A Great War guest post: The Half-Shilling Curate – a story of love, valour & faith

To coincide with the commemorations held on Sunday, for the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, I wrote a piece (HERE) about how we must, as we move on from the centenary events, continue to learn from the experiences of a century ago in order to prevent the trauma of any further conflict and recognise the sacrifices that are still made today. It struck a chord with many, so I thought it appropriate to make sure this blog continued to post, regularly, on the legacy of war and the many great men and women who have given so much over the years. 

Today I am thrilled to have a guest post on the blog. Sarah Reay is the granddaughter of a remarkable man, Herbert Cowl, the only known Army Chaplain during the Great War to be awarded the Military Cross Medal for exemplary gallantry on a ship. Here she tells us how her grandfather served his country in two wars, finding ways to support the men in his care whilst retaining his faith in the face of dreadful events.

HBC - Bristol - WW1

Rev. Herbert Cowl

When war broke out in 1914, the newly ordained Rev. Cowl volunteered to become an Army Chaplain. Most Army Chaplains had no experience of working with soldiers in the field of war.

It was considered to be a righteous war and the churches responded with a supply of suitable candidates. Herbert Cowl was a good candidate because he was young (in his late 20’s), physically fit (a great sportsman), he had the ability to preach ‘extempore’ (‘off the cuff’), he could ride a horse and he spoke fluent French.

Herbert was affectionately known by his family as ‘The Half-Shilling Curate’. His descriptive account of his experiences as a young Army Chaplain, from his own personal letters and writings, illustrate the value of faith during war – the balance between serving God and carrying out his duties as a captain in the British Army.

When the 68th Brigade arrived in France, it was not long before the young Army Chaplain realised the pending reality of active service on the battlefront. In one of his early letters to his parents, a little innocent anxiety can be felt:

Sometimes as I cross a bit of rising ground between here and Headquarters, where the country is open, and the road only lined by an endless avenue of huge polled witch-elms, I stand in the darkness; watch the probing searchlights flicker on to the clouds and hear those grim far-off voices speaking death. It is a new sound; it is another world, and it calls to unprecedented scenes and experiences. God grant as we march into it all, that there may arise a man in me that is sufficient to this new occasion!

The Army Chaplains not only provided spiritual guidance and sustenance to the men, but they became major contributors to general morale. Also, they gave invaluable assistance in the Field Ambulances at the frontline, helping medical staff, from doctors to stretcher-bearers.

Herbert’s service at the frontline was cut short when he was severely wounded. He later recalled in a letter:

A hundred yards away a shell threw a huge column of stone and soil into the air. I tried to answer the Doctor’s exclamation that they were getting nearer, when I was aware of an intolerable pressure on my right jaw. I would step into that open door-way, to be out of the way of falling stones. But why, having done so, was I plunged head foremost onto a stone floor thick with mud and dabbled with red? For a moment I lay there gazing through the glass-less window. The sky was a hazy blue; and white, watery clouds were heralding more rain – that meant more mud: and the cellar in which we slept would be green with mist when we turned in tonight!

Then the Doctor came and knelt at my side: and I remember the disgust with which I realised, as he asked me to lie still, that I was kicking furiously. Outside a voice called – “Bring a stretcher! The Chaplain’s hit” and another, – “Well, I reckon he’s done!”

He was operated on, almost straight away. It was a miracle he survived given the severity of his injuries. However, he survived and about ten days later he was on the hospital ship HMHS Anglia when she hit a German mine in the Channel. She was the first hospital ship to be lost in the war due to enemy action. Herbert recalled the events on the sinking ship:

Crushed thus, choking with salt water, and stunned by the new wound in the head, I was carried some 20 feet down the passage. It was then that as I like to think, the Angel of God became my deliverer. For I found myself suddenly and unaccountably standing on my feet in the midst of the water and the wreckage. A few hours before I could not walk: but now I walked along the passage: only to find myself in a bathroom from which there was no escape.

HBC - sketch painting of Anglia sinking - hbc

The sinking of the Anglia by Rev. Cowl

He saved many lives that fateful day. His struggle to survive and the fact that he found the strength to save others was nothing short of a second miracle.

Due to his injuries, Herbert was never allowed to return to overseas duty. However, he did return to work as an Army Chaplain in the home camps and garrisons. He once described a scene in Portsmouth, in 1917 of the men returning from the battlefront:

One evening I entered that room for some week night meeting and there covering the floor and propped up against the walls, packed from end to end, side to side were wounded men just unloaded from the Western Front. They were the heroes of the hour and very well they knew it, but for all their pathetic disfigurements and their ghastly wounds, they were the gayest company I remember meeting.

Twenty years later, Herbert a Methodist minister with a family living in Acton, North London found himself in the centre of another battle – the Second World War. His family were evacuated but he decided that he had to stay in London to offer help through the Blitz. One night in a shelter he wrote to his son (the author’s father):

Jerry is concentrating on railways and factories at present; and as we have a network of both, we come in for a lot of attention. Most nights you can tell what he is after, when he has dropped his first stick of bombs. (As it is, I’m writing badly partly because he is now circling round overhead looking for something: the shells are bursting continuously round him: and it isn’t a nice business sitting alone in this cockle-shell building while he tries to make up his mind where to lay his eggs. When they do drop, they sound as if they are coming right on top of you, though they may be half a mile away, or more. And as he is mostly using 500 lb ones, you are sure your last moment has come, until you find you are still alive! We shall get much more used to it in time; but it isn’t easy at first.)

THE HALF SHILLING CURATE - front book cover -hbcHerbert’s unique story has now been told in a book ‘The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918’. More information is available at www.halfshillingcurate.com and discounted signed copies of the book can also be purchased through the website.

Retired General Sir Peter de la Billière, who endorsed the book, quoted Field Marshal Haig adding; ‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general – and this book proves it.’ The Foreword is written by BBC’s Hugh Pym, whose father was also an Army Chaplain during the Great War.

The Rev. Herbert B. Cowl C.F. M.C. considered himself no hero, but this is his story – one of many stories that had never been told before.

My sincere thanks to Sarah for allowing me to share her grandfather’s story on my blog. Do take a look at the website and find out more about this unique man.

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This entry was posted in First World War, History, Religion, War, World War Two and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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