HE was just one of many young soldiers who never made it home from the bloody Flanders fields after paying the ultimate price in the “war to end all wars”.
Leith lad William Bell survived one battle after the next for three horrendous years, only to be killed in action in autumn 1917.
Today he lies buried beneath a simple white Commonwealth War Graves Commission stone set among row upon row of identical stones hundreds of miles from home. But as the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War approaches, Gunner Bell – from Easter Road – is at the centre of a valiant effort to find out more about just who he was, why he ended up fighting for a mainly English battalion and where his remaining family might be.
Military historian Chris Dunham from Dalkeith, is trying to trace any descendants of the local soldier as the clock ticks down to poignant events to mark the centenary of the start of the war, in the hope they can have the chance to pay their personal respects to him during regimental commemorations.
He faces an uphill struggle, however. For so far his research into the only Scot to lose his life fighting with the 32 Brigade Royal Artillery, 86 Battery, is little more than his name, rank – Gunner – and serial number, 650490. “He was very unusual,” says Chris, 67, whose grandfather also fought in the First World War and whose father-in-law served with the Royal Artillery. “His details jumped out at me as I went through the list of the men killed while serving with the regiment during the war, because he is the only Scot.
“His parents are said to have lived at 363 Easter Road, and he was killed in action on October 18, 1917, aged 23. And I know he served with the regiment at the Battle of Le Cateau in August 1914. But other than finding out through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that he died in October 1917 and is buried at Cement House Cemetery in Belgium, the rest is a mystery.
Chris, who served with the regiment in the 60s after it had been restructured as 42 Regiment RA and is currently its historian, says he hopes someone might recognise Gunner Bell’s details from the scant information available. However even that may be confused, as there are conflicting details concerning his middle name – either Charles or Chalmers.
But what is known is that like all soldiers heading into the theatre of war, he wrote a will, leaving what little he owned to his nearest and dearest. The torn scrap of paper, hastily written in pencil, reads: “In the event of my death. £5 to my sister Miss Maggie Bell, Thornhill Terrace, Leith, and I give the remaining parts of my property to mother Mrs Jane Bell, Thornill Terrace, Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland.”
Gunner Bell’s will is among thousands of Scottish First World War soldiers’ wills recently released to view on the Scotland’s People website, which contains details of Scottish births, deaths, marriages and census information.
Thornhill Terrace, however, is long gone – it was among the slum tenements which were eventually condemned and knocked down. And the whereabouts of his sister, Maggie, are unknown.
“Most of the men that served in the regiment were English,” adds Chris. “They were losing men faster than they were able to recruit them, so they were taking men from all over the place.”
Chris, who is a member of the Royal Artillery Association in Edinburgh, says events are being planned to mark the beginning of the First World War and it is hoped the lone Scots’ relatives might be involved. “I would really like to trace any family members to invite them along to the Edinburgh Artillery Association commemoration,” he added. “It would be great to find out more about who Gunner Bell was.”
n Do you know where Gunner William Bell’s family could be? Contact Chris Dunham on 07545 094 909 or visit www.42regt.com