The fighting clergyman who won the Victoria Cross

The author of The Christian Soldier introduces his new biography:

During my Great War research into the local Territorial Battalion, the 6th Sherwood Foresters (fondly known as ‘the Wild Men of the Peak’), I was taken aback to learn that their commanding officer in the later part of the conflict was an ordained clergyman of the Church of England. Not only that, but this holder of the Military Cross and Bar had gone on to win the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Bellenglise on 29 September 1918. In the extraordinary victory, the 46th North Midland Division stormed across the St Quentin Canal and breached the Hindenburg Line – capturing 70 guns and 4,000 prisoners. It was perhaps the greatest success of any Territorial formation in the war.

Who was this remarkable parson who decided to take up arms?  His name was The Rev Bernard William Vann. There were a few details about him readily available, much of which subsequently turned out to be untrue (e.g. he never played football for Southampton, he was never awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and he had never been a school headmaster). A misinterpretation of the medical term ‘neuritis’ once led to a writer to declare that he had experienced a nervous breakdown.  Everything had to be checked.  Even his Victoria Cross citation was wrong!

The more I dug the more I found. His grandson, Michael Vann, and other members of the family were enthusiastic about the project and gave me access to the limited information they held.

The details of Bernard’s life as schoolmaster, county hockey player, a Cambridge blue, undergraduate, school chaplain and inspired infantry officer are chronicled in The Christian Soldier. Bernard had strong links with his family and with his fellow undergraduates and officers in the Sherwood Foresters. I thought it was important to include these details in the book to give a deeper understanding and appreciation of his life and achievements.

It was abundantly clear that it was not a case of swapping the Bible for the sword. As a fighting soldier, he continued to attend to his clerical duties when he could – standing in for the chaplain at church parades, administering Holy Communion and reading the burial service on occasions in no man’s land when bodies could not be recovered.

Bernard Vann (front row centre) with the officers of 6th Sherwood Foresters at Fouquières Chateau in November 1917.

As I chased potential sources of information about Bernard around the country, I decided to look for details of other clergymen of all denominations who served in the war in the British and Imperial armies other than as chaplains. Many ministers volunteered for service in the non-combatant ranks of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) where they often performed the most menial of tasks.

In the case of Anglicans, I have traced more than 300 to-date who served as combatants – mostly in the infantry and artillery, but they were also present in other units such as the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the Cavalry and the Engineers. At least 43 died in the conflict; 66 – through individual merit – reached the rank of Captain or above. Apart from Bernard, I found two other Church of England priests who commanded infantry battalions on the Western Front. In the concluding chapter, I have sought to give an overview of this little-known part of the Anglican clergy’s contribution to the war effort. It is an ongoing and painstaking exercise.  So much to research, so little time!

The Cambridge University Hockey Team 1910. Bernard is second from the right on the back row.

Apart from by his family and the dwindling numbers of Sherwood Foresters who had known him, Bernard’s Vann’s memory and achievements were largely forgotten after the initial round of memorial events, until he was rediscovered by local historians as interest in the First World War gathered pace in the 1970s. In 2006, the Rushden Historical Society erected a blue plaque on the house where he was born. Eight years later, Derby County commissioned a wall memorial to honour him and the other club players who fell during the war. The Cambridge University Hockey Alumni Club renamed itself the Vann Club.

The Rushden branch of the British Legion managed to lobby successfully for a new residential development to include a Bernard Vann Close so that his name would be perpetuated in the town.  In Ashby-de-la-Zouch (where Bernard had been an Assistant Master at the Grammar School before going up to Jesus College, Cambridge) the council also named a road in a new development ‘Bernard Vann Crescent’.

The most recent initiative has been by Durham University which, in October 2016, announced that it was planning to establish a postdoctoral Fellowship dedicated to the study of the relationship between Christianity and the military. Supported by Lord Dannatt, the Church of England hierarchy, the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department and private benefactors, it will be named after Bernard and be known as The Vann Fellowship.

The original crosses marking the graves of James Grice, Frederick Wystan Hipkins and Bernard Vann in the British Cemetery at Bellenglise.

I feel privileged to have helped the memory of Bernard Vann emerge out of the shadows and hope that the life and achievements of this fine soldier and Man of God will now be appreciated more widely by current and future generations.

Click here to purchase The Christian Soldier. The Life of Lt. Col. Bernard William Vann V.C., M.C. and Bar, Croix de Guerre avec palme.

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One Response to The fighting clergyman who won the Victoria Cross

  1. Mark Macartney says:

    Just a test Email from Charles’ Blog, all links and Blog looks good, (Even to the Sherwood Foresters)

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