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Battle of the Somme: The incredible bravery of former footballer Donald Bell

5 July 2016

Today marks the centenary of the day former footballer Donald Bell undertook an act of incredible bravery during the Battle of the Somme in World War 1.

It was an act that would see him recognised with the Victoria Cross.

Bell was a talented defender who had played as an amateur for Crystal Palace, Bishop Auckland and Newcastle United. While working as a teacher in his native Harrogate in 1913, he decided to boost his income by signing as a professional for Bradford Park Avenue. He’d only played a handful of games for them before war broke out, helping them win promotion to Division One.

Bell, then aged 24, became one of the first of 2,000 footballers to enlist in the First World War in November 1914, travelling to France a year later having been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the Green Howards (the 9th Battalion, Yorkshire Regiment).

On 5th July 1916 and five days into the Somme offensive, Bell led an attack with two men on Horseshoe Trench near La Boiselle that saw him storm a machine gun post and put it out of action.

Recounting the events in a letter to his mother, Bell wrote: "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. I believe that God is watching over me and it rests with him whether I pull through or not."

Bell, the only English professional footballer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, would die before he received his medal. He was killed in action just five days later on 10th July 1916 while performing a similar attack. Bell was just 25. He is buried in Gordon Dump Cemetery.

The awarding of the Victoria Cross was officially announced in the London Gazette on 9 September 1916 and read:

"For most conspicuous bravery (Horseshoe Trench, France). During an attack a very heavy enfilade fire was opened on the attacking company by a hostile machine-gun. Lieutenant 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 firer with his revolver, and destroying gun and personnel with bombs. This very brave act saved many lives and ensured the success of the attack. Five days later this gallant officer lost his life performing a similar act of bravery."

In March 2014, his medal was taken over to his grave as part of an EFL organised tour to commemorate footballers, officials and fans that fought and died during the war.

Gallery: Footballers on The Somme - visiting the places members of the Footballers' Battalions fought and died 100 years ago

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