Malcolm McBean Bell-Irving DSO MC was born in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC). He went overseas with the 16th Battalion Canadian-Scottish and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in the British Air Service in England in 1914. He was the first native-born Canadian to join the RFC.

In December 1914, he joined No. 1 Squadron at Netheravon, England. The squadron's role was visual and photographic reconnaissance. He arrived in St. Omer, France on March 17, 1915 and made his first operational flight shortly afterwards. He was wounded twice during his many risky and hazardous sorties over enemy territory and was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his skill and bravery in action.

On June 20, 1916, while flying a Morane scout plane between Lille and Ypres, Belgium with an observer named Scott, Bell-Irving was attacked by three German aircraft. He shot one down in flames and drove off the others. He then evaded three more attackers and was about to open fire when he was severely wounded in the head by fire from an anti-aircraft gun, and half-blinded by blood, he steered for the nearest airfield, and, feeling he could not last out, landed safely in a small field behind Allied lines. After giving orders for the safe delivery of his photos, he collapsed. His pluck and skill saved the life of his observer.

His bravery and skill in face of death earned him the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), the first decoration awarded a Canadian in the RFC and also the RFC's first victory by a Canadian. On June 30th, 1916, in semi-conscious condition he was transferred to Lady Ridley's Hospital in London, England where he remained more or less unconscious for three months.

After discharge from hospital, Bell-Irving returned to Canada to serve as liaison officer with the RFC, responsible for all matters affecting Canadians who had been seconded from the Canadian army, a post he held until the end of WW1. He had five brothers on active service. His cousin was the first officer to be killed in the Canadian contingent. Bell-Irving had been wounded three times and ended the war with the rank of major.