Man of God who swapped his prayer book for a rifle

Blogger: GemSen

The focus of a recent BBC documentary to mark the First World War Centenary is the story of a priest who fought in the bloody conflict and went on to win a Victoria Cross for his brave actions.

Bernard Vann, born in Rushden in 1887, was a chaplain of Wellingborough School and played football for Northampton Town before training for the priesthood.


At the outbreak of war in August 1914 Vann avoided the delay to join the chaplaincy and enlisted in the army as a regular soldier and was then dispatched to France, reported the Daily Mail.

What makes this particular story really interesting is wondering just how a man of God, Bernard Vann, found it in himself to swap a prayer book for a rifle and violence on the battlefield? What must it have been like for someone of his religious background and moral conscience to kill?

In this feature, in search of Bernard Vann, was Rev Richard Coles, vicar of St Mary's in Finedon, Northamptonshire who wanted to discover what was it like for a man of god to kill on the battlefield.

Rev Coles, who went to Wellingborough School, said: “When I started this I felt an affinity with him.

“He and I were both ordained. He and I both sang the same hymns and worshipped the same God in the same place in the school chapel. But then I began to feel the distance between us.

“I certainly wouldn't have the courage and stomach for the fight. If I'm honest I wouldn't have the relish and I'm wondering if Vann enjoyed his war-making more than I could imagine.”

Rising through the ranks: a true warrior

Amazingly, the former priest never held back and even rose through the ranks in the 1/8 Sherwood Foresters and received the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre. Later Vann was promoted to acting Lieutenant Colonel in October 1917 and took command for the 1/6 Sherwood Foresters.

And as if that wasn’t enough, on September 29, 1918, through heavy fog and fire, Vann led the battalion across the St Quentin Canal and inspired men to sweep forward. It would seem that the success of the day was largely due to Vann's actions.

The citation in the London Gazette stated that he 'rushed a field gun single handed and knocked out three of the detachment.'  

Sadly, just four days later, Vann was killed by a German sniper, while preparing to lead another attack. 

When asked if he thought it would have been a difficult decision to fight on the front line, Rev Coles replied: “There would have been tensions. But he was convinced of the righteousness of this war and the British cause. In a way we might find difficult to imagine today.

“We do not know what it was like to have lived through the First World War.”

He also said: “We are so used to the idea of clergy being mild figures. Meak and mild. But there is another version. The warrior Christian. Warriors for Christ. And Vann is very much in that category.

“In his pack he always carried a cup and communion. Once a priest always a priest.

“I don't think he could have asked for a more honorable death. That is a warrior's death.”

Not only was Vann awarded the Military Cross twice, he was also awarded the Victoria Cross — the highest award for gallantry which British forces can grant.

Source: Daily Mail

Do you know enough about your ancestors who fought in the First World War?

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Log on to Forces War Records and find out more  — there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered, and remembered…

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