Eric Bell VC

Person
Eric Bell VC
Captain Eric Bell VC

Captain Eric Norman Frankland Bell VC was born on 28 August 1895 at Alma Terrace in Enniskillen, the son of Edward and Dora Bell. At the time, his father was Quartermaster to the 2nd Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. His mother came from Manorhamilton, County Leitrim and his father from Budeaux, Devon.

By 1901, his father had been posted and the family were living in Seaforth in Lancashire where Eric went to school. When his father retired from the army the family settled in Hill Street, Liverpool and from there Eric, a budding artist, attended Liverpool University to study architecture.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Captain Edward Bell rejoined his regiment and was appointed Adjutant of the 9th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which was part of 109 Brigade of the 36th (Ulster) Division. By the end of September 1914, Eric joined his father in the 9th and his two brothers, Alan and Haldane, on returning from America and Australia were also commissioned into the Inniskillings.

Whilst his father and brothers went on to serve in other battalions of the Inniskillings, Eric stayed with the 9th Battalion until his arrival in France with the 36th (Ulster) Division on 5 October 1915. He was attached to the 109th Light Trench Mortar Battery, which was equipped with the Stokes Trench Mortar. This meant that Captain Bell continued to serve with 109 Brigade.

In the final few minutes before the attack by the 36th Division on the 1 July 1916, the Stokes Mortar teams were part of the hurricane bombardment of the enemy trenches. As the attack began, the soldiers of the Inniskillings and Royal Irish Rifles left the British front line in Thiepval Wood to cross the 1000 yards of shell holes and open ground that led to the German trenches and, beyond, to the formidable Schwaben Redoubt.

As planned, Captain Bell and the Stokes Trench Mortar teams, along with the Vickers Machine Gun teams, followed to support the infantry attack. As the German machine-gunners started their work, the 36th Division's casualties mounted and the attack faltered. With incredible coolness and bravery, Captain Bell crept forward and shot the nearest German machine-gunner, then operated the Stokes Mortar alone to aid the soldiers clearing the German trenches. When he had no mortar bombs left he grabbed a rifle and stood up in full view of the enemy firing at the German soldiers advancing to counter-attack. He was eventually killed as he gathered up and reorganised the men to try to hold their position.

Captain Bell, killed in action at the age of 20, has no known grave and is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing of The Somme at Thiepval.

In recognition of his incredible bravery and devotion to duty he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, one of four awarded to the 36th (Ulster) Division on 1 July 1916. The Victoria Cross was presented to Eric Bell's family by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 29 November 1916. His citation published in the Supplement to the London Gazette, dated 26 September 1916, read as follows:

Temp. Capt. Eric Norman Frankland Bell,
late R. Innis. Fus.

For most conspicuous bravery. 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.

Captain Bell's Victoria Cross

Eric's sister Dora, who had possession of the medal, emigrated to New Zealand where she settled and married in 1933 and at this point the Victoria Cross disappeared from view until 1999.

The Regimental Colonel of The Royal Irish Regiment, Colonel J S Douglas OBE, received a phone call from the British High Commissioner in New Zealand. He was advised that Air Vice Marshal Sir Richard Bolt KBE CB DFC AFC, who had been New Zealand's Chief of Defence Staff from 1976-1980 was Dora Bell's stepson. She had given him Eric Bell's Victoria Cross and his family wished to offer the medal to the museum of The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Sir Richard Bolt said, 'The VC has been a source of pride and inspiration in my own family, but I now wish to ensure that it is kept in appropriate hands…. I am delighted to learn about the [Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers] Museum at Enniskillen Castle and clearly this is where Bell's VC should be.'

The VC was handed over on 15 February 2001 to the Patron of the museum, Viscount Brookeborough Bt DL by the Regimental Colonel. Lord Brookeborough said, 'I am honoured to accept Captain Bell's Victoria Cross into the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers collection and would like to express the thanks of the Regimental Trustees to Sir Richard for his outstanding generosity in presenting this highest of decorations for gallantry to be displayed with the treasures of Eric Bell's old Regiment.'

The VC, along with Captain Bell's silver cigarette case, which still contained a half-smoked Woodbine, the original telegram informing the parents of their son's death, and a photograph, were then handed over to the museum by Lord Brookeborough on behalf of Sir Richard Bolt. The following year, Lieutenant Colonel David Twigg, a Trustee of the Museum visited New Zealand and was able to thank Sir Richard in person for his family's most generous gift.