Donald Simpson Bell – the Bradford footballer awarded the Victoria Cross, tribute by Mike Stead

Donald Simpson Bell, born 1890; died 10 July 1916 (Age 25). Place of Death: Contalmaison, the Somme, Northern France. Bradford Park Avenue Footballer and Schoolteacher.

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London Gazette Notice of Death 9th September 1916: Temp. 2nd Lt. Donald Simpson Bell, late York. R. For most conspicuous bravery. During an attack a very heavy enfilade fire was opened on the attacking company by a hostile -machine gun. 2nd Lt. Bell immediately, and on his own initiative, crept up a communication trench and then, followed by Corpl. Colwill and Pte. Batey, rushed across the open under very 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 very similar act of bravery.

Tribute from Lieutenant Colonel HG Holmes: “He was a great example, given at a time it was most needed, and in his honour, the spot where he lies and which is now a redoubt, has been officially named Bell’s Redoubt. He is a great loss to the Battalion and also to me personally, and I consider him one of the finest officers I’ve ever seen”.

Donald Bell was just 24 and starting out on his professional football career in 1914 when the world broke out into war. He had played five first team games at Bradford Park Avenue under the manager and great orator Tommy Maley as Bradford reached the top division (today Premier League) for the first and only time. Of 5,000 estimated professional footballers in 1914, 2,000 are estimated to have taken some part in the hostilities of war.

Donald Bell was one of two professional footballers to be awarded the Victoria Cross (Graeme Wright advises that the other was William Angus of Wishaw Thistle who had transferred to that club as a professional in 1912 from Glasgow Celtic). No higher medal can be awarded in respect of acts of supreme bravery/gallantry. So famous is this man, that the Professional Fooballers Association paid over £252,000 to purchase his medal just five years ago and this can be viewed in the Football Museum Manchester.

The Battle of The Somme is where our hero Donald lost his life and achieved in death his world wide fame. Over one million people were to lose their life at the Somme.

Donald a junior officer saw his colleague wiped out with machine gun fire and his athletic prowess was quickly put to use as he first crawled up a trench then ran across open ground at speed towards the German machine gun post.

As he approached he threw his Mills bomb into the defence killing some 50 Germans and shot with his pistol the gunners that had been killing his men. This was on the 5th July 1916.
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Five days later he attempted the act again and lost his life.

He had been married just 5 weeks to Rhonda. They lived at Harrogate and Donald was also a schoolteacher at the Starbeck School near Knaresborough. Donald’s regiment was the 9th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment better known as The Green Howards.

After his heroic act he quickly and very modestly wrote home to mum from the Western Front. He wrote to his mother two days later: ‘I must confess it was the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing. I only chucked one bomb but it did the trick… my athletics came in handy this trip.’


Donald Bell’s VC medal can be seen at the National Football Museum in Manchester, near Victoria  Railway Station.

He died trying to save his men. Men that he was very close to, many who never returned to their families. R.I.P. Donald Bell. A truly inspirational man who gave of his life in that others may live.

Mike Stead 2016

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