John Bell was born in Brighton on 07/05/1898, the son of Robert and Jane Bell nee Woolley. His father died in mid 1901 while John and his mother were living in Blatchington. She worked as a laundress and they moved to Lewes very shortly afterwards as his brother was born in Lewes. By 1911 they were living at 1 North Court in the Cliffe area of Lewes and his mother was listed as an ironer working at the steam laundry.
John enhanced his age by a year and enlisted in the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1914. He was numbered SD3068. From this number we can deduce that he joined the 13th Battalion, the Royal Sussex Regiment, also called the 3rd South Down. This battalion began recruiting in November 1914. Men were grouped alphabetically and then numbered in sequence, starting at 2600. It is known that Tom Clarkson from Chailey, numbered 3078, enlisted on 17th December so this would suggest John enlisted very close to this date. It should be pointed out that men who enlisted prior to late 1915 did so from choice. They were not conscripted.
Following training at Cooden near Bexhill, Maidstone and finally Aldershot, John would have arrived in France at Le Havre on 6th March 1916. He fought through the war surviving horrendous fighting on the Western Front with his battalion gradually losing strength of numbers.
John was subsequently transferred to the 2nd Battalion and renumbered G/6345. The G denoted that this was a General service battalion. By 21st June 1918, when he was wounded, John was a Lance Corporal. He was entitled to wear a ‘wound stripe’ showing he had been injured, but he recovered and returned to the front to fight.
The second battle of Arras was fought at the end of August 1918 and was the last major battle of the war involving the 2nd Battalion, although fighting continued throughout September and October.
John was awarded the Military Medal, ‘for bravery in the field’ and the war diary lists him by name, along with a number of other men also honoured. The award of his medal was published in the London Gazette in May 1919. He was also raised to acting sergeant around this time.
John remained in France after the end of the war serving for a further two years in the army of occupation on the Rhine. In addition to the MM he was entitled to the War and Victory medals.
On his return John joined the 5th Battalion RSR, a Territorial Force based in Lewes and was again renumbered, this time as 6391060. He continued to rise through the ranks, becoming a colour sergeant by 1929 when he was awarded the Territorial Efficiency Medal, the TEF, and in 1937 the George VI Coronation medal, by which time he was the Company Sergeant Major.
He was a popular man and a good marksman. With a colleague he won a challenge cup for machine gun shooting at Bisley in 1933. The family were members of the Cliffe Bonfire Society.
Meanwhile he had married Violet Lillian Richardson in Lewes in the 4th quarter of 1926, and they moved to 29 Meridian Road. They had four children between 1927 and 1936, Jeanne, Marion, Norma and Robert. The 1939 register lists them all at this address. John, slightly unusually, was listed as a soldier and on the next page his regiment and number were also given. Few service personnel were identified on the 1939 register as it was considered a possible security risk.
John transferred to the 7th Battalion RSR when it was formed in late 1939, when a decision was taken to double the size of the Territorial Army. He retained his earlier number and rank. With the increase in size of the TA many of the men were untrained and initially they were employed guarding vulnerable areas. By April 1940 they were based near Rouen and were expected to return home shortly for more training. On 17th May they boarded a train towards Amiens but were halted on the western outskirts of the town due to heavy fighting and an attack on the town by the Germans.
While stationary they were bombed by the Lutwaffe. A second lieutenant commandeered a French ambulance and took some of the casualties to the local hospital. Since John wrote home from this hospital he was probably one of them. The remaining men were heavily outnumbered and lightly armed so when the Germans launched a further offensive to take Amiens they stood very little chance. The final 70 men were taken prisoner and eventually sent to Poland to Stalag XX’A’ where they were held for 5 years. In an odd way John was one of the lucky ones. He was clearly too badly injured to be moved so remained in the hospital in Amiens.
He was officially reported as missing in May 1940 and was included on another casualty list as still missing in June. Eventually Violet received a letter from him in July saying he had been injured and was a prisoner of war in Nouvel hospital in Amiens. He said that he was still OK and that his aches and pains were getting less.
He appeared on a further army casualty list in September 1940 confirming he was a POW but nothing more was heard of him until Violet received official notification of his death in September 1941. He was recorded as having died in hospital in Paris on 08/10/1940 from wounds he had received. It is unclear why he was apparently moved from Amiens. He was buried in the Viroflay New Communal Cemetery near Versailles in Row B grave 2.
In addition to his medals from WW1 and between the wars, John was also entitled to the War Medal and 1939/45 star. He is remembered, with all Royal Sussex Regiment soldiers who have fallen, in St George’s Chapel in Chichester Cathedral.
He is additionally remembered on the St John sub Castro Memorial as well as the Lewes War Memorial.