Three brothers went to war - but only one lived through it all

The Bell brothers in their uniforms.
The Bell brothers in their uniforms.
Have your say

Kevin Dance has shared many a tragic tale of First World War bravery.

But perhaps the most tragic is that of the Bell family.

The front lines of the British defences. Photo: PA.

The front lines of the British defences. Photo: PA.

Three brothers went to war. Only two came home – and one of those was soon dead from the effects of the injuries he suffered.

Today, we look – with Kevin’s help – at the stories of Lance Corporal John James Bell, Private George Robert Bell, and Private William Henry Bell, all from South Hetton.

l John James Bell, like many other men of his day, served in the pits.

He was a coal miner hewer.

It is the story of 3 brothers who all joined the same unit and served in the same places – 2 of them joined on the very same day

Kevin Dance

But when war came, it was a war with a difference for John who joined up in 1915.

His family’s deeply held religious beliefs meant that when he enlisted, he did it with the Royal Army Medical Corps so that he might serve his king and country without having to take up arms.

Soon, he was posted to the Mediterranean with the 34th /35th Field Ambulance unit.

By December that year, he was on board the HMHS Grantully Castle which was a converted liner that was serving as a hospital ship.

The job included transporting casualties back from France to Southampton but by April 1918, John was the patient himself.

He was admitted to a war hospital in Southampton with an unspecified illness.

He recuperated and returned to France where he spent six months with the 98th Field Ambulance Unit as part of an Advanced Dressing Station and a Main Dressing Station, dealing with the wounded brought back from The Front on stretchers.

He was as close to the front line as it was possible to get.

The war ended on November 11, 1918 and gradually the withdrawal from Europe to the UK began.

John himself was demobilized in January 1919 but by March that year, he was dead from Malarial Fever leaving a widow Henrietta Sarah Taylor. He was awarded the Victory, British, and 15 Star medals.

Kevin said: “He is remembered with honour at St Michael’s Churchyard, Hawthorn.”

l William Henry Bell had a good life outside of war. He was married to Sarah Agnes Fife and they had three children.

But Kevin told us: “He enlisted with his two brothers and his wife was furious with him because he was a volunteer and not conscripted, and as a coal miner didn’t need to serve.”

He was posted with the 34 th Field Ambulance Unit, serving in Gallipoli, Alexandria in Egypt and eventually France.

But William became a victim of the shell attacks which plagued the First World War.

On April 25, 1918, he was part of a working party at Barlin which saw three Privates including William Henry Bell all perish.

Two days later, his funeral was held and soon after, his widow Sarah was awarded £21, 14 shillings and 3 pence.

Kevin told us: “Sarah (along with other First World War widows) would also have received a pension of 13 shillings and 9 pence per week. William’s children would have received an allowance until they reached 16 years of age.”

l The youngest of the three brothers was Private George Robert Bell, born in October 1895.

In peacetime, was a pony driver in a pit and like his brothers, dGeorge signs up for service with the RAMC due to his religious beliefs .

Just like William, George served in Gallipoli, Alexandria, Egypt and France.

But unlike his brother, he survived to tell the tale of a brutal war.

He was demobilised on the January 14, 1919, and was awarded the British, Victory, and 15 Star Medals.

But two brothers had paid with their lives.

As Kevin told us: “It is the story of three brothers who all joined the same unit and served in the same places – two of them joined on the very same day.”

We thank Kevin for some tragic yet inspiring stories on the men of South Hetton who fought and died on the First World War battlefields.

To share your own items of nostalgia, get in touch by emailing