Bridget Teresa McCrory
Eric Bell VC (1895 - 1916):
|Captain Eric Norman Frankland Bell|
Captain (Temporary) Eric Bell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his exceptional bravery on 1 July, 1916, the worst day for casualties in the history of the British army, not least for the Ulster units, many of whom had ironically been organised before the war to fight (or threaten to fight) the government in order to remain under its undiluted jurisdiction.
Eric Norman Frankland Bell served in the 9th battalion, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, one of the most famous regiments in the army, based in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh where Bell was born. His father also served in the regiment. On the outbreak of war, he was working in Liverpool but in the curious euphoria of August 1914 he returned to enlist. The causes of the war remain controversial until the present; what is not in doubt is that the British army by 1916 was a mass army, largely volunteers, whose commanders decided that they would launch an offensive of considerable weight – unprecedentedly so – against the German lines in north-west France. These lines were heavily defended, more so than the British commanders realised, and the mass French army, which originally planned to attack alongside the British, was unable to, being itself under heavy attack at Verdun.
The infantry attack was to begin at 7:30 on the morning of 1 July, and at this point Bell was in command of a trench mortar battery. These weapons were so new that on the outbreak of war the British army had none at all, but as the war developed they proved to be very useful during frontal attacks, especially for cutting wire and raining bombs (known as “toffee apples”) into frontline trenches. Accordingly they drew a lot of enemy fire. Bell’s unit was therefore going to especially targeted and was.
The citation for his VC, for “conspicuous bravery”, describes what happened:
“He was in command of a Trench Mortar Battery, and advanced with the Infantry in the attack. When our front line was hung up by enfilading machine gun fire Captain Bell crept forward and shot the machine gunner. Later, on no less than three occasions, when our bombing parties, which were clearing the enemy's trenches, were unable to advance, he went forward alone and threw Trench Mortar bombs among the enemy. When he had no more bombs available he stood on the parapet, under intense fire, and used a rifle with great coolness and effect on the enemy advancing to counter-attack. Finally he was killed rallying and reorganising infantry parties which had lost their officers. All this was outside the scope of his normal duties with his battery. He gave his life in his supreme devotion to duty.”
Bell’s VC was gazetted (published in the London Gazette) on 26 September the same year and presented to his father at Buckingham Palace by King George V on 29 November 1916. Bell’s remains were never found; his name appears on the Thiepval Memorial near the site of the battle.
|Born:||28 August 1895|
|Died:||1 July 1916|
Richard Doherty & David Truesdale: Irish Winners of the Victoria Cross (Dublin, 2000); John Keegan: The First World War (London, 1998); David Stevenson: 1914-1918: The History of the First World War (Penguin Books, 2004)
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