JOHN HOARE'S FAMILY HISTORY
Reginald Victor James BELL 1897 - 1915
additional content December 2013
This page was originally written in 2011, but it has been substantially re-written as a result of information received from Peter Clegg, whose family is descended from Reginald's sister Ada Lilian, augmented by a little research on my part. I am told that Ada always referred to her brother as Victor, so I will follow this convention.
I have also learnt more about Victor's unit from published records, and I have written a page covering his life as a soldier in World War One
Reginald Victor James BELL was my grandmother's brother, the youngest of thirteen. This made him my great-uncle, and I should have known him but it was not to be. He died in the mud outside Ypres, in Southern Belgium, and his story is shared with thousands of young men of his generation. His sister Ada apparently always called him Victor, so that is what I will do.
Despite living in the area and cycling past Victor's memorial on the way to school countless times as a child, I knew nothing of his life. I am inclined to be angry that his family didn't do more to honour him, but when I was growing up the memories of the second world War were still raw, so perhaps it is understandable. I have now seen his memorial at the Menin Gate, and I have been sent pictures of his name on the Southampton Cenotaph, which has moved me to set up a separate page to cover where and how his name is honoured.
I haven't been able to access Victor's military records, so I guess they were amongst many destroyed by enemy action in World War Two. I have seen the medal record card which shows that he was posthumously awarded the Victory medal, the British War Medal, and the 1914 Star. I have seen records which suggest that Victor was awarded the 1914-15 Star rather than the 1914 Star, but he wouldn't have received both. The 1914 Star is considered more prestigious because of the difficult conditions of the first year of the war. Victor's family still have his medals.
Victor was born in early 1897, the youngest of thirteen children. His father Thomas worked as a farm labourer in the countryside to the North of Southampton. By the1911 census Thomas had died and Victor, aged fourteen, was living with his oldest brother William and his family, working as 'odd boy in garden' on Broadlands Estate, Romsey alongside William. It is perhaps no surprise that enlisting in the army would sound more exciting. (According to the 1901 census there were two brothers named William, born 23 years apart)
When Great Britain declared War on Germany in August 1914, Victor was seventeen and a quarter. I would guess that as a country boy he was used to handling horses, which may have been the reason that he enlisted in the cavalry. The minimum age for volunteering for the army was eighteen and the minimum age for service overseas was nineteen, but that didn't stop him enlisting on August 23rd. Ada tells the story of the day she saw a soldier coming towards her who turned out to be Victor. This led to a family row about what he had done, and his stance was 'If you try and do anything about it I will sign up the day I'm old enough!' Ada wrote to Victor when he was on active service, to ask if he needed anything. He asked for underwear as what he had was crawling with lice.
Victor would have quickly seen action in the British expeditionary Force, as one of the 'Old Contemptibles'. His regiment was the 19th Hussars (Queen Alexandra's Own) and possibly the only amusing part of this story is that the full title was - 'Household Cavalry and Cavalry of the Line (incl. Yeomanry and Imperial Camel Corps), Battalion: 19th (Queen Alexandras Own Royal) Hussars'. The regiment was split up at the beginning of hostilities and attached to Infantry Divisions as divisional cavalry squadrons.
Victor was in the Fourth Division, and probably took part in the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne, and Messine Ridge in 1914.
On 14 April 1915 the regiment was brought together again as part of the newly formed 9th Cavalry Brigade 1st Cavalry division, and immediately involved in the second battle of Ypres.
Victor was posted to the Ypres Salient - in this context a salient occurs when the attacker's lines push into enemy territory in such a way that they are surrounded on three sides. The second battle of Ypres took place between April 22th and May 25th 1915. The opening stages saw the first widespread use of poison gas by the German military, which caught the British largely unawares and caused enormous losses. Victor died in the last major action, Bellewaarde Ridge, on May 24th. (Ypres is in Southern Belgium, and Bellewaarde is 5 km East of Ypres centre, just north of the Menin road. The spelling of towns in this area varies.) On this day the German army launched a second and more massive gas attack, backed up by conventional weaponry. Although there were heavy losses the British forces were better prepared than in the previous attack and more able hold their own. Total deaths for the month were 71,000 Allied forces and 35,000.
I have been able to see the official war diaries for Victor's unit, and using these and other records I have written more about his last days on a new page
When I first read about the use of poison gas in the second battle of Ypres I was concerned that Victor may have died from poison gas. Reading about the effects of poison gas even today makes painful reading, but now I have seen the war diary for the day he died it seems that although his unit was aware of the presence of gas he was killed by a shell, which was probably quick and explains why his body was never recovered.
The backlash against the use of poison gas in warfare, coupled with collateral losses should have shown the British military leaders that it wasn't the way ahead, but in September the same year the British military decided to give it a try in the battle of Loos. I will refrain from comment as I am no historian, but the links below give more information.
You can read a little about how Victor's life and death was remembered by his older brother Jack and his mother Charlotte on Jack's page.
Some of my references below make difficult reading.
Victor's casualty record from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
There are many websites covering the battles around Ypres - here are three which cover the subject from the general context to the battle in which Victor died.
More detail of Victor's last action from the WW1 casualties records of highfieldhistory.co.uk
Private family records of conversations with Ada Lilian Bell recorded by Peter Clegg (her grandson)
.© John Hoare 2011-13