Julian Heward Bell, the son of Clive Heward Bell (1881–1964) and Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf, was born on 4th February 1908 at 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London. He spent most of his childhood at the family home of Charleston, Sussex.
Bell was educated at Leighton Park School, a Quaker institution, and at King's College, Cambridge (1927–34). While at university, he contributed to The Venture, and was a member of the Cambridge Apostles. Other members of this group included John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, G.E. Moore and Rupert Brooke. Dr. Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit met Bell when he was at university. "Julian had asked me if I had been one of the elect, but my exclusion did not stop us having many very Apostolic discussions."
His first book of poems, Winter Movement (1930), sold poorly but received some good reviews. Bell's poem, Arms and the Man, appeared alongside those of William Empson, W. H. Auden, and Stephen Spender in New Signatures (1932). Bell, who was a socialist, was critical of the communism of Auden and Spender. He once wrote that "we are all Marxists now" but considered it a "dismal religion".
In 1935 Bell accepted the position of professor of English at the University of Wuhan in China. The following year Bell published his book of poems, Works for Winter. He also wrote an introduction to the anti-war book, We Did Not Fight: 1914-18 (1935). The book included contributions from Siegfried Sassoon, Richard Sheppard, Bertrand Russell, Norman Angell, Harry Pollitt and James Maxton.
In an article in the Times Literary Supplement he explained his political views: "Like nearly all the intellectuals of this generation, we are fundamentally political in thought and action: this more than anything else marks the difference between us and our elders. Being socialist for us means being rationalist, common-sense, empirical; means a very firm extrovert, practical, commonplace sense of exterior reality."
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Bell decided that he must contribute to the war against fascism. His parents, Clive Bell and Vanessa Bell, tried to persuade him not to go. So did his friends. David Garnett later recalled how he went to Charleston "to try to persuade him that he would be far better employed in helping to prepare for inevitable war against Hitler than in risking his life in Spain where he could take no effective or important part." Virginia Woolf arranged for Bell to meet Kingsley Martin and Stephen Spender, as they both had unpleasant experiences in Spain during the early stages of the war.
E. M. Forster also tried to convince him that it would be an immoral act to take part in a war. Bell defended his decision by claiming that he was no longer a pacifist. However, after pleading from his mother, he agreed that he would go to Spain, not as a soldier in the International Brigades but as an ambulance driver with the British Medical Aid Unit.
Bell left for Spain on 6th June 1937. Dr. Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, who was head of the unit, later wrote: "Though Julian had great worldly experience, he had retained a capacity for wonder, an innocence, a candour, and a ceaseless zest for activity. All this made him magically attractive. Though he detested the heartless destruction of war, it did not make him afraid. He was consistently courageous."
Bell worked under Richard Rees who had joined as an ambulance driver soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He wrote to Vanessa Bell on 1st July that he and Rees had been "evacuating badly wounded patients to a rear hospital about a hundred miles off." He added: "I do think I'm being of real use as a driver, in that I'm careful and responsible and work on my car - a Chevrolet ambulance... Most of our drivers are wreckers, neglect all sorts of precautions like oiling and greasing, over speed etc."
Bell also told his mother that: "There is a sudden crisis here - at last - and rumours of an attack." This was the offensive at Brunete. The Popular Front government launched a major offensive on 6th July in an attempt to relieve the threat to Madrid. General Vicente Rojo sent the International Brigades to Brunete, challenging Nationalist control of the western approaches to the capital. The 80,000 Republican soldiers made good early progress but they were brought to a halt when General Francisco Franco brought up his reserves. Fighting in hot summer weather, the Internationals suffered heavy losses.
As the authors of Journey to the Frontier (1966) have pointed out: "Julian was now as much in the thick of things as he could have hoped: at last he was having his experience of war. Admittedly he was a non-combatant, but in the Brunete campaign the ambulance driver was as exposed to danger as the soldier; the job to be done demanded strength, endurance, resourcefulness and courage. If Julian was denied the satisfaction of bearing arms, he was granted the satisfaction, denied to the ordinary soldier, of knowing that what he was doing was actually useful... At night whole square kilometres of earth would go up in flame." Ambulance drivers were only seldom able to take advantage of the "illusory safety of trenches and dug outs", and casualties among them were heavy: by the end of the three weeks' Brunete campaign, one half of the British Medical Unit had been killed."
Bell worked with, Dr. Archie Cochrane, an old friend from King's College. His fellow ambulance driver, Richard Rees, claimed that Bell "was having the most wonderful time of his life". He appeared to find the danger of his actions exciting. When his ambulance was destroyed by a bomb on 15th July, he volunteered to go to the front as a stretcher-bearer.
On the 18th July, the British Medical Unit received a replacement vehicle for Bell. Later that day he was driving his ambulance along the road outside Villanueva de la Cañada when it was hit by a bomb dropped by a Nationalist pilot. Dr. Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit recalled in his autobiography, Very Little Luggage: "It was on the 18th of July 1937 that the Luftwaffe bombed the spot where Julian was repairing the road for his Ambulance to move forward. He had a massive lung wound; his case was beyond hope but he came back in time for us to be able to make his end comfortable."
Bell was taken to the military hospital at El Escorial near Madrid. Dr. Archie Cochrane was the doctor who treated him in the receiving-room. As soon as he examined him, he realized that he had been mortally wounded; a shell fragment had penetrated deep in his chest. Bell was still conscious and murmured to Cochrane: "Well, I always wanted a mistress and a chance to go to war, and now I've had both." He then fell into a coma from which he never awakened. Richard Rees saw him in the mortuary. He later recalled: "He looked very pale and clean, almost marble-like. Very calm and peaceful, almost as if he had fallen asleep when very cold."
In the Cambridge that I first knew, in 1929 and 1930, the central subject of ordinary intelligent conversation was poetry. As far as I can remember we hardly ever talked or thought about politics. For one thing, we almost all of us had implicit confidence in Maynard Keynes's rosy prophecies of continually increasing capitalist prosperity. Only the secondary problems, such as birth control, seemed to need the intervention of the intellectuals.
By the end of 1933, we have arrived at a situation in which almost the only subject of discussion is contemporary politics, and in which a very large majority of the more intelligent undergraduates are Communists, or almost Communists. As far as an interest in literature continues it has very largely changed its character, and become an ally of Communism under the influence of Mr Auden's Oxford Group. Indeed, it might, with some plausibility, be argued that Communism in England is at present very largely a literary phenomenon-an attempt of a second "post-war generation" to escape from the Waste Land.
Certainly it would be a mistake to take it too seriously, or to neglect the very large element of rather neurotic personal salvationism in our brand of Communism. It is only too easy to point to the remarkable resemblances between Communism and Buchmanism, the way in which both are used to satisfy the need of some individuals for communion with a group, and the need for some outlet for enthusiasm. Our generation seems to be repeating the experience of Rupert Brooke's, the appearance of a need for "the moral equivalent of war" among a large number of the members of the leisured and educated classes. And Communism provides the activity, the sense of common effort, and something of the hysteria of war.
But this is only one side of the picture. If Communism makes many of its converts among the "emotionals", it appeals almost as strongly to minds a great deal harder. It is not so much that we are all Socialists now as that we are all Marxists now. The burning questions for us are questions of tactics and method, and of our own place in a Socialist State and a Socialist revolution. It would be difficult to find anyone of any intellectual pretensions who would not accept the general Marxist analysis of the present crises. There is a general feeling, which perhaps has something to do with the prevalent hysterical enthusiasm, that we are personally and individually involved in the crisis, and that our business is rather to find the least evil course of action that will solve our immediate problems than to argue about rival Utopias.
Like nearly all the intellectuals of this generation, we are fundamentally political in thought and action: this more than anything else marks the difference between us and our elders. Being socialist for us means being rationalist, common-sense, empirical; means a very firm extrovert, practical, commonplace sense of exterior reality... We think of the world first and foremost as the place where other people live, as the scene of crisis and poverty, the probable scene of revolution and war.
I'm getting rather obsessed about war, with a very ambivalent attitude. All my instincts make me want to be a soldier; all my intelligence is against it. I have rather nightmares of "the masses" trying a rising or a civil war and getting beaten-being wasted on impossible attacks by civilian enthusiasts, or crowds being machine-gunned by aeroplanes in the streets... No doubt it's better for one's soul to fight than surrender, but otherwise... One feels that a battlefield's a nicer place to die than a torture chamber, but probably there's not really so much difference, and at least fewer people suffer from the terror than would in a war. Oh, I don't know - personally I'd be for war every time, however hopeless. But that's only a personal feeling.
Mrs Woolf was told by Vanessa that the crucial factor in bringing Julian round to a compromise had been some letters he was shown describing the plight of a young English Communist in the International Brigade. The young man in question, who had gone out impulsively to Spain, was appalled by the horrors of the battlefield, and disillusioned by the strict military discipline that was imposed by the Communist leadership of the Brigade. It seems highly unlikely that Julian was influenced in any significant degree by this correspondence, no matter what his mother chose to believe. His own decision to go out to Spain was in no sense unpremeditated; he took a hard-headed view of death and suffering as the necessary evils of war; as an admirer of the "military virtues", and as a serious student of military affairs, he would entertain no idealistic notion of a peoples' army free of rank and discipline. One can only conclude that, as a kindness to his mother, he allowed her to think that he was making this compromise not simply as a concession to her fears for his safety, but for other reasons as well.
Why had the discussions with his mother, to whom he would listen with more respect and love than to any other person, led only to this compromise which fell far short of satisfying her wishes? (True, he was not to bear arms, but he was still going to Spain, he would be on the battlefields, he would be exposed to danger.) Chiefly, it would appear, because he had made a commitment to himself to go, which he refused to break. It was his obligation and test, he felt, to prove himself to himself, as a significant member of his generation who could make a contribution of example, experience and knowledge, rather than languish in a backwater, whether in London or China, as a mere second-generation and second-rate Bloomsburian.
His determination seemed to Mrs Woolf evidence of how he had changed, but determination was not really a new aspect of Julian's character. It was simply that now, for the first time, with absolute seriousness, he had fixed on something to be determined about.
Julian Bell joined us at this point; we had both known somehow that the other existed. Julian had enormous energy; he had come up to Cambridge in 1927 and had been an Apostle into which grouping (unlike my half-brother Austin) I had not been deemed worthy of the call. Julian had asked me if I had been one of the elect, but my exclusion did not stop us having many very Apostolic discussions. He was profoundly anti-fascist but not Marxist in any organised or orthodox sense. He had been deeply influenced by his time in China. He felt that England needed a dose of Confucius. There was plenty of Right Thinking, he said, a fair amount of Right Talking, rather less Right Writing and far too little Right Action. Unless these unities were manifested, man's intellectual life became a bundle of meaningless contradictions. Since I had arrived at much the same conclusion (without going to China), we got on very well indeed.
Though Julian had great worldly experience, he had retained a capacity for wonder, an innocence, a candour, and a ceaseless zest for activity. All this made him magically attractive. Though he detested the heartless destruction of war, it did not make him afraid. He was consistently courageous.
I do think I'm being of real use as a driver, in that I'm careful and responsible and work on my car - a Chevrolet ambulance.. Most of our drivers are wreckers, neglect all sorts of precautions like oiling and greasing, over speed etc. Any really good and careful drivers out here would be really valuable.
The other odd element is the Charlestonian one of improvising materials - a bit of carpet to mend a stretcher, e.g. - in which I find myself at home.
Julian was now as much in the thick of things as he could have hoped: at last he was having his experience of war. Admittedly he was a non-combatant, but in the Brunete campaign the ambulance driver was as exposed to danger as the soldier; the job to be done demanded strength, endurance, resourcefulness and courage. If Julian was denied the satisfaction of bearing arms, he was granted the satisfaction, denied to the ordinary soldier, of knowing that what he was doing was actually useful. The amateurishness, confusion and contentiousness that seem to have marked much of the military action throughout the war were not unknown in the Medical Aid service, but proved of less moment there once an action had begun. Unlike the ordinary soldier who waits for the orders of his superior officers, who wait for the orders of theirs, and so upward, as in the instance of the Brunete campaign, to the very highest political and military levels, the ambulance driver has a clear-cut idea of what he must do, and his is the responsibility for getting it done. It is an aspect of war where initiative and a talent for improvisation particularly count. In the circumstances, Julian thrived.
The medical unit established a kind of sub-headquarters for ambulances among the olive trees outside Villanueva de la Canada. When rebel planes flew over, strafing or dropping bombs, the drivers took shelter in the trenches that the Fascist troops had dug and abandoned on the second day of the battle. It was there too that they would try to sleep at such odd, infrequent off duty moments as came their way. They were continually on the move, driving out to the various first-aid stations along the front to collect the wounded, and returning with them to the hospitals at the Escorial, while day after day, night after night, the battle continued. By day, "villages, towns and fields were sprayed with steel from planes, guns and machine guns. At night whole square kilometres of earth would go up in flame." Ambulance drivers were only seldom able to take advantage of the "illusory safety of trenches and dug outs", and casualties among them were heavy: by the end of the three weeks' Brunete campaign, one half of the British Medical Unit had been killed.
The battle for Brunete went on and on; we won 75 square kilometers at the price of 25,000 dead (to be fair the Franco losses of 10,000 should be added which makes the price in human lives 35,000). This meant that every one hundred paces of our advance had been bought with the lives of four men. One of those lives was that of Julian Bell. Dying in the bed next to him was a young Hamburger whose last message of love to his family I took down and sent back to Nazi Germany by the Rote Hilfes underground mail. Julian drifted out of this world quietly, on the edge of coma since admission. It was on the 18th of July 1937 that the Luftwaffe bombed the spot where Julian was repairing the road for his Ambulance to move forward. He had a massive lung wound; his case was beyond hope but he came back in time for us to be able to make his end comfortable. Dr D'Arcy Hart (no relation of Tudor Hart), a most distinguished lung specialist, was with us as Julian came in, so quite literally everything possible was done to save him.
Saxton's most famous patient was Julian Bell, son of the artist Vanessa Bell. This was at Villanueva de la Canada near the Escorial when the ambulance Bell drove came under attack by Nationalist bomber aircraft. Saxton had already noted how they were repeatedly attacked - bombed or strafed by fighter planes, often German or Italian. Bell sought shelter beneath the ambulance but a vast piece of shrapnel hit him in the chest, causing a terrible wound. He was brought into the clearing station and seen by Archibald Cochrane (then a medical student, but later the Professor at Cardiff after whom the Cochrane Library of medicine databases is named), who triaged him to hopelessly wounded.
Cochrane indicated to the orderlies to put him to one side. But he suddenly recognised the human face beyond the wound. Saxton was called, and the brilliant Spanish surgeon Moisés Broggi i Vallés, who examined him and retrieved from the gaping chest wound his wallet and passport which had been blown into the cavity. "His heart was visible through the wound," Saxton remembered: "I gave him a blood transfusion and dressed him again. But we realised we had to let him die and he died that night. When he saw me all he said was, 'Thank goodness it's you.' And I gave him morphine."