The first professional footballer soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross was “Donny” Bell. Donald Simpson Bell was born on 3 December 1890 to Smith and Annie Bell, who resided in Queen’s Road, Harrogate, and attended Harrogate Grammar School. He was married to Rhoda Bell.
Before the war, he had been a footballer, and had played full-back as an amateur with Crystal Palace while training at Westminster College to be a teacher and later, while teaching at Starbeck College, Harrogate, he played for Newcastle United, in 1912 he turned professional and played for Bradford Park Avenue.
When World War I broke out, he became the first professional footballer to enlist in the British Army – joining the West Yorkshire Regiment in 1915. He was rapidly promoted to Lance Corporal and then commissioned into the 9th Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own) in 1915.
He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions and leadership on 5 July 1916 at Horseshoe Trench, near La Boiselle, during The Somme. Sadly, he was killed in action, just five days later, on 10 July 1916 during an attack on another German position at Contalmaison. Bell was not aware of his award before his death.
The citation for his Victoria Cross:
‘For most conspicuous bravery. During an attack, a very heavy enfilade fire was opened on the attacking company by a hostile machine gun. Second 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 very heavy fire and attacked the machine gun, killing 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 very gallant officer lost his life performing a very similar act of bravery’
His Victoria Cross was presented to his widow by King George V in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 13 December 1916.
In July 2000, a permanent memorial was unveiled at the spot where he fell which is still known as ‘Bell’s Redoubt’ the memorial funded by the Professional Footballers’ Association in memory of – ‘The First English Professional Footballer to enlist in 1914 and the only Professional Footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross’
On 25 November 2010 at the Spink salesroom, in London, The Bell VC Medal was auctioned and fetched a reported price of £250,000. The medal was purchased by the Professional Football Association which will display the Victoria Cross, along with Bells other medals, at the Football Museum when it reopens at its new home in Manchester, England.