The Christian Soldier: the life of Lt-Col. the Rev. Bernard William Vann VC MC & Bar, Croix de Guerre avec Palme
by Charles Beresford
published by Helion & Company, 2017
ISBN 978 1 910777 31 2
Hardback 294 pages plus bibliography and index. Illustrated.
The extraordinary Bernard Vann is the only ordained clergyman ever to have been awarded the Victoria Cross for his work as a fighting soldier. He was killed in action on 3 October 1918, just a matter of days after his fine exploit that earned the medal. This excellent book illustrates in no uncertain terms his moral and physical courage, strength of character, and qualities of leadership. As such, he is one of those characters of the Great War whose lost promise and potential we must lament.
“The Christian soldier” is not confined to Vann’s military story but is a full biography. It is not until page 108 that we enter war and his decision to enlist into the Artists Rifles. In many ways his background and development is typical of those who became temporary officers in the early phase of the war: his father was a headmaster; he received a good education which eventually took him to Jesus College (Cambridge); and then on to ordination as a curate. Less common is his undoubted sporting ability, which saw him play football for Northampton Town and Derby County, amongst others. Vann typifies the “clean mind, clean body” spirit of what was often called “muscular Christianity”.
The military story takes us very quickly from the Artists Rifles to a Territorial Force commission into the 8th Battalion of the Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Regiment. In 1917 Vann was appointed as commanding officer of the regiment’s 6th Battalion, in the same brigade. As such his story closely follows that of the 46th (North Midland) Division through the disasters at Loos and Gommecourt and on to the successes of late September 1918. It is said that Vann was wounded between eight and thirteen times during the war: an indicator that he was most certainly a determined and fearless front line officer; his devotion to his faith also played a part. Much evidence shows that Vann was most highly regarded by those with whom he came into contact and left a lasting, positive impression. The book concludes with coverage of the lasting legacy of Vann and his considerable achievements, and with a good and interesting chapter on the combatant Anglican clergy of the Great War.
I found this biography to be very well written, engaging and clear. It is well illustrated with maps and photographs and draws upon a wide range of original sources.
The citation to Vann’s VC reads, “For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and fine leadership during the attack at Bellenglise and Lehaucourt, on September 29th, 1918. He led his battalion with great skill across the Canal de Saint-Quentin through a very thick fog and under heavy fire from field and machine guns. On reaching the high ground above Bellenglise the whole attack was held up by fire of all descriptions from the front and right flank. Realising that everything depended on the advance going forward with the barrage, Col. Vann rushed up to the firing line and with the greatest gallantry led the line forward. By his prompt action and absolute contempt for danger the whole situation was changed, the men were encouraged and the line swept forward. Later, he rushed a field-gun single-handed and knocked out three of the detachment. The success of the day was in no small degree due to the splendid gallantry and fine leadership displayed by this officer. Lt. Col. Vann, who had on all occasions set the highest example of valour, was killed near Ramicourt on 3rd October, 1918, when leading his battalion in attack.”
Bernard Vann is buried in Bellicourt British Cemetery: see cemetery register