Fitting tribute to footballing ‘lion’ who won VC

Neil Collinson of  Dales of Thirsk finishing off the memorial to  Donald Bell, the only professional footballer to  have been awarded the Victoria Cross in World War One
Neil Collinson of Dales of Thirsk finishing off the memorial to Donald Bell, the only professional footballer to have been awarded the Victoria Cross in World War One
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He is the only English professional footballer to have earned the country’s highest decoration for valour.

Donald Bell was one of 2,000 footballers to answer Lord Kitchener’s call to arms, crossing the English Channel in June 1915 and reaching the Western Front ahead of the Battle of the Somme. A full-back of repute, he had helped Bradford Park Avenue win promotion to football’s First Division when war broke out.

Neil Collinson of  Dales of Thirsk finishing off the memorial to  Donald Bell, the only professional footballer to  have been awarded the Victoria Cross in World War One

Neil Collinson of Dales of Thirsk finishing off the memorial to Donald Bell, the only professional footballer to have been awarded the Victoria Cross in World War One

A letter home to his parents, who lived in East Parade in Harrogate, revealed he had no complaints about his hardship or life in the trenches.

“This is my first spell in the trenches, but except for the difficulty of keeping dry, it has not been an unpleasant experience,” he wrote.

The officer, who served in the 9th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment – the Green Howards – won the Victoria Cross (VC) for his bravery.

Poignantly, just five days after his heroics he was killed in action.

Now, as the world this year marks the 100th anniversary since the beginning of the First World War, a company from Thirsk has been asked to renovate and expand his memorial in France.

Neil Collinson, the owner of Dales of Thirsk, which is carrying out the work said: “We have been thrilled to be part of the project.

“Some of the guys have been looking through the details and feel that we have got to know Donald Bell, and they have been totally enthralled by his story.”

The current memorial stands near Contalmaison in Northern France. The Friends of the Green Howards are renovating it and enlarging its surroundings, supported financially by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).

A plaque reads: “Donald Bell was the first English professional footballers to enlist in 1914 and the only player to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.”

On July 5 1916, Bell earned his VC when his battalion was given orders to capture a German position known as Horseshoe Trench.

Disregarding his safety, he crept up on a communication trench and dashed across open ground and attacked the machine gun position holding the Germans firing at his comrades.

He killed the gunner with his revolver, blew up the German’s comrades with hand grenades and then threw more bombs into a dugout, killing 50 of the enemy.

In a letter to his mother, Bell wrote: “I must confess that it was the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing. I chucked the bomb and it did the trick.”

He added: “I believe God is watching over me and it rests with him whether I pull through or not.” Five days later, Bell and his battalion attacked another machine gun position and were killed.

After training to be a teacher at Westminster College in London, he was appointed assistant master at Starbeck Council School near Harrogate but decided to supplement his income by becoming a professional footballer with Bradford Park Avenue.

He had already played for Crystal Palace and Newcastle United as an amateur and made his debut for Bradford against Wolverhampton Wanderers at full back on April 13, 1913.

Mr Collinson added: “Having been released from his professional contract, Bell signed up as a volunteer with the West Yorkshire Regiment in November 1914 at the age of twenty-four.

“He soon became an NCO and was promoted to sergeant in 1915.

“He was then recommended for a commission and by June was a second lieutenant in the Yorkshire Regiment.”

Described by officers as having “the courage of a lion”, Bell was buried in the French village of Contalmaison in 1920 where a permanent memorial was erected.

His bravery is still remembered today with enduring pride.