By Project Assistant, Annette Gaykema
Updating one particular memorial recently sparked my interest in the individual commemorated: Lieutenant-Colonel Reverend Bernard William Vann VC MC. A remarkable and inspiring person, he was the first priest to win the VC as the commanding officer of an infantry battalion.
Lt. Col. Vann. (Photo courtesy of Project Gutenberg archives).
Further research showed that Lt. Col. Vann is commemorated in three separate churches: St Matthew’s Church in Coates, Gloucestershire, St Mary Magdalene Church in Newark and St Barnabas Church, Leicester. The latter was where he was appointed Assistant Junior Curate in 1910. He also appears on the memorial to “the masters and boys” in Wellingborough School Chapel.
The memorial at St Matthew’s Church gives a detailed biography of Lt. Col. Vann and explains why he is commemorated there:
BERNARD VANN V.C. – SOLDIER/PRIEST
Bernard Vann, whose death in the first World War is commemorated on the Roll of Honour in this church, spent much of his childhood in the Coates rectory, where his mother was housekeeper to the Rec. T. C. Simpson, his uncle.
On the outbreak of war as chaplain and assistant master at Wellingborough School he volunteered as Army chaplain but, frustrated by difficulties and delays, joined the Sherwood Foresters instead. He served with them continously on the Western Front for four years, where he was wounded 13 times, awarded two Military Crosses, the Croix de Guerre, and promoted Lieutenant – Colonel.
On 29th September, 1918, his “conspicuous bravery”, leading his Battalion during the attack at Bellenglise and Lehaucourt led to the award of the Victoria Cross. He was killed four days later, within a few weeks of the end of the war, leaving a widow who gave birth to his son in June, the following year.
Whilst the memorial records that Vann was wounded 13 times his obituary in The Times (19 Dec, 1918. pg. 12) reports that he was wounded “seven or eight times”. Another article states that “no less than 11 times was he returned a casualty” (The Times 20 Dec, 1918. pg. 6). In one instance, he was buried and badly bruised by the effects of a trench-mortar in May, 1915. He managed to dig himself out and set to work organising a defence whilst helping to dig out others. In another instance he was severely wounded but carried on firing incessantly at the enemy for several hours before being ordered to come away by the Brigadier.
In September 1916, Vann was suffering from continuous agony as a result of neuritis (inflammation of the nerves) but still insisted on leading his company on a raid. He was in so much pain that he had to be taken away the next day and was transported back to England to recover. He remained there for several months.
Lt. Col. Vann’s wife, who is mentioned on the St Matthew’s Church memorial, was Doris Victoria Beck. She was a Canadian nursing aide whom Bernard met when she was studying in Paris. They were married in St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge. At the end of August 1918, Bernard and Doris enjoyed ten days of leave in Paris. It was possibly the last time that they met as Bernard was killed on 3rd October, 1918 by a sniper. As mentioned in the memorial, his son was born the following year.