Seeking Harry Bell

The Battle of Fromelles was fought on the evening of the 19th July 1916 when the German front line was attacked after a seven hour artillery bombardment. The bombardment had been ineffective against the strong defences of the German line and only served to destroy any element of surprise for the attacking allied forces. The 5th Australian Division and 61st British Divisions went over the top at 5:43 p.m. on a summer’s evening into heavily fortified territory.

The AIF suffered 5,533 casualties in the Battle of Fromelles with 1,917 Australian volunteer soldiers paying the supreme sacrifice while defending the Empire. The British suffered 1,547 casualties and the German’s just over 1,000 casualties. The ‘missing’ at Fromelles, until recently, have been recorded as having no known graves. The recent archaeological dig at Pheasant Wood near Fromelles has revealed the pits were British and Australian dead from the battle were interred by the German army. As the battlefield was cleared of bodies the details of these men were meticulously recorded on ‘death vouchers’ before being put into the

Photo: British and Australian soldiers bodies taken from the Fromelles battlefield prior to burial 20 July 1916

Four hundred and ninety six Australian were taken prisoner during the battle, 38 of whom died as a result of their wounds. The remaining prisoners were marched back to the town of Lille where they were paraded through the streets before being taken to POW camps. The International Red Cross Bureau worked throughout the Great War liaising between the British and German Army as well as supplying food parcels and delivering mail.

Photo: Present day view from the Sugar Loaf Salient towards British lines. [Warren Baker]

The Australian Red Cross office in Melbourne received the first of many letters from the Bell family seeking information about Private Henry Bell (191) dated 17 September 1916. In this letter written from his brother, John Bell, it states his wife and all of us are exceedingly anxious concerning him. Though we hope & pray for the best.

Photo: Private Henry Bell [AWM DA09996]
This photo has been reproduced with the permission of the
Australian War Memorial

Mrs Dorothy Bell had previously received an official cable, dated 21 August, notifying her that her husband was reported ‘Missing in Action’.  John Bell’s letter also states that they hope Private Bell is amongst the prisoners taken during the battle:
We know only what the Def. Dpt told us that he was missing on 19th-20th July. I understand the Dpt thinks that many of the missing men are prisoners of war. Is there any way in which we could find out?

Private Bell had been a member of the 29th Battalion during the ill-fated Battle of Fromelles on 19 July 1916. 

Henry Bell was a 39 year old insurance agent when he enlisted in the AIF on 8th July 1915 at Bendigo, in country Victoria. Henry Bell was a prominent member of the Bendigo community having been the Secretary of the Bendigo Rose Society and a member of the organising committee for the Bendigo Egg Laying Competitions. Henry & Dorothy Bell were married shortly before his enlistment and embarkation aboard HMAT Ascanius from Melbourne in November 1915.

The Australian War Memorial website notes: The 29th Battalion was raised as part of the 8th Brigade at Broadmeadows Camp in Victoria on 10 August 1915. Having enlisted as part of the recruitment drive that followed the landing at Gallipoli, and having seen the casualty lists, these were men who had offered themselves in full knowledge of their potential fate.
The 29th, 30th, 31st & 32nd Battalions formed the 8th Brigade which was part of the newly raised 5th Division of the AIF in training camp in Egypt.
The 29th Battalion fought its first major battle at Fromelles on 19 July 1916. The nature of this battle was summed up by one 29th soldier: “the novelty of being a soldier wore off in about five seconds…it was like a bloody butcher’s shop.” Although it still spent periods in the front line, the 29th played no major offensive role for the rest of the year.

Mrs Dorothy Bell remained hopeful that her husband was a prisoner of war and began a written campaign to try and contact ‘Harry’. She first wrote to Vera Deakin, daughter of former Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who headed the Australian Branch of the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau in London.

Photo: Vera Deakin [AWM P02119.001]
This photo has been reproduced with the permission of the
Australian War Memorial

Four letters to Miss Deakin appear in Private Bell’s Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files . The first, dated in November, and the following three, although undated, appear to be written by the end of 1916.

1208 Dana St

Miss Deakin
Dear Madam
Hearing that you are interesting yourself for the missing soldiers I am writing to know if you could possibly get any news of my husband No191 Private Harry Bell A Company 29th Battalion 8th Inf. Brigade A.I.F. reported missing since the 19-20 of July in France. I had a letter from the Chaplain of his Brigade, saying he went into the Germen trenches & that he thought he was a prisoner of war but we have had nothing definite. When hearing of you I thought perhaps you could help us for which we would be very thankful if you could.
Gratefully yours
Dorothy I. Bell

The second letter indicated that Dorothy and Harry’s family were still hopeful of good news.

1208 Dana St

Miss Deakin
Dear Madam
Some time ago I wrote you asking if you could find any trace of my husband (No191 Private Harry Bell A Company 29th Battalion 8th Inf. Brigade missing since July 19-20 1916) I am enclosing a letter for him, in case you do hear something as it takes such a long time for a letter to go from here. I thought if you had one, you could send it to him as soon as you got word. Hoping and trusting you will be able to help me.
I am your truly
Dorothy I. Bell
My husband is a brother of Mrs Oliphant. Bendigo. Mrs Oliphant is also writing you about him.

Dorothy wrote twice more to Miss Deakin, each time enclosing a letter for her husband. By the last of these letters she is sounding increasingly troubled and dismayed. She says
I hope I am not troubling you too much but I feel I must do something. Hoping you will be able to help me.

At the same time Mrs Bell also wrote to the Australian Red Cross in Melbourne on five different occasions, with similar requests and enclosing five more letters to be forwarded to her husband when news is received of his whereabouts. Sadly her efforts were not rewarded as she received the following letter, dated 12th December 1916.

Dear Mrs Bell,
In reply to yours of the 29th. Inst., I extremely regret to inform you that your husband’s name appears on the German death list which means that they have procured some of his belongings, including his identity disc indicating that he was killed on their side of the trenches, which leaves, I regret to say, very little hope that he is a prisoner.
Please accept my heartfelt sympathy in your sad bereavement and while I know too well at the present time the loss of your husband seems irreconcible with everything, yet in the near future knowledge that he died fighting bravely for the Empire will be some compensation to you in your great loss.
Yours very sincerely

On 26th March 1917 the official entry was made in Private Bell’s Service record, which is available on line at the National Archives of Australia, stating that he was ‘Killed in Action’ 19th July 1916. His name had been recorded on ‘German Death Vouchers’ completed by the German army as they buried the allied soldiers removed from their trenches after the battle.

The Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau Files provided not only evidence for Lambis Englezos when researching the names of the missing from the Battle of Fromelles, but also give an insight into the circumstances surrounding the death of Henry Bell. Information recorded from fellow members of the 29th Battalion reveal that Private Bell died in the German trenches, held for a short time by the Battalion.
Private H.F. Downer (223) stated:
I saw casualty killed in the second line of German trenches at Fleurbaix on the 20th July. Casualty was in the trench which we just occupied when he was destroyed by H.E. shell. The body was not buried.
Private O’Shannassy (317) stated: I saw him killed by a shell ….in German trench at Fromellles as we were coming back to first line.

Mrs Dorothy Bell acted promptly in writing to The Officer in Charge, Base Records Office, Melbourne, requesting her husband’s personal belongings be forwarded to her as soon as possible. The only thing that appears to have been returned to his widow was his identity disc.

Should the heartfelt letters of widow Bell be left unanswered, even after 92 years? Should the family of Private Henry Bell and his fallen comrades be given the opportunity to have their soldier heroes finally laid to rest with dignity?

Photo: Ration Farm Cemetery [Tim Whitford]

FFFAIF Policy Statement

The Families and Friends of the First AIF believes that the Australian Government through the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs should commit the to re-burial of the “missing of Fromelles” with individual graves and headstones in a new Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Pheasant Wood after DNA testing.



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