Brave hero priest saved men but never lived to see his son

Bernard William Vann'VC
Bernard William Vann'VC
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Bernard William Vann was born on July 9, 1887, at 46, High Street South, Rushden.

His father, Alfred George Collins Vann, was the school master at South End Elementary School in Rushden and his mother Hannah Elizabeth Simpson Vann was a certificated teacher at the same school.

Bernard was fourth in a family of five boys.

Alfred Vann was an ambitious man. Coming from a working class background, he studied hard and was determined to succeed in his chosen profession.

While at South End School he frequently attended courses at Oxford University and obtained his MA degree in 1898.

He left Rushden in 1899 to become headmaster at Chichele Grammar School in Higham Ferrers.

His sons naturally became pupils at the same school. Bernard, who excelled at sport, became captain of soccer, hockey and cricket.

Alfred was 46 when he died at 9, Market Place, Higham Ferrers, on September 2, 1906.

In his will he left £396. 17s, a small sum even in those days, and probate was granted to his eldest son, Alfred George Thomas Simpson Vann, and Edward Stow, a butcher.

At this time Hannah Vann’s unmarried brother, the Rev Thomas Crompton Simpson, was rector of Coates, near Cirencester in Gloucestershire and after Alfred’s death Hannah went to live with him.

Bernard seems to have regarded his uncle’s house as his home. On his Attestation papers, signed in 1914, he gave Coates Rectory as his home address, and his wife was living there at the time of his death in 1918.

On leaving school, Bernard went to teach at Ashby de la Zouche Grammar School. While there, he played football for Northampton Town and Derby County, and hockey for Leicestershire.

He still has a reputation at Ashby School as a charismatic teacher who had a considerable influence over his pupils, many of whom would have been almost his age. The head boy at the time, Philip Bent, also won the VC in the First World War.

While at the school he accompanied the New Pilgrim Club on a football tour to Bohemia, Austria and Hungary .

Bernard went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1907 and quickly established a reputation on the sports field and in the debating society. According to the May 1909 edition of the Jesus College magazine The Chanticleer: “His cheerful confidence, inspired by a superficial knowledge of German, was found on at least one occasion a source of great inconvenience to its proud possessor.”

From the same issue’s Hockey Notes comes: “Outside right B W Vann – the most dashing forward on the side; very fast and clever individually; can centre well, but is inclined to be selfish.”

And from the Soccer Notes of the same magazine, it was reported: “Centre – B W Vann. A dashing forward, possessing both pace and weight; is rather erratic in his passing; a good shot with either foot, he is always very dangerous in front of goal.”

In Lent Term 1910 he was described as “a hard-working captain and a good bustling forward. Has greatly strengthened the forward line”.

Bernard was awarded his “blue” for hockey in 1910 and played for the university several times.

He was also a sergeant in the University Officers’ Corps.

As well as his love of sport, Bernard seems to have enjoyed public speaking. He was secretary of The Farragoes and a co-founder and later president of another debating society called The Roosters.

His debating style appears to have met with some hilarity from his friends.

The Chanticleer says: “His speech was like a tangled chain; nothing impaired but all disordered.”

On another occasion it stated his speeches were “remarkable for a certain native eloquence quite untrammelled by any consideration of grammatical lucidity”.

So with his time apparently spent between the sports field and the debating society, to say nothing of his poetry, it is perhaps not too surprising that Bernard left Cambridge with a rather disappointing third in part one of the History Tripos and a second in part two.

Academically he did not shine but was obviously a popular and charismatic figure.

In the days when most of his fellow students were the sons of rich and important families, it is remarkable that a lad from a comparatively modest background made such an impression.

Bernard left Jesus College in 1910, having decided to follow his uncle, the Rev Thomas Simpson, into the church.

In August 1910 he accepted the offer of a title from the vicar of St Barnabas, Leicester.

In September he went to St Petersburg for the wedding of a relative of his older brother’s wife, a minor member of the Russian aristocracy.

He returned for his ordination at Peterborough on September 30.

The St Barnabas parish magazine recorded his welcome as assistant junior curate in November 1910 and in January 1912 congratulated him on his ordination to the priesthood.

He obviously continued to play football because in October 1912 he was seriously injured in a game at Oundle.

He was badly concussed and was in bed for a week. He convalesced at Goscote Hall, the home of Mr and Mrs Fielding Johnson.

He returned to his duties but officiating at a funeral brought on a relapse and he was forbidden to work again before the end of the year.

In January 1913 he took up a new post as chaplain and assistant master, teaching history and theology, at Wellingborough School and, not surprisingly, coached football and cricket.

Then on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Europe rushed to war.

Bernard Vann also rushed to war.

Britain declared war on August 4 and he immediately applied to become an Army Chaplain, but the delay was too much for a man of his impetuous nature, and so he joined up without waiting for the wheels of officialdom to grind into action.

He signed his Attestation Papers on August 31, 1914, and became a private in the 28th (County of London ) Battalion, The Artists’ Rifles.

He stated that he was 27 years and one month old, that he was a schoolmaster, that his home address was Coates Rectory, Cirencester, and that he was in the employ of P A Fryer Esq at The School, Wellingborough.

His medical report gave his height as 5ft 10.5in and his chest measurement as 38.5 in.

His vision was six over six and his physical development was “good”. He was passed “fit for service”.

Two days later he was commissioned into the 1/8 Battalion Sherwood Foresters as a Second Lieutenant and arrived in France in February 1915.

At Kemmel, on April 24, the small advance trench that he was in was blown up, causing him to be badly bruised and he was buried for a short time.

Digging himself out, he rapidly organised the defence and under heavy fire rescued others who were buried.

He was made a temporary captain on June 6, on August 15 he was awarded the Military Cross and in October he took part in the Battle of Loos.

His brother Captain A H A Vann of the 12th West Yorkshire regiment, who “combined well” with him on the football field, had been killed in the same battle in September that year.

In October 1915 Vann was badly wounded in an assault on the Hollenzollern redoubt, but continued to throw grenades until ordered away.

Subsequently the proceedings of a Medical Board stated: “At the place and date recorded he was wounded in the left forearm. The bullet passed through; the wound of entrance being on the anterior surface a hand’s breadth below the bend of the elbow.

“The exit wound on the posterior external aspect. The radial nerve was contused. There is paralysis on this area of the distribution.”

The injury was classed as “severe not permanent” and it was calculated that Vann would be ready for service after a period of one-and-a-half months.

He was promoted to captain on June 1, 1916, and to acting major on June 20.

In September 1916 he led a daring raid against enemy trenches near Bellacourt and, finding a dug-out full of Germans, he ordered them out.

Two came at him with fixed bayonets, so he killed one and wounded the other and the rest surrendered.

For this he won a bar to his Military Cross.

He returned to England later the same month suffering severely from neuritis caused by his many wounds.

On December 27, 1916, Bernard was married to Doris Victoria Beck, a Canadian nursing aide. Doris was 20 years old and Bernard was 27.

Doris and her sister Helen were studying in Paris when she and Bernard met and the marriage took place, by licence, at St Paul ’s Church, Knightsbridge.

Both the bride and groom were staying at the Alexandra Hotel , Hyde Park Corner.

In February 1917 the French awarded him the Croix de Guerre with palm. He was then at the Adjutant Command School until July.

He assumed command of the 1/6 Battalion the Sherwood Foresters in September and was promoted to acting lieutenant colonel on October 6 that year.

After a short period in England, Vann returned to his battalion on April 3, 1918, but on May 23 he was admitted to hospital for a stay of two weeks.

At the end of August Bernard and Doris enjoyed a 10-day leave in Paris, possibly the last time they saw each other.

He won his Victoria Cross on September 29, 1918, just weeks before the end of the war and four days before his death.

The citation printed in the London Gazette reads: “For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and fine leadership during the attack at Bellenglise and Lehaucourt on 29, September 1918.

“He led his battalion with great skill across the Canal du Nord through a very thick fog and 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, Lt Col Vann rushed up to the firing line, and with the greatest gallantry led the line forward.

“By his prompt action and 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.”

It has since been reported that the citation is wrong. The Canal du Nord had been crossed three days previously.

This was the St Quentin Canal and the War Diary and the War Record both clearly state it was the St Quentin Canal.

Bernard was killed by a sniper on October 3 when his battalion was in position ready to go forward in the attack on the Fonsomme-Beaurevoir line. The battalion captured their final objective that day, subsequently beating off all the massed German counterattacks, which were unable to dislodge them.

Bernard and Doris’ son, Bernard Geoffrey, was born on June 2 the following year.

Bernard had made his will in France on September 29, 1918, the day he carried out the actions which earned him the Victoria Cross.

The gross value of his estate was £527. 7s. 1d.

He named his uncle, the Rev Thomas Crompton Simpson, as executor and bequeathed his medals to his wife.

He is buried in the Bellicourt British Cemetery.

His obituary in The Wellingburian, the magazine of Wellingborough School, said: “He never forgot that he was a priest of God, for it was his greatest joy to be able to do the double duty of commanding his battalion and giving Communion to the sick and wounded.”

And a fellow officer wrote in The Times: “I can think of him only as a fighter, not merely against the enemy in the field, but a fighter against everything and everybody that was not an influence for good to his men.

“His many friends will rejoice that the constant gallantry and magnificent example of this fine Christian gentleman has been recognised by the highest award the country can