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Valor | From Pulpit to Trench

By David T. Zabecki
January 2019 • Military History Magazine

Five British or Commonwealth chaplains have received the Victoria Cross. Although an ordained clergyman of the Church of England, Lt. Col. Bernard William Vann is not counted among the VC chaplains. He earned his nation’s highest award for combat valor while serving as an infantry battalion commander.

Born on July 9, 1887, in Rushden, Northamptonshire, Vann graduated from Cambridge University in 1910, was ordained the next year and then served as chaplain and assistant master of a private school. He also kept physically active playing soccer and coaching his school’s soccer and cricket teams.

At war’s outbreak in 1914 Vann volunteered to serve as a British army chaplain. But the grinding wheels of bureaucracy frustrated him, and on August 31 he instead enlisted as a private in the 28th Battalion, London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles). Two days later the fit 27-year-old was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 1/8th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, which deployed to France in February 1915. Although Vann was not ranked a military chaplain, he often conducted religious services at the front lines in the absence of an official chaplain.

That April 24 Vann earned the Military Cross at Kemmel, Flanders. After a German shell strike buried him in an advance trench, the wounded lieutenant dug himself out and rescued others even while organizing a defense to beat back a German attack. At Ypres on July 31 he was mentioned in dispatches for leading the defense of another exposed forward trench. That October he was wounded in the Battle of Loos, at the outset of which his older brother, Captain Arthur H.A. Vann of the 12th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, was killed.

Promoted to captain on June 1, 1916, and acting major just 20 days later, Bernard Vann earned a bar to his Military Cross that September 21 for leading a nighttime raid against an enemy trench near Bellacourt. When two Germans rushed him, he killed one and wounded the other, prompting five others to immediately surrender. Vann was then sent home to recover from his multiple wounds. Two days after Christmas he married Doris Victoria Beck, a Canadian nursing aide.

On his return to France in early 1917 Vann received the Croix de guerre with palm. That September he took command of the 1/6 Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, and was promoted to acting lieutenant colonel the next month.

By the time the war entered its final stages in the fall of 1918, Vann had been wounded five times. On September 29 near Bellenglise, France, he led his battalion as part of a major attack across the Saint-Quentin Canal—the linchpin to breaking the Hindenburg Line. Advancing in thick fog under fire, Vann’s battalion had reached the high ground above Bellenglise when the advance stalled in the face of intense artillery and machine-gun fire. Realizing the importance of keeping momentum behind the protective wall of a creeping barrage, Vann led his men forward. He single-handedly rushed a German field gun, killed three of its crew and knocked out the gun. Thanks in part to Vann’s courageous example, the attack succeeded in breaching the Hindenburg Line.

For his valor under fire Vann was awarded the Victoria Cross on December 14. But he did not live either to receive his decoration or to see Germany surrender. On October 3, while again leading from the front, Vann took a sniper bullet through the heart. He is buried in the Bellicourt British Cemetery. On June 2, 1919, his son, Bernard Geoffrey, was born.

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