John (‘Jack’) Bell was the eldest son and was born at home in Mabbot Street on the 4th Feb 1896.
He was eighteen and a half when war broke out and so was eligible for military service right from the start. We have no precise details of when and why he enlisted. However, we have a letter he wrote home from his camp in Scotland to his family in March 1917 in which he has just celebrated St. Patrick’s Day.[i] As training lasted several months, it is most likely is that he joined the war-time army in early 1917. However Jack’s army career may, like his father, have begun before war broke out.
Jack’s unit history is more complex than his fathers. We have a picture card of Jack sent from the Curragh Camp, Co. Kildare. The card is signed ‘From your loving son Jack’ on the front and on the back with ‘To Mother with best love from your loving son Jack’. In the picture he is wearing an elaborate cavalry uniform with ‘Harp & Crown’ tunic badges. This would be the dress uniform worn in peace time or formal occasions (as opposed to simple khaki service uniform). These details put him in one of the several Irish cavalry regiments. But which one? Using the 1911 Army dress regulations, we find that the only regiment that matches the style of uniform in the picture and who wore the ‘Harp & Crown’ badge on their dress uniform are the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers.[ii]
There is one further piece of evidence on the picture card. On the back is written the number 13.3.20. Read form right to left, this could be the date 20th March 1913. Had Jack enlisted before the war?
None of the official military or commemorative records mention Jack’s enlistment in the 5th Lancers. Furthermore, Soldier’s Died in the Great War gives his place of war-time enlistment as Glasgow. This means that Jack had either been discharged or deserted from the 5th Lancers before he joined. British pre-war discharge papers have survived intact, but there is no record of a John Bell 5th Lancers among them, though it is possible that his pre-war papers were added to his wartime service record and destroyed along with it.
Was he transferred from the 5th Lancers to the Royal Scots? There is no official record of this and it would not account for the record of his enlisting in Glasgow. Plus, if he was in the 5th Lancers at the start of the war, it is remarkable that he did not see action until 1917. Had he deserted, but under constant pressure from Crown agents, caught a steamer and re-enlisted in Glasgow, a place where he would not be known? This was my assumption until been told firmly that it was not Jack who had deserted. Perhaps he was found out as been underage (in March 1913 he would have been only seventeen) and was forced out of the army.
Whatever influenced Jack to enlist seems to have had a renewed influence after 1914. He was not caught up in the initial wave of popular volunteering that swept Europe (including Ireland) in 1914. He was not dissuaded by the political and emotional impact of the 1916 Rising at home, nor by the hideous nature of the war itself, something that was clearly illustrated by his crippled father. Teasing through his surviving letter home, the reference to a rift with his father may mean that tensions at home sent him overseas, though it may have been the other way round and his very decision to (re)enlist that created the rift with his father.
The official record of British Army war-dead, Soldiers Died in the Great War, gives Jack Bell’s wartime place of enlistment as Glasgow. We lack any family stories about his going to Scotland or reasons for enlisting, but can only presume that this is true and that Jack took a boat to Scotland and joined up there.[iii]
Jack’s letter of March 1917 gives his details as “Pte J. Bell 6[?] coy 3rd RS, No. 38948, Hut B17 Glencorse”. He was a private, service number 38948, in the 3rd Battalion Royal Scots.[iv] Like his father’s unit, the 3rd Royal Scots was a Reserve battalion, used to train new recruits, who were then sent off in batches to other battalions of the regiment fighting overseas. At this time the unit was based at Glencorse, Edinburgh.
Training of new recruits consisted of various activities, such as drilling, marching, fitness, bayonet and rifle training, and battle tactics, punctuated with chores, rest-days, camp entertainment and occasional leave. After a few months training, Jack was drafted off to the front-line. He wrote a postcard to his family from Folkstone, Co. Kent, dated May 23rd 1917, saying he was on his way to France. It was only a short distance from Folkestone across the English Channel to the frontline in France.
Once in France, Jack was assigned to the 11th Battalion Royal Scots.[v] Looking at their war diary, at this time they were stationed at various places around Arras, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northeast France.[vi] This unit was seriously under-strength (only 250-strong on the 7th June). A succession of drafts brought it up to 700 by early July. However, very soon after Jack arrived in France, a number of men attached to the 11th Royal Scots, including Jack, were drafted off to the 10th Cameronians. At what point it happened we cannot tell, as Jack’s army service record is missing and the battalion war-diaries make no reference to the transfer. It could have happened anytime up to the 25th July 1917 as this is when the 10th Cameronians received their last draft of men before the offensive in which Jack died.
On been assigned to the 10th Cameronians (also called the Scottish Rifles) Jack was issued a new regimental service number, 41614.[vii] This unit was stationed further north, across the Belgian border, around Ypres. This unit was also under-strength, but more importantly, it was part of a division that would be participating in a major forthcoming offensive (in which the 11th Royal Scot was not participating), hence the need for it to receive immediate reinforcements from other units, instead of awaiting men from its reserve battalions at home.
Both the 11th Royals Scots and 10th Cameronians were in the frontline during the months of June and July and undertook raids on the enemy trenches. However, we cannot know for certain if Jack saw combat or was under-fire before the battle in which he died.
With more certainty we can trace the events of his last days. For this we have Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, the private history of the 10th Cameronians, and the personal testimony of an army friend of Jacks, who visited his family to tell them of his last hours.
We do not know anything about this friend who bore the story of Jack’s death. He may have been Irish, or else he made a long journey to bear his news. That Jack had a friend willing to undertake this role shows they knew each other a while. Perhaps he had been drafted to the Cameronians from the Royal Scots along with Jack.
“I remember my father telling me that his mother (Hannah Bell) told of an army friend coming to the house and explaining what happened. The story goes that the regiment were fighting over the same piece of ground with the Germans driving them back and John's regiment recapturing the ground again. Apparently on the third such occasion they went over the top and a large shell exploded amongst them. When the dust cleared John was nowhere to be found.” [viii]
His friends account fits well with the post-war history of the battalion written by surviving officers. Jack’s unit were part of the British forces assembled to take part in a major offensive to capture territory to the east of Ypres. The offensive began on 31st July 1917 and is called the Third Battle of Ypres. It was one of most infamous battles of the war, involving huge casualties on both sides, with little actual change to the ground held. A full account is available of the opening battle from the 10th Cameronians perspective. It details the hour by hour fortunes of the battalion right down to company level. In summary, the portion of the battlefront that they were involved in saw an initial advance on the 31st July, but then strong enemy counter-attacks. There were heavy artillery barrages by both sides and intense fighting amid the surrounding farms, fields and trenches. The battalion took heavy casualties and were eventually forced to retire as they were in danger of been completely overrun by the enemy to their front and sides. The 10th Cameronians were withdrawn from the battle on the night of August 1st.[ix] In less than 48 hours, Jack’s company had been reduced from some100 men to only12 men. The rest were dead, captured, or wounded. Jack was among those missing. At some point amid the carnage, he had been killed by artillery fire.
His family received a telegram (dreaded in homes throughout Europe) informing them Jack was missing in action. In time the army confirmed his status as killed in action (up to this point there was the possibility a missing person had been captured, news of which would take time to be relayed). Sadly Jack Bell’s body was never identified.
Jack’s memory was held dear by his brothers and sisters. His sister Hannah wore a locket with his picture in it. Pictures of him and Christy were copied and handed down, as well surviving personal documents and various stories. They also treasured the medals and a memorial plaque issued to them, as next-of-kin, by the British authorities.
On an official level, as a casualty of the Great War, Jack Bell was commemorated by inclusion on war memorials and on various lists of the dead. For instance, he is listed in the UK’s Soldiers Died in the Great War, and the elaborately illustrated Irish version, Ireland’s Memorial Records 1914-1918.
(Jack’s entry is the third last on the page)
The Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle contains a memorial for each individual Scottish regiment. Below each memorial is a book of those who died in that regiment. Jack is recorded in the Cameronian book as “Bell, J 41614 Pte. France. 1/8/17. 10th Bn.”.[x]
His name is also recorded on the Menin Gate memorial in the town of Ypres, Belgium, close to where he died. The Menin Gate commemorates British Army soldiers with no known grave.[xi] This large arch stands across the western entrance to the town. On it are inscribed the names of over 50,000 soldiers from across the world. John Bell is commemorated on Panel 22. Each evening at 8 o’clock, the local fire brigade gather here and play the ‘Last Post’ in memory of those who fell.
[i] The letter is dated Sunday 18th March but has no year. However, 1917 was the only war-year in which March 18th fell on a Sunday. Furthermore, he mentions he will be going to France shortly and we then have a postcard from Folkestone, Co. Kent, dated May 23rd 1917, just before embarking for France. So the letter has to be from 1917 as well.
[ii] See Brassey, World War One: British Army and R.H Harris, The Irish Regiments - A Pictorial History 1683-1987 for useful pictures and descriptions of WWI era uniforms.
[iii] We can only speculate as to why he went to Scotland. If he had deserted, was he evading arrest? Also, as the records do not distinguish between enlistment and conscription, could he have gone to Scotland to work and got conscripted into the army?
[iv] We have it from family sources that Jack hated wearing a kilt and begged Hannah to get him a transfer (Annie Walker, Winter 2000). This story, to be accurate, would require Jack was at some point to be in the 9th Royal Scots, as these were the only battalion of the Royal Scots regiment to wear kilts. The Cameronians did not wear kilts either, so perhaps the story applies to Christy?
[v] We can deduce this from his Medal Roll, which gives both the 11th Royal Scots and 10th Cameronians. Units were only listed on the Medal if the individual was attached to them in a ‘theatre of war’ (in this case France/Flanders). I am grateful to William Spencer of the British PRO for this knowledge.
[vi] During June and July the battalion moved to the following locations east and west of Arras : Magnicourt-en-Comte, Plouvain, Mowchy-Breton, La Thieuloye, Manin, and Ambrines.
[vii] It is interesting to note from the 10th Cameronians Medal Roll that of those men given service numbers in the range 41600 to 41616, eleven were originally from the 11th Royal Scots. So these were probably the men that Jack was transferred with. One of them may very well have been the friend who later visited Jack’s family with the tale of his death.
[viii] Christopher Walker, November 2000. I have heard a similar story, through my mother, from Jack’s youngest sister Rebecca. The 10th Battalion lost hundreds of men in the first two days of the offensive, so it was possible Jack died on the 31st July and was only noted as missing when the unit retired at the end of the August 1st, when there was a chance to take stock. However, the friend who was present at the moment when Jack died would most likely have reported the date he went ‘missing in action’, so we can trust the date of his death as been 1st August.
[ix] His father’s ex-regiment, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were part of the 16th Irish Division that relieved the 15th Scottish Division (containing the 10th Cameronians).
[x] The reference to France is incorrect and should read Belgium or Flanders. The full inscription on the memorial is:
“Formed in the year 1881 by the union of the 26th Cameronians raised in 1689 by the Earl of Angus and the 90th Light Infantry raised in 1794 by Thomas Graham Laird of Balgowan. To the glory of God and in memory of the 7075 officers, warrant officers, NCOs & Men who served in the Regular, Special Reserve, Territorial and Service Battalions in the Great War 1914-18 and laid down their lives for King and Country, this memorial is placed in the capital city of their land that what they did may not be forgotten by their countrymen.”
[xi] It is possible Jack’s remains are buried in one of the many graves of unknown soldiers, variously inscribed with ‘A Soldier of the Great War’ and ‘Known Unto God’