The Christian Soldier by Charles Beresford

by
18 April 2017

Michael Wheeler on a priest who was killed in action in 1918

The Christian Soldier: The life of Lt. Col. Bernard William Vann, VC, MC and Bar, Croix de Guerre avec palmes
Charles Beresford
Helion & Co. £25
(978-1-910777-31-2)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

 

 

DURING the First World War, more than 500 Anglican clergymen joined the army other than as chaplains. At least 164 of these men served as infantrymen, of whom 36 are known to have died (27 officers and nine other ranks), and one — Bernard Vann — was the recipient of the Victoria Cross, awarded posthumously.

When leading his battalion of the Sherwood Foresters near Ramicourt, on 3 October 1918, he was hit by a bullet, which killed him instantly. This “intrepid cleric”, as he was described by the Nottingham Evening Post, had previously been wounded several times during the war and decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, the Croix de Guerre with palm, and the Military Cross, this last “for conspicuous gallantry on several occasions”. (A bar was added to the MC by the King in December 1916, a week before Vann’s wedding.)

The Times recorded that Vann, who seemed “cut out for the military life”, with his “fine physique and an immense zest for life”, was never happier than when “the moment served for him to minister to the men he commanded; always in his baggage he carried a portable altar and the sacred vessels, and his greatest joy was to plead the Great Sacrifice and to give his men Communion”. The Church Times described him as a “dashing young colonel” and “a magnificent example of the soldier-priest”.

Charles Beresford, an authority on British and Imperial combatant clergymen and ministers of all denominations, explains how Bernard was educated at his father’s school, together with his brothers, won a Cambridge hockey blue when up at Jesus College, and became a Leicester curate, and then chaplain to Wellingborough School.

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When declaring himself to be a schoolmaster on joining up as a combatant in 1914, Vann was not alone in avoiding reference to his being in Holy Orders.

Detailed accounts of the Ypres Salient and Sanctuary Wood, Loos, and the Hohenzollern Redoubt follow, drawing heavily on W. C. C. Weetman’s The Sherwood Foresters in the Great War. Interesting though these will be to the historian of war, the general reader may struggle, as Mr Beresford is as keen to record the minutiae of each battle as he was earlier to give match reports on numerous appearances of Bernard and his brothers in their sporty youth.

The author’s industry among the back files of local and national newspapers and various archival sources is admirable. Amid the blizzard of information which results, however, opportunities for reflection on the clerical side of the story are missed. A photograph of Vann in cassock and biretta, for example, cries out for comment, as does the list of the colonel’s possessions returned to his grieving widow, Doris, in 1918, which includes The Selected Poems of Francis Thompson.

Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library.

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