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Bell, Sir George John (1872–1944)

by William G. Bell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Sir George John Bell (1872-1944), soldier, grazier and politician, was born on 29 November 1872 at Sale, Victoria, eldest son of George Bell, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Hussey. His mother died when he was 5 and his father, left with five young children, soon remarried. Bell received his education at local state schools in Moe, Tanjil and Sale and later helped on his father's farm. In 1892 he joined the Victorian Mounted Rifles, and was one of the Victorian Contingent to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London.

On the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 Bell enlisted as a private in the 1st Victorian Mounted Infantry Company, which joined the Australian Regiment at Cape Town in November. The regiment undertook reconnaissance missions into the Orange Free State and frequently skirmished with the Boers. Bell took part in its two most notable engagements—at Bastard's Nek and Pink Hill—and served with the unit until its disbandment in April 1900. The Victorian Mounted Infantry was then attached to the 4th Mounted Corps of the Imperial Army and fought at the siege of Mafeking, the relief of Johannesburg and the battle of Diamond Hill. By December Bell was back in Australia, but when the British called for reinforcements in February 1901 he re-enlisted as a lieutenant in the 5th Victorian (Mounted Rifles) Contingent. He served in operations in the Transvaal, Orange River Colony and Cape Colony and on 4 January 1902 was severely wounded at Bakkop. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was mentioned in dispatches.

After the war Bell settled in north-western Tasmania and in 1904 took up selections of land at Henrietta and Parrawe. Within three years he had cleared the dense myrtle forests and established two cattle-grazing properties and, though his home and stock were destroyed by bushfire in 1907, his holdings were prospering by 1914. On 25 August he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Light Horse Regiment and sailed for Egypt in October. He was promoted lieutenant in February 1915 and from May to November served at Gallipoli where his regiment had been sent to fight as infantry. He then served in the Suez Canal zone, was promoted captain on 8 February 1916 and major on 15 April, and took command of the regiment's 'A' squadron. He participated in the early stages of the Sinai campaign, fighting in the decisive battle of Romani on 4 August and in the abortive advances on Katia and Bir el Abd. Attached to the 4th Camel Battalion, Imperial Camel Corps, in October, he saw action during the occupation of El Arish and, after months of patrol work in the western desert, rejoined the light horse at Bir el Abd in March 1917. Promoted lieutenant-colonel on 14 June, he was given command of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment and soon emerged as 'one of the most aggressive and astute leaders produced by the light horse'. He demanded from his men the same rigid standard of discipline which he imposed upon himself, but they respected him for his fairness, his coolness under fire and his almost uncanny knowledge of what the enemy was going to do next. Under his leadership they played a spirited role in the battle of Beersheba, participated in the capture of the Jordan Valley and on 10 February 1918 took Jericho without opposition. Bell's chief contribution to the main Palestine offensive was made during the advance on Amman when he led his horsemen in an attack on Es Salt. Surprised by the swiftness of their approach, the Turks withdrew without fighting, thereby surrendering a vital stronghold. The later, successful evacuation of British troops from Es Salt was largely due to Bell's initiative and tactical astuteness. He was mentioned in dispatches by General Allenby and next April was appointed C.M.G. Throughout the final stages of the war he remained in the Amman area. Two of his brothers, Gunners Frederick (killed in action) and Alexander, served with the Australian artillery at Gallipoli, and another, Trooper Arthur, with the 3rd Light Horse Regiment in Palestine.

Bell was demobilized in September 1919 and resumed work on his Tasmanian pastoral properties. On 5 November he married Ellen Rothwell at Yolla. In the Federal elections that year, as the Nationalist Party candidate for Darwin, he won by 1000 votes and, except for one term in 1922-25, held the seat until 1943. In parliament he constantly drew attention to inadequacies in national defence policy and was labelled a militarist because of his outspoken advocacy of universal military training and his stand against disarmament. In 1925 he was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration and in 1927 was appointed aide-de-camp to the governor-general; in March of that year he relinquished command of the 26th Light Horse Regiment, a post which he had held since 1920. Bell suffered a personal tragedy in October 1927 when his brother William Robert, a district officer in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, was assassinated.

Bell was elected chairman of committees in the House of Representatives in 1932 and in 1934-40 was Speaker. At the time of his death Prime Minister John Curtin was to praise his wide knowledge of standing orders and the dignity and poise with which he had carried out his office. His rulings were sometimes disputed and his authority was often put to severe test but, as (Sir) Robert Menzies said of him, he always gave his judgments 'with conspicuous fairness'. During his final term in parliament (1940-43), he served on a parliamentary committee inquiring into the operations of the Apple and Pear Marketing Board; in 1941 he was appointed K.C.M.G. Bell was troubled by poor health and in 1943 retired from politics. Survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters, he died of coronary vascular disease on 5 March 1944 and was buried in Burnie Anglican cemetery after a state funeral.

Tall, well-built and striking in appearance, Bell was a man of courage and determination and throughout his life showed exceptional gifts of leadership. In the official war history he was described as 'a sound soldier of wide vision'; as a politician he was recognized as 'a man of irreproachable character, upright and fearless in every respect'. His portrait by Max Meldrum hangs in King's Hall, Parliament House.

Select Bibliography

  • Aust Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1912)
  • H. S. Gullett, The A.I.F. in Sinai and Palestine (Syd, 1923)
  • F. M. Blackwell, The Story of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment (Adel, 1950)
  • Examiner (Launceston), 6 Mar 1944
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6-8 Mar 1944
  • W. G. Bell, The Military and Political Life of Colonel George Bell (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

William G. Bell, 'Bell, Sir George John (1872–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 April 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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