Hanging up their boots never to return after answering call to arms

In a world of multi-million pound contracts, Twitter profiles and wall-to-wall coverage of football, cricket and rugby, it is unfathomable to think of a person ensconsced in that world signing up to fight in a war.

Legacies of War: Acting social history curator Nicola Baxter in front of a photograph of Donald Simpson Bell VC, also circled, at the Harrogate during the First World War exhibition at The Royal Pump Room Museum. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Legacies of War: Acting social history curator Nicola Baxter in front of a photograph of Donald Simpson Bell VC, also circled, at the Harrogate during the First World War exhibition at The Royal Pump Room Museum. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Yet that was precisely the scenario that faced the sportsmen of the era exactly 100 years ago today.

At 11pm on August 4, 1914, Britain, citing a moral obligation to defend France and Belgium, declared war on Germany.

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British life was thus put on hold.

What had seemed important, suddenly became trivial.

Donald Simpson Bell, a 23-year-old professional footballer from Harrogate, knew instantly what he had to do.

Bell played for Bradford Park Avenue Football Club, having previously played as an amateur for Crystal Palace and Newcastle United.

A full-back, he had just helped Park Avenue win promotion to the First Division.

But his life on the football pitches of England ended the very minute Prime Minister Herbert Asquith delivered his ultimatum to Germany.

Bell was the first professional footballer to enlist in the British Army, joining the West Yorkshire Regiment.

Two thousand would follow suit and answer Lord Kitchener’s call to arms.

Together they crossed the English Channel in June, 1915, reaching the Western Front ahead of the Battle of the Somme.

Where Bell had been the first to enlist, so he was the only English footballer to be 
awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery.

That honour was bestowed on the then Second Lieutenant of the 9th Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (Alexandra, Princess of Wales’ Own) for his actions on July 5, 1916.

Bell’s battalion were given orders to capture a German position known as Horseshoe Trench in the Somme.

Through letters from the front and records in the Imperial War Museum, Bell’s actions were as follows:

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, on July 10, attempting a similar maneouvre on a German machine gun position, Bell and his battalion were attacked and he was killed.

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.

The story of Bell is one relatively well documented for the time.

He was one of 879 people from Harrogate who died in the Great War.

His history as a professional sportsman stood him out from the rest before the war, but during the great conflict that engulfed Europe between 1914 and 1918, his was just one of countless stories of unimaginable bravery and unspeakable tragedy.

There were countless numbers of sportsmen who swapped cricket bat and football boots for rifles and trench socks.

Trying to document who, how, where and when is a futile exercise and barely scratches the surface of what is one of the more defining eras in the history of mankind.

So all we can do, with the help of local historians, is to try to tell just a handful of those emotional stories.

One such tale is that of Fred Longstaff, as recalled by Brian Heywood, a Huddersfield man who has undertaken an enormous project – with the help of students and researchers – to give the definitive history of Huddersfield’s involvement in the First World War.

“Fred was a forward who toured Australia with the Great Britain squad in the summer of 1914,” says Heywood.

“He came back and helped Huddersfield win the Yorkshire League, Yorkshire Cup, League Cup and the County Cup.

“Only one other team had done that before, Hunslet in 07-08.

“When war broke out, Longstaff signed up with the Bradford Pals.

“Fred was Private 4940 Longstaff of the 1/6 Batallion of the Duke of Wellington West Yorkshire Regiment.

“He was killed on July 22, 1916, on the Somme.

“He was struck in the head by shrapnel.”

Pals were a novel idea by the military of grouping together men and friends from the same community and dispatching them together in the hope that their greater comaraderie would see them perform better in the field.

The flipside of this was that if a whole division of Pals was killed in action, it left a huge hole in the community back home.

Robb Robinson, a historian from Hull, shares a couple of stories about sportsmen in the East Riding.

“There were four Hull Pals units and one of those was a sportsman’s Pals,” begins Robinson.

“Jack Harrison was one of the more famous sportsmen, though he wasn’t actually in the sportsman’s Pals.

“He was the record try scorer for Hull FC the year before the war and he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He died during the war.

“Then there’s the story of the City of Hull Athletics Club, who were known as Hull Harriers at the time.

“They suffered greatly.

“In the year before the war there were 19 runners in the club championship, seven of whom never came back from the war.

“The Pals were very well known across the city and still to this day they are remembered.”

On an anniversary like today, when there are no living survivors from that horrendous moment in time, such stories as those of Bell, Longstaff, Harrison and the Hull Harriers take on greater significance.

They are told to ensure we never forget.

Because in a present day of such extravagant living, social media interaction and boundless advances in technology, we owe an un-repayable debt of gratitude to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice 100 years ago.