Those readers who have begun to dip into the recently released correspondence files of officers of the Great War (classes WO 339 and WO 374 at The National Archives, Kew) will probably, like me, have been struck most forcibly by the content of some of the material contained therein. As a professional researcher I have delved into well over a hundred of these files, and although most of the information is of a routine nature, I usually find something different in each one: an elderly officer court-martialled for drunkenness; a former hero with a criminal conviction who lost his nerve after being wounded; a protracted correspondence between an aggrieved officer and the War Office over arrears of pay.
However, it was in researching a medal group of my own that I came across two letters that struck me as particularly moving. Although I am sure that the circumstances revealed in these letters are by no means unique, I am sure that they are at least unusual.
The file in question was that relating to Second Lieutenant Henry Bell, 2nd Battalion (attached 8th Battalion) Yorkshire Regiment. I had bought his 1914 Star Trio many years ago, and had researched his career as much as I could using published, regimental and TNA Kew sources. Reading his file I found relatively little that I did not already know, but it was two letters that I would never have come across anywhere else that made the file worth researching.
Henry Bell, or Thomas Henry Andrew Bell to give him his full name, enlisted as a regular soldier into the 2/Yorkshire Regiment on 13 June 1910 at Jarrow. Born in Spital Tongue, Newcastle, he was a clerk by profession, and soon rose through the ranks; by March 1915 he was a Sergeant and Orderly Room Clerk. He was given a permanent commission in the Yorkshire Regiment for distinguished service in the field 20 May 1916, and attached to the 8th Battalion of the regiment. Wounded in the buttock on the Somme in July 1916, he received what proved to be a mortal gunshot wound to the head in September 1917 on the Menin Road, and was taken (eventually) to No 2 Red Cross Hospital, Rouen. His father, John Joseph Bell, was summoned to his dying son’s bedside, but another very important person to the young man was not.
I am writing to ask for information concerning 2nd Lieut Bell Yorkshire Regt who is lying in a dying condition in a Red X Hospital at Rouen. I am writing as the fiancee of Lieut Bell & must see him if the worst happens. The doctor has given him up as hopeless...His father was sent for a week ago & he has wired to say his son is asking for me & could I get permission to go out. What I want to know is will you grant me a full pass to go out and see him as I am a nurse and think I should be granted a pass to see him before he goes. Please let me know by return what you can do for me I remain Yours Truly Nurse L Wood, South Eastern Hospital Avonley Road New Cross London SE 14"
Although the letter is date-stamped 6 October, and is endorsed "Pressing", there is no indication whether Miss Wood was granted her request. Henry Bell died on 17 October in his 26th year, and was buried in the presence of his father in St Sever Cemetery. On 15 November J J Bell wrote to the War Office:
I hereby respectfully apply for gratuity due to the estate of my Son the late second Lieutenant Henry Bell 8th Yorkshire Regt under Article 497 of the Army Pay Warrant...
This is now my fourth son lost in this War. Sergeant John Joseph Bell DCM 13th Cheshire Regt Killed in Action 6 July 1916. First Class Boy William Bell HMS Indefatigable Killed in Action Jutland 31 May 1916. Merchant Service Seaman Andrew Bell torpedoed & lost near Bay of Biscay on SS Cavinstrath of Newcastle-on-Tyne on the 4th August 1917. I respectfully make this claim as the father & next of kin of the Late 2/Lieut H Bell.
John Joseph Bell".
To have lost four sons in the war must have been a devastating experience: the grief of the family must have been almost intolerable, and there cannot have been many other families to have suffered this level of loss. Almost incredibly, the handwriting of J J Bell is even and controlled, and the letter contains no self-pity, just a statement of the very sad facts. There was one gleam of hope in the file. Listed among the relatives of Henry Bell were two sisters in their twenties and a half-brother aged seven (clearly J J Bell had re-married after the death of his first wife, the mother of the four dead young men). However, the boy would have been of just the right age to be fighting in the next great twentieth century conflict...