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Donald Bell: Palace Player and Victoria Cross Recipient

11 November 2018

As people up and down the country remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice 100 years ago, we recall the story of former Palace reserve team player Donald Bell – the first footballer to receive the Victoria Cross.

Born in Harrogate on 3rd December 1890, Donald Bell was a student teacher while playing football for Starbeck School and Harrogate Christchurch in the Yorkshire leagues. Aged 19 he moved south to study teaching at Westminster Methodist College and while he was there he played rugby, cricket and football as a full-back, but at some point just before his move, he became involved with Palace as an amateur.

The Yorkshire local press reported in late July 1909: "Crystal Palace have signed Donald Bell on amateur forms. A left-back from the Starbeck club near Harrogate, he is six foot tall and has played for Leeds City reserves".

However this is where the waters become muddier. He never played any sort of first-team game for Palace and to date no record of a playing career in the club’s reserves has been found; of the 34 games played by the second XI that season, complete line-ups are only known for a handful of fixtures. Also a great number of amateur players were taken on by Palace between 1905 and 1915, many of them only appearing once or twice for the reserves.

Bell returned north to Harrogate in 1911 to take up a teaching post, turning out for Newcastle United's reserves and non-league Bishop Auckland before turning professional in 1912 with Second Division side Bradford Park Avenue. He played just five times before asking to be released from his contract when war broke out.

Starting with the West Yorkshire regiment of the army in August 1914 as a corporal, Bell was quickly promoted to 2nd lieutenant in the 9th battalion of the Green Howards. He was shipped to France and on 5th July 1916 was involved in a battle to storm a key German machine gun position that was firing heavily on two British battalions.

With two of his men backing him, he risked everything by running into No Man’s Land to storm the gun position, blowing it up with a left arm grenade throw whilst shooting the machine gunner with his revolver in his right hand, saving the lives of many of his colleagues. In a letter to his mother, he described it as “the biggest fluke ever”.

For this act of extreme heroism, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, but before the news was announced he was sadly killed five days later on 10th July trying a similar tactic defending the French village of Contalmaison from a German counter attack.

He was buried by his battalion at the spot where he died, which was marked by a wooden cross. His body was later moved to the nearby Gordon dump cemetery, and then in 2010 a new stone and memorial with his name and story inscribed upon in English and French, was erected, funded by both the PFA and the Army.

The spot is now very well-known by visitors as "Bell's Redoubt". At the time of his passing the Victoria Cross he was awarded was given to his wife Rhoda, whom he'd married only a month previously while on leave.

Until relatively recently his Victoria Cross and the helmet he wore when he fell was on display in the Green Howards museum in Yorkshire. However in 2010 it was purchased by the PFA for £250,000 and can now be viewed in the National Football Museum in Manchester. A fitting tribute to his enduring tale.

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