Finally a fitting memorial for Donald Bell, the English footballer who single handedly stormed a German trench to protect soldiers nearly 100 years ago

By Nick Harris

Donald Bell, the first professional footballer to volunteer for service in the Great War, was 25 when he wrote to his mother in July, 1916, from the Somme to tell her about his ‘biggest fluke’.

Under heavy enemy fire he had managed to approach a German trench, destroy a machine-gun emplacement that had been mowing down British troops and then take out dozens of enemy soldiers.

His career in professional football had honed his speed. As a recreational cricketer, his throwing accuracy was decent. Both of these had been of assistance, he suggested.

Memorial: Mike Foster, Greg Dyke, Gordon Taylor and Howard Wilkinson in Arras

Memorial: Mike Foster, Greg Dyke, Gordon Taylor and Howard Wilkinson in Arras

‘I must confess it was the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing,’ he wrote. ‘I only chucked one bomb but it did the trick … my athletics came in handy on this trip.’

Bell’s actions, on July 5 that year, earned him a Victoria Cross and a citation for a ‘very brave act [that] saved many lives’. Two days later, he penned his letter home. By July 10 he was dead, shot in the head with a bullet that opened up his helmet as if it were a flimsy tin can. That helmet remains on display in a museum in his native Yorkshire.

Bell was a tall, quick defender; an amateur at Crystal Palace and Newcastle, later a professional with Bradford Park Avenue. The Professional Footballers’ Association bought his VC for around £250,000 in 2010 and it is usually on display in the National Football Museum in Manchester.

On Saturday, almost 100 years after Bell earned it, the soldier and his medal were brought together for the first time, as museum curators joined members of the ‘football family’ for a three-day trip to the fields of the fallen and Bell’s grave in northern France.

Speaking of the many who died, including a former head of the PFA, Evelyn Lintott, PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said the footballers who joined up helped ‘to secure a way of life that allowed people from all walks of life, all races, all creeds, all beliefs to live together. It was a social responsibility, and football still has an ability to bring communities together’.

Donald Bell was awarded the VC
Donald Bell was awarded the VC

Hero: Donald Bell, pictured before and after war broke out, was the first of 2,000 footballers to enlist in the First World War and the only English professional footballer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery

Honour: Bell's memorial near Contalmaison, France (pictured when it was unveiled in 2000 with Bell's great niece Joanna Umpleby) will be renovated and have a new headstone and plaque commemorating his efforts

Honour: Bell's memorial near Contalmaison, France (pictured when it was unveiled in 2000 with Bell's great niece Joanna Umpleby) will be renovated and have a new headstone and plaque commemorating his efforts

Valuable: Bell's VC was auctioned for £252,000

Valuable: Bell's VC was auctioned for £252,000

This weekend’s trip was organised by the Football League as part of series of centenary commemorations of the game’s role in the war. Initially criticised for playing on while war raged, the national sport reacted by forming the so-called Footballers Battalions, made up of players, officials, referees, fans and others from across the game.

More than 1,500 men from those battalions died, many on the Somme. Senior figures from the Football League, the FA, the Premier League, the League Managers’ Association and the PFA were visibly moved as they heard the stories and toured the final resting places of those killed.

FA chairman Greg Dyke told the Mail on Sunday: ‘On that first day of the Somme alone, the number either killed or injured was equivalent to everybody at Old Trafford. That’s unbelievable; the scale of it.

‘We all have to spend our lives putting football into perspective all the time. Bill Shankly’s “not life and death” comment was a good joke. This here is life and death.’

Supreme sacrafice of sports heroes

England captain Ronnie Poulton-Palmer was among 26 England and 30 Scotland rugby internationals to die in the war. Four-times Wimbledon champion Tony Wilding was killed by a sniper and Frederick Kelly, who won Olympic rowing gold in 1908 Olympics also died.

Gerard Anderson, a world record runner was killed in France in 1914. Percy Jeeves, a Warwickshire all-rounder, was one of  34 county cricketers killed.

Dyke’s grandmother lost her three brothers in the Great War. ‘They were all orphans, she brought them up, they went off to war and one by one were killed.’ He said he was profoundly moved by the trip, adding it was also a positive thing for football’s different bodies, too often at loggerheads, to be involved together in such an intense experience.

‘That is part of the reason why I’m glad I came, a whole bunch of people from different bits of football, and if you all do go through an experience like this together, you don’t send s****y emails.’

Lintott’s body, like those of 72,000 other British soldiers lost on the Somme, has never been recovered. Walter Tull, a half-back at Tottenham and Northampton and the first black officer in the British army, is another whose body was never found. Around a dozen are still found in the region each year.

Others came back. Men like John Borwick, whose career was ended by serious head injuries inflicted by shrapnel. In hospital, he wrote to his manager at Millwall, Bert Lipsham, to tell him: ‘I am afraid to say I am finished with football.’

Football has not finished with the debt of gratitude it owes Borwick’s generation.



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