It was a marriage that was to last just five weeks.

Attack on Horseshoe Trench
For the Great Somme Offensive, the 9th Battalion, Green Howards, was part of the 69th Brigade, 23rd Division. Their first objective was to capture an enemy position that was known as Horseshoe Trench, which ran from Lincoln Redoubt to Scots Redoubt. It was a position that was about 1,500 yards long and stood on high ground in a slight curve between La Boisselle and Mametz Wood, near the village of Contalmaison. The 69th Brigade consisted of four Yorkshire Battalions- the 11th West Yorkshires, the 10th Duke of Wellington’s, and the 8th and 9th Green Howards. Before the Battle of the Somme started the 9th Green Howards had been waiting in the village of St. Sauveur which was in the valley of the River Somme to the south of the battlefield. On the 1st July they marched at night to some woods to the west of the village of Baizieux where they camped, and first heard the news of the heavy casualties sustained by the Allies on the battle’s first day. The following morning they marched up to billets on the fringe of the battle area just outside the town of Albert. The following day, on the 3rd July, they marched through the town and out to positions on the Tara-Usna Ridge. At 4:00am on the morning of the 5th July, orders were given for the 8th and 9th Green Howards to enter the battle with an attack on the western side of Horseshoe Trench, but the success was nullified by a heavy counter-attack by the enemy, which drove the Allied advance posts back to their original line. Up to midday little advance had been made, and the objective of the brigade was strongly held up by the enemy. During the afternoon parties of the 11th West Yorkshires and 10th Duke of Wellington’s again gradually pushed back the enemy on the eastern side, and on the western side the 9th Green Howards continued to gain ground slowly by bombing. Throughout the day Bell had been second-in-command of the Battalion’s bombing section, and by mid-afternoon the artillery fire and the exertions of the infantry began to have their effect. However, at 5:45pm the enemy again rallied, and nearly the whole of the 69th Brigade was absorbed into the fight. At 6:00pm, as the Battalion made a final push, they immediately came under heavy fire from a concealed German machine gun on the left flank. The situation was critical. Bell’s senior officer was knocked out, and he assumed command of his section. Seeing that the gun was holding up the advance, Bell immediately decided to attack. Crawling with two of his team up a communication trench, he launched himself across No Man’s Land and charged the enemy gun at such speed that its crew had little time to react. Throwing his first bomb from 20 yards, he hit the machine-gun and put it out of action, before shooting the firer with his revolver and killing another 50 of the enemy with more bombs. The result was emphatic. Completely demoralised, the enemy could offer no further resistance to the Allied advance, and Horseshoe trench was taken, along with 146 prisoners and two machine-guns.

Writing home two days later, Bell was in celebratory mood: ‘The Battalion has been in action and did splendidly, capturing a strong German position. I did not go over as I was Second in Command of the bombers. Unfortunately Gibson was knocked out so I carried on. As a result of Gibson’s encounter, a machine gun was spotted on the left which could enfilade the whole of our front. When the Battalion went over, I, with my team, crawled up a communication trench and attacked the gun and the trench and I hit the gun first shot from about 20 yards and knocked it over. We then bombed the dugouts and did in about 50 Bosches. The General Commanding Officer has been over to congratulate the Battalion and he personally thanked me. I must confess it was the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing. I only chucked one bomb but it did the trick. The Company Commander 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 this trip. We are out of the trenches at present and I am perfectly fit. The only thing is I am sore at elbows and knees with crawling over limestone flints &c. I believe that God is watching over me and it rests with him whether I pull through or not.’ (letter to the recipient’s mother, dated 7.7.1916 refers).

For his gallantry and conspicuous bravery Second Lieutenant Bell was indeed ‘recommended’, and his Victoria Cross was gazetted on the 9th September 1916, tragically too late for him to learn of the award. The two members of his team who accompanied him, Corporal Colwill and Private Batey, were both awarded Distinguished Conduct Medals.

Attack on Contalmaison
After four days in the reserve, on the 10th July the 8th and 9th Battalions Green Howards took part in the attack on the village of Contalmaison. At 4:00pm the village and the enemy trench in front of it were bombarded, the batteries firing in enfilade from the south and quickening their rate to cover the infantry during its approach to within assaulting distance. Fire then swept in five short bursts from the trench west of Contalmaison to its eastern edge. A smoke barrage was to have been put down by 4-inch Stokes mortars in position 400 yards west of Bailiff Wood, but although the wind was favourable it proved impossible, in the time available, to produce an effective screen. At 4:30pm the 8th and 9th Green Howards advanced from the northern part of Horseshoe Trench on a 1,000 yard front, some 2,000 yards west of Contalmaison. Moving out steadily in four waves, they were met by a murderous fire of all kinds. Heavy casualties were suffered, but at last the trench was carried, and the bulk of the enemy retreated into the ruins of the village.
Soon Contalmaison itself was entered, and although the enemy fought bravely, eventually all resistance was overcome and the village was in Allied hands. But the cost was heavy- the Green Howards had suffered over 50% casualties before reaching the trench, and at the roll call that evening only the Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel H.G. Holmes, his second in command, five subalterns, and 128 men remained out of a total force that morning of over 570. Second Lieutenant Bell was among the fallen, killed in action leading from the front in a heroic attack on the German positions, desperate once again to land a knock-out blow on the enemy. In the words of 69th Brigade’s Commanding Officer, Brigadier T.S. Lambert: ‘His was a great example, given at a time when it was most needed, both at the capture of the Horseshoe Trench, and at Contalmaison, when he lost his life. It is given to few to stand out among their comrades as he did, but in leading others his life was not given in vain.’

Grave photo of Victoria Cross recipient Donald Simpson Bell. Photo by Terry Macdonald / Wikipedia.

Second Lieutenant Bell was buried where he fell, and in his honour the spot, which later became a redoubt, was officially called ‘Bell’s Redoubt’. During his short time with the Regiment he had earned the love and respect of all who knew him, and through his noble self-denying and unflinching courage which earned him the Victoria Cross he had saved many lives. In the words of his childhood friend and fellow officer in the Green Howards, Archie White: ‘Probably no one else on the front could have done what he did. Laden by steel helmet, haversack, revolver, ammunition, and Mills bombs in their pouches, he was yet able to hurl himself at the German trench at such speed that the enemy would hardly believe what their eyes saw. He was a magnificent soldier, and had he lived, with his high intelligence, superb physique, and firm religious principles, he would have risen high in his chosen profession.’
His Victoria Cross was presented to his widow by King George V in a private ceremony in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace on the 13th December 1916. Memorials were erected in his honour in his home-town of Harrogate, and at the schools where he was a boy and master. Tributes were also received from the Football community- Mr. T.E. Maley, the Secretary of Bradford Park Avenue F.C. said of him: ‘A cheery, big chap, he took great interest in his men. As most of them came from football areas he soon found a way to their affection. He has triumphed, and if blameless life and unselfish and willing sacrifice have the virtue attached with which they are credited, Donald is in the possession of eternal happiness, and in his glorious record and great reward there is much to be envied.’ Eighty four years later, on the 9th July 2000, a permanent memorial sponsored by the Professional Footballers’ Association was unveiled at the spot where he fell- still known locally as Bell’s Redoubt- by the Colonel of the Green Howards, Major-General F.R. Dannatt, C.B.E., M.C. (later General Sir Richard Dannatt, G.C.B., C.B.E., M.C.), in memory of ‘The First English Professional Footballer to enlist in 1914 and the only Professional Footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross.’

Second Lieutenant Bell’s shrapnel and bullet-riddled helmet, which he was wearing when he fell, was preserved from the battlefield, and is on display in the Green Howards Regimental Museum, Richmond, North Yorkshire.