b. 09/07/1887 Rushden, Northamptonshire. d. 03/10/1918 Ramicourt, France.
Bernard William Vann (1887-1918) was born on 9th July 1887 at 46, High Street South, Rushden, Northamptonshire. 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 Head Master 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 only forty-six when he died on the 2nd September 1906 at 9, Market Place, Higham Ferrers. 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 Zouch Grammar School, Leicestershire. While there, he played soccer 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 was awarded the V.C. in World War I. While at the school he accompanied the New Pilgrim Club on a football tour through 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. 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’ Corp. 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. 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 1 of the History Tripos and a second in part 2.
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, possibly to attend a family wedding but returned for his ordination on 30th September, at Peterborough.
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.
Britain declared war on 4th August 1914 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 31st August 1914 and became a private in the 28th (County of London) Battalion, The Artists’ Rifles. He stated that he was twenty-seven 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 five feet ten and a half inches and his chest measurement as thirty-eight and a half inches. 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 24th April, 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 6th June and then on 15th August he was awarded the Military Cross and in October 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. In October 1915 Vann was badly wounded in an assault on the Hollenzollern redoubt, but continued to throw grenades until ordered away. 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 1st June 1916 and in the same month [20th] to Acting Major. He led a daring raid in September 1916 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 was awarded a bar to his M.C.
He returned to England later the same month suffering severely from neuritis caused by his many wounds. On 27th December 1916 Bernard was married to Doris Victoria Beck, a Canadian nursing aide. Doris was twenty years old and Bernard twenty-seven. 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 6th October 1917. After a short period in England Vann returned to his battalion on 3rd April 1918 but on 23rd May he was admitted to hospital for a stay of two weeks.At the end of August Bernard and Doris enjoyed a ten day leave in Paris, possibly the last time they met.
On 29th September 1918, during the attack at Bellenglise and Lehaucourt, 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. Realizing 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.
He was killed by a sniper on 3rd October 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 counter attacks, which were unable to dislodge them. Bernard and Doris’ son, Bernard Geoffrey was born on 2nd June 1919. Bernard had made his will in France on 29th September 1918. 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 was buried in the Bellicourt British Cemetery, and was remembered by a fellow officer, “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 bestow”.
Bernard’s medals were purchased privately in 2010 by Michael Ashcroft and are displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London. The medal group only includes the VC, MC and Bar and French Croix de Guerre with palm. The other WWI campaign medals are missing.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: BELLICOURT BRITISH CEMETERY, FRANCE.
PLOT II, ROW O, GRAVE 1.
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map.
Henry Vann – Image of the Vann VC Stone in Rushden, Northamptonshire.