SOMME VC RETURNS HOME AFTER 85 YEARS
The Victoria Cross has been awarded on 18 occasions to members of the Irish antecedent regiments, four of them for actions on July 1st 1916. Three of these July 1st medals are held in Regimental Museums in Northern Ireland.
The fourth and final Somme VC, awarded to Captain Eric Bell, was returned home to Enniskillen, his birth place, today (Thursday 15th February 2001), where it will be placed in The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers Regimental Museum, housed in the Castle. The medal had been privately held in New Zealand for the past 67 years.
Eric Norman Frankland Bell was born in Enniskillen on 28th August 1895, where his father Captain E H Bell was stationed as Quartermaster of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Eric was the youngest member of the Bell family, having two older brothers and a sister.
A Royal Irish Regimental Historian explained, "His father was posted to England, and Eric was educated in Liverpool. When the war broke out in 1914, he was studying at the School of Architecture at Liverpool University. He was commissioned as an officer into his father's regiment in September 1914, and by November 1914 he had been transferred to the 9th Battalion where his father was adjutant. In October 1915, as a Lieutenant in command of a trench Mortar Battery, he was posted to France."
The Regimental Historian added, "The action in which he won the Victoria Cross was fought at Thiepval on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Captain Bell, as he was by then, was attached to the 109th Light Mortar Battery, 109th Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division. Shortly after the advance began, cross-fire from a German machine gun held up the Inniskillings. Bell crept forward, and with several well-aimed shots, killed the machine gun crew. Throughout the remainder of that day he led several bombing attacks against enemy positions, all of which were successful. He used mortar shells as bombs and when he ran out of bombs, he used a rifle to deadly effect. He was killed attempting to organise a counter attack with scattered parties of infantry who had lost their officers. He was only 20 years old."
The Victoria Cross was presented to his family by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 29 November 1916, and Captain Bell's name appears on the Thiepval Memorial.
Eric's sister, Dora Bell, who had possession of the important family artefact took it with her to New Zealand when she married and settled there in 1933.
Several months ago Colonel Stewart Douglas, the Regimental Colonel of the Royal Irish Regiment, received a phone call from the British High Commission in New Zealand, starting a whole new chapter in the story.
Air Marshal, Sir Richard Bolt KBE CB DFC AFC RNZAF (Ret'd), is the stepson of Dora Bell, and in recognition of his distinguished military career (he was New Zealand's Chief of the Defence Staff 1976-1980) she passed the VC to him shortly before her death.
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 Castleand clearly this is where Bell's VC should be."
The VC was handed over today (Thursday 15th February 2001) to the Patron of the museum, The Right Honourable, The Viscount Brookborough, DL by Colonel Stewart Douglas, the Regimental Colonel of the Royal Irish Regiment.
Viscount Brookborough 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.