“I MUST confess that it was the biggest fluke alive and I did nothing,” Second Lieutenant Donald Bell of the Green Howards wrote home modestly on July 7, 1916. “I only chucked one bomb, but it did the trick. The Company Commander says I saved the situation for this gun was doing all the damage.

“There is talk of me getting a Military Cross or something of the sort. Talk about luck! Fancy, just chucking one’s bombs, even if it was a bull’s eye.”

For his bravery on the Somme on July 5, 1916, 2nd Lt Bell was awarded something more than a Military Cross – a Victoria Cross, making him the only professional footballer in the war to win the country's highest award for military bravery.

But it was a posthumous award. Five days afterwards, on July 10, 1916, he tried something similar, dashing across open ground to take out an enemy machine-gun. This time, though, he was cut down, and earlier this year, on the 100th anniversary of his death, a commemorative match was played between two of the clubs he represented: Bradford Park Avenue and Newcastle United.

Bell was born in Harrogate, went to school in Knaresborough and then to Westminster College in London. His sporting prowess was obvious: he could run 100 yards in 10.6 seconds, he was an excellent cricketer, and he was good enough to play football for Crystal Palace.

After finishing his course, he returned to Harrogate to teach English at Starbeck College, and augmented his salary by turning out for local football clubs.

Both Bishop Auckland and First Division Newcastle United paid him “boot money” (he made several appearances for the Magpies reserve team), but Second Division Bradford offered him £2 10s a week. A strapping defender with a surprising turn of pace, he helped them win promotion to the top flight, but when the war broke out at the start of the 1914-15 season, he decided to turn out in the khaki of a soldier.

He wrote to his manager: “I have now come to the conclusion I am duty bound to join the ranks.Will you therefore kindly ask the directors of Bradford Football Club to release me from my engagement?”

Rather than play the three North-East clubs in the First Division, plus Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea, he became the first professional footballer to join up. Soon he was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the 9th Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, based in Richmond.

He arrived in France in August 1915 and near Armentieres began training for the “Big Push”. In early June 1916, he had a brief spell of home leave during which he married his sweetheart, Rhoda Bonson, at Kirkby Stephen (her brother worked for a solicitor in Darlington).

The honeymoon over, he returned to the Western Front. July 1, 1916, found the Green Howards behind the frontline near Albert. They were called into action on July 5 at Contalmaison, attacking the German positions at Horseshoe Trench. Bell used his surprising turn of pace to dash across no man’s land under heavy fire and then his cricketer’s overarm accuracy to put an enemy machine gun out of action with Mills bombs.

“I, with my (two-man) team, crawled up a communication trench and attacked the gun and the trench and I hit the gun first shot from about 20 yards and knocked it over,” he wrote home to his mother two days later. “We then bombed the dugouts and did in about 50 Bosches.

“I am glad I have been so fortunate for Pa’s sake, for I know he likes his lads to be at the top of the tree. He used to be always on about too much play and too little work, but my athletics came in handy this trip. The only thing is I am sore at the elbows and knees with crawling over limestone flints.

“I believe that God is watching over me and it rests with him whether I pull through or not.”

Tragically, by the time his mother received his letter, he was dead, and after just a month of marriage, Rhoda was a widow.

She received his VC in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace from George V, and for many years, that medal was on display – along with the helmet 2nd Lt Bell was wearing when he died – at the Green Howards museum in Richmond, but in 2010 it was put up for sale. It was bought by the Professional Footballers’ Association for £210,000 and presented to the National Football Museum in Manchester.

In 2014, a party of footballing dignitaries took the medal to the Gordon Dump Cemetery, near Contalmaison, where Bell’s body lies.

Greg Dyke, chairman of the Football Association, said at the graveside: “Bill Shankly’s remark about football being more important than life and death was a good joke. This here is life and death. We all have to spend our lives putting football into perspective all the time.”