Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Hero, Lance Corporal F L Bell – Bullecourt

We were on our third day of touring the Australian Battlefields of World War 1 in Belguim and France. The weather had improved considerably, and was sunny and warm.

It was a Sunday and the summer tourists and locals were everywhere, making the traffic somewhat congested on some of the narrow country lanes.

It was time to visit the grave of another of our family heroes, Lance-Corporal Frank Leslie Bell, who was buried at the Queant Road Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.

Queant Cemetery is near the French villages of Queant and Cambrai and was made by the 2nd and 57th Casualty Clearing Stations in October and November 1918. It then consisted of 71 graves, but was greatly enlarged after the Armistice when 2200 graves were brought in from the burial grounds in battlefields between Arras and Bapaume
There are now 2,377 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery.

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Frank Leslie Bell, the fourth son of George and Mary Bell (nee Howe) of Armidale, New South Wales had enlisted in 1915. He was part of the 29th Battalion, who embarked on the HMAT Demosthenes from Freemantle on 29 December 1915. He spent several months in Egypt training before he embarked on the HMT Transylvania to Marseilles for deployment on the Western Front in the 4th Australian Division.

His older brother, Oliver Bell, who enlisted a few months later, was also destined for these same battlefields.

Frank Leslie Bell was killed at the First Battle of Bullecourt, on 11 April 1917.

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Bullecourt, a village in northern France, was one of several villages to be heavily fortified and incorporated into the defences of the Hindenburg Line in 1917.

In March 1917, the German army had withdrawn to the Hindenburg Line in order to shorten their front and thus make their positions easier to defend. This move was rapidly followed up by the British and empire forces, and they launched an offensive around Arras in early April 1917.

To assist the Arras operations, an attack was launched on Bullecourt on 11 April 1917 by the 4th Australian and 62nd British Divisions. The attack was hastily planned and mounted and resulted in disaster. Tanks which were supposed to support the attacking Australian infantry either broke down or were quickly destroyed. Nevertheless, the infantry managed to break into the German defences. Due to uncertainty as to how far they had advanced, supporting artillery fire was withheld, and eventually the Australians were hemmed in and forced to retreat. The two brigades of the 4th Division that carried out the attack, the 4th and 12th, suffered over 3,300 casualties; 1,170 Australians were taken prisoner – the largest number captured in a single engagement during the war.

In the 1st Battle of Bullecourt, the 14th Australian Infantry Brigade orders on the 11 April 1917 were to ” attack the Hindenberg Line about Bullecourt… and to push on to Reincourt”.

Lots of other material including photos and letters concerning the Battles of Bullecourt can be found at http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/bullecourt/.

There was much confusion about the death of Lance Corporal Bell, and he was the subject of a Red Cross Wounded and Missing Report.

These files were created by the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau of the Australian Red Cross, which was a branch of the British Red Cross. The Bureau, which commenced operation in October 1915, sought to identify, investigate and respond to enquiries made by friends and family regarding the fate of Australian service personnel, posted as wounded and missing on official Army lists. For many years, research into these files was by personal visit only, at the Australian War Memorial. In 2002, the files were digitised to preserve the fragile original documents and to provide greater public access to this valuable and unique information. They can be found online at the Australian War Memorial’s website at http://www.awm.gov.au

This file on Lance Corporal Bell included a letter of enquiry by his brother, Oliver, and three reported interviews with soldiers, who went into battle with him that fateful day.

His mate, Corporal Burns, who was one interviewed by the Red Cross, said, ” The Battalion took the enemy’s front line trench in front of Bullecourt on April 11th, after hours of fighting which began at day break. Only a few of them succeeded in reaching the trench. He, ( F L Bell), was killed by machine gun fire as he got through the wire. There was hand to hand fighting for about six hours, but the trench was lost about midday, and they were forced to retire without bringing out those who had been killed”.

His body was eventually retrieved and as he still had his identification tags on, he was able to be buried in an identified grave in a war cemetery.

We were pleased to be able to find his headstone here in this beautiful and peaceful cemetery, and pay our respects to another family hero.

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