James Henry Bell was born in Darlington, County Durham c.1898. He is thought to have enlisted with the Royal Engineers (RE) in Gillingham. He was in the 1st/3rd Kent Field Company and was drowned in the ‘Hythe’ disaster on 28 October 1915 following a collision between the troop ship and another, larger vessel. His regimental number was 1184.
At the time of his death aged 17, James’ parents, George and Louisa, lived at 23 Commercial Road, Strood. His father was authorised to receive James’ war gratuity.
James’ father, George, was an iron-moulder. At the time of the 1901 census the family still lived in Darlington, lodging with George’s parents-in-law, but by 1911 they had moved to 3, Medway Cottages in Strood. In that year James was, at thirteen years old, the eldest child and still at school. According to the census form, his parents had had four children, three of whom were still alive at that point.
Members of the 1st/3rd Field Company of the RE were mainly recruited in the Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells area after its establishment by the RE’s Honorary Colonel (and former Mayor of Tunbridge Wells), Sir David Lionel Goldsmid-Stern-Salomons. Sir David had formed a territorial unit of the Royal Engineers in 1908 and it officially became the 1st/3rd in May 1914. The company was mobilised on the outbreak of war and trained in Tunbridge Wells and later in Gillingham before leaving for the Mediterranean in October 1915. Sir David’s own son (also David) was the commanding officer and he also perished on the ‘Hythe’.
The ship, a former cross-channel cargo steamer owned by the South East and Chatham Railway Company was sailing from the Greek island of Lemos to Cape Helles when it was struck by another troop carrier, the Sarnia. The ‘Hythe’ was so badly damaged that it sank in a matter of minutes.
Sapper James Bell is commemorated on the Helles memorial in Turkey. He is also remembered on a memorial to the ‘Hythe’ victims in St Matthew’s Church, High Brooms, near Tunbridge Wells. The latter memorial’s inscription is as follows:
This memorial is erected to the memory of those of the 1st/3rd Kent Field Company of the Royal Engineers who volunteered to serve their King and Country in the War of 1914 and lost their lives off Mudros, when upon HMS Hythe which was struck in a collision with HMS Sarnia on the night of October 28th 1915.
The names of all who perished are inscribed below…
Sources: Census for 1911; England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915 [database on-line]; National Army Museum, Soldiers’ Effects Records, 1901-60; NAM Accession Number: 1991-02-333; Record Number Ranges: 226001-227500; Reference: 103; Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919 [database on-line]. All Ancestry.co.uk
David A. Ellis, ‘The HMS Hythe Disaster’, http://www.kentfallen.com/PDF%20reports/HMS%20HYTHE.pdf, (2008), correct at 6 March 2017.