I must own to two things in writing this review. Firstly, I know Charles Beresford; and, secondly, as a historian of WW1 infantry COs, Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Vann, CO 1/6th Sherwood Foresters, cannot escape being a hero of mine, and I have been particularly looking forward to this book.
It did not disappoint. Charles is fine writer, which is always a good start.
The author was faced with one central problem – Vann’s wife, Doris, destroyed all his papers. Charles could therefore not build his biography around a series of letters or diary entries. We thus see Vann through the eyes of others, and the biography is almost as much a story of the people around Vann, those who made up his world, civilian and military, as it is about Vann himself. We thus see Vann in context. For some less skillful, or diligent, the absence of Vann’s voice could have been a problem. Charles manages to turn this into a virtue. We thus have an insight into many things – the middle-class professional Victorian family, the late 19th and early 20th century school system and the importance of sport in that world, to name but a few.
The narrative is carried along on a raft of facts. And facts abound. Charles has been exceptional in his diligence of his research – a work of years. As a bonus, the last chapter presents his research on clergy who served as soldiers, rather than purely as padres. Vann was the only such to be awarded the VC.
As one finishes the penultimate chapter, however, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the towering figure that is Bernard Vann, sportsman, teacher, man of faith, leader, and fighter. The world today seems to possess so few such individuals.
And therein – man of faith and fighter, who killed without being daunted – lies the riddle to modern eyes. It was not the author’s purpose to enter into debate on the nature of the Christianity of the period that allowed this not to be a problem, even if Anglican Canon Law about the shedding of blood by the ordained; and the prescriptions of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, concerning the incompatability of clergy in combatant roles attempted to make it one. Vann may have thought ‘God is on our side’, but there is no evidence presented that he did. But what he certainly was, and it is not a point that Charles labours unduly, was a shining example of the ‘muscular Christianity’ which had been touched by the the militarism of the late Victorian period. Vann was not doing ‘God’s work’ on the battlefield when he was in action, (although he certainly acted as a padre at times, and fostered the spiritual needs of his men), but he was a man of his time who had no difficulty in enforcing moral right with might. He transcended the bounds of his faith. His life is both to be admired, and a proof of L.P. Huntley’s famous remark: ‘The past is foreign country, they do things differently there’.
There are many good reasons to read this book.