The story of two fearless army chaplains who retired to Sidmouth

Robin Laird and Dave O'Connor at the grave of Charles Graham Swann

Robin Laird and Dave O'Connor at the grave of Charles Graham Swann - Credit: Archant

They showed ‘utter disregard for personal safety’.

The Reverend Robin Laird visited Sidmouth Cemetery last week to pay tribute at the graves of two army chaplains who were awarded the Military Cross in World War One.

Both of the men survived the war and retired to Sidmouth at the end of their church careers.

Charles Graham Swann lived at Mead House, Meadway, and Vivian Greaves Banham at The Red House, Moorcourt Close.

Speaking at the cemetery, Robin said: “These two men were brave and compassionate in equal measure.

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“They broke cover under heavy artillery bombardment in order to tend the wounded and give comfort to others.

“Their selflessness shines through brightly, even after all this time.”

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The Military Cross is awarded sparingly to officers in recognition of ‘exemplary gallantry in the presence of the enemy’.

Army chaplains hold military officer rank, although they do not bear arms and are classed as non-combatants.

Hillside Road resident Robin was himself an army chaplain for 26 years, seeing service in places such as Germany, Nepal, Hong Kong, Bahrain, Northern Ireland and the Falklands.

He said: “Chaplains are embedded with the troops and go with them wherever they go.

“Which means in times of conflict they go into danger with them.

“That was the case during the fiercest battles of World War One.

“Chaplains are there to give spiritual and pastoral support and they can’t do that from behind a desk when their unit goes into action.”

In wartime, army chaplains also have a specific duty most of us would find harrowing.

They are tasked to oversee the recovery of the dead – and parts of the dead – from the battlefield and organise burials.

This is something these two chaplains probably had to do once the artillery barrage lifted.

Robin said he is sometimes asked why anybody would volunteer to expose themselves to such extreme danger and relentless carnage.

And why were Charles Graham Swann and Vivian Greaves Banham so fearless on the battlefield?

The answer is simple, Robin said: “It was their calling and they accepted it.

“They were men of faith. They saw it as their Christian duty. And their duty to their country.”

Admiration for the two chaplains is also shared by the Sidmouth branch of the Royal British Legion.

Branch chairman Dave O’Connor also visited the graves and said: “Soldiers who have experienced prolonged shelling say it is the most terrifying thing imaginable.

“Like hell on earth. So what these two brave men did 100 years ago was astounding.

“They were inspirational.”

Captain Reverend Vivian Greaves Banham (1881 – 1973)

Born at Eccleshall, Sheffield.

He served in parishes in Surrey and Sussex before the war and was vicar of Aynho in Northamptonshire for 40 years afterwards.

He was stationed in France with the 291st Battery of the Australian 4th Division.

The citation for his medal said: “On September 18th, 1918, near Epehy, the battery he was living with was being severely shelled in enfilade and considerable casualties inflicted.

“He organised a party of stretcher bearers and with greatest coolness dressed the wounded and took them to the nearest dressing station.

“He returned to the battery and remained at the guns, cheering everyone by his example and word.”

He was then awarded a bar to his Military Cross. The recommendation from his commanding officer, General Ewen Sinclair-Maclagan, said: “On September 29th, 1918, he was at the battery position… northwest of St Quentin when this battery for a considerable period was under very heavy shell fire and direct machine gun fire, and casualties occurred...

“He made several journeys from the battery position to the dressing station under most heavy shell fire, showing utter disregard for personal safety.

“On one occasion he observed a tank mechanic coming towards the Battery position suffering from severe shell shock, and without a steel helmet.

“[Captain Greaves Banham] went forward and took charge of the man, placing his own steel helmet on him, and assisting the man to the dressing station, about a mile away.

“This deed was performed under direct machine gun fire of the enemy.

“When not assisting wounded men he moved from one gun to another, cheering and encouraging the detachments all the time.

“His conduct throughout was magnificent and by his utter disregard of danger and cheerful disposition he stimulated and maintained a fine fighting spirit throughout this very trying period.”

Captain Reverend Charles Graham Swann (1878 - 1944)

Born at Leicester. Immediately before and after World War One he was vicar of St Jude’s Manningham in Bradford.

Before retiring to Sidmouth he was vicar of Puriton in Somerset.

Following retirement he occasionally held services at Sidbury Parish Church and St Peter’s, Sidford.

He was awarded the Military Cross for his courage in France, although we don’t know precisely where and when.

However, he received his medal from the King at Buckingham Palace on December 19, 1917.

The citation for the award read: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty under heavy shell fire.

“His fearlessness and devotion in bringing in and attending to the wounded under intense shell fire were magnificent.

“He dug out men who had been buried, and was the means of saving many lives, and throughout the day his utter disregard for personal safety deserved the highest praise.”

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