Courtesy of Barry Smith

Sapper Robert Armstrong Bell

Pakenham & District War Memorial

Born: 1882 - Goldsborough, near Ballarat Victoria

Enlisted: 24 January 1917 aged 33

Unit:  Railway Unit 2nd Section (SERN: 431)

Served: Western Front & Home Service in Australia

Died: 17 September 1949 - Caulfield, Victoria


Robert was the son of Robert Bell and Isabella Pattie. In 1909 or 1910 he married Annie Lavinia Cook and was living at Pakenham (1). Later, Robert farmed at Narracan South and lived at Thorpdale near Morwell (2). By 1916, Robert, Annie and their three young sons were living in Pakenham again, where Robert was working as a “railway ganger” (3). Robert also listed his occupation as a blacksmith (4). interestingly, Robert’s sister Elizabeth was married to George Smith, the son of Oscar Smith, the local blacksmith and undertaker (5). Robert initially tried to enlist in April 1916, but was rejected due to defective eyesight, having lost his right eye as a child. The following month, Robert enlisted for home service, and served as a guard at the Domain Army Camp (6). In early 1917, Robert tried to enlist again for active service. Despite initial reservations from the Army Medical Officer because of his artificial eye, Robert was enlisted into the newly formed 2nd Section, Railway Unit. Robert embarked from Melbourne on 19 February 1917. He subsequently served in France and Belgium with the 15th Light Railway Operating Company (7). The construction of light railways significantly improved the transport of soldiers and supplies to the front line, where roads were in poor condition (8). 

In December 1917, Robert was hospitalised with eye issues and sent to England. In April 1918, he was listed for discharge due to absence of sight in the right eye. Robert was returned to Australia and discharged in July 1918 (9). Robert enlisted again for home service in October 1918. This time he was assigned to the military police in Melbourne, with which he served until April 1921 (10). Meanwhile, in December 1918, Robert had been presented with a gold medallion at a special welcome home ceremony for several diggers in Pakenham (11). By 1924, Robert was working as a labourer in Oakleigh. His wife was tragically killed in March 1925 in a house fire, leaving Robert to raise four sons (12). Robert subsequently remarried, and worked as a health inspector for the Oakleigh Council (13). His son Reginald Armstrong Bell went on to play VFL football for Hawthorn (14). Robert died in Caulfield in 1949 aged 66 years old (15). 

The assistance of Barry Smith is gratefully acknowledged. 


(1) (2) (5) (10) (13) & (14) Smith (2012) pp.115-16

(3) Ancestry.com.au - Electoral Roll - Flinders - Pakenham - 1916 p. 2

(4) (7) & (9) NAA B2455 BELL Robert Armstrong 

(6) & (10) MT 1486/1 BELL, Robert Armstrong  

(8) See http://www.1914-1918.net/lightrail.htm 

(11) Dandenong Advertiser 12/12/1918, p. 2

(12) Argus 20/3/1925, p. 1 & 26/3/1925 p. 7; The Age 26/3/1925, p. 13.

(15) The Age 19/9/1949, p. 7​