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.

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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.

Black dogs and Lost Generations – Andy Farr, artist.

Silent+Witness
Silent Witness by Andy Farr

Towards the end of last year my book, Shell Shocked Britain, prompted one of those serendipitous conversations that link creative projects together and potentially enhance them both. I was contacted by Andy Farr, an artist based in Coventry. His recent work has focused on ‘conflict’, most particularly as a result of war but also including the trauma caused by terrorism,  domestic abuse and the inner conflict that can lead to serious mental ill health.

I went to meet Andy in the glorious surroundings of Gloucester Services (which are actually quite plush). It was good to talk about how the personal stories of men and their families in Shell Shocked Britain might influence art.  He is collecting stories to inspire his latest project –   a body of work that will express the pain exhibited by those narratives of war; from the “shell shock” of the Great War through to the combat stress experienced by service personnel in the 21st century. An exhibition is planned for Nottingham in September and then, all being well, his work will ‘tour’ a number of other venues.

 

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The Response – Andy Far

This new work will extend the fabulous images Andy produced for the Lost Generations project, funded by Arts Council England and the Grimmitt Trust. During Lost Generations, he collaborated with young people across the UK to make the reality of WW1 relevant to today, something I have always been keen to do. My greatest fear at the moment is that the commemorative period will stop, suddenly, in November as we remember the Armistice; the legacy of the war and the importance of continued work to ensure members of the armed forces are supported if the trauma of 21st-century engagements becomes overwhelming, might once more fade away, as it did after 1918.

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100 Summers – Andy Farr

Young people have so many challenges to face today, and competition for their attention becomes ever more difficult, even when the subject is as important as this one. Working collaboratively with students of music, art and drama in this way has clearly worked for Andy. I hope his new project will have a similar impact and continue to ensure that the legacy of war is highlighted. I am currently studying the long-term impact of evacuation on the children of WW2 and it is clear that the horrors of the continuing wars in the Middle East will have a dramatic impact on the future mental health of those involved.

 

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Another day at the office – Andy Far

Mental health is also something important to Andy, who left a well-paid job, requiring an exhausting commute in order to pursue a career as an artist. His series of paintings entitled ‘Black Dog’ vividly depict modern mundanity, the stresses of a deskbound job, and the journies we make to get there. How far away is humanity from that tipping point when our connection to the world around us becomes totally reliant upon interactivity with some sort of screen? How much pressure is it possible to place on themind and brain (surely amounting to much the same thing) before we simply fall off the edge of the precipice, as so many men did in the trenches of the First World War? That endless merry go round? The black dog is waiting for us, all of us. Even those who think themselves immune…

 

CarouselSo do take a look at Andy’s work on his website – www.andyfarr.com – where you can see a moving video detailing more of the work undertaken for the Lost Generations project and find out more about what inspires Andy to choose the subject matter of his work.

Andy is a storyteller in art. His work takes the static memorial and brings it vividly to life and forces us to make the links between the past and the present that are the very best way to ensure future conflicts are avoided. For myself, as a parent, the images of the young people transposed onto the well-known images of the Great War have had as much, if not more, impact than the originals.

My thanks to Andy for allowing me to use these images on my blog. Do go to his website www.andyfarr.com and see them enlarged and further explained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest post: The evacuated teachers of the Second World War by Gillian Mawson

 

Evacuation of Gateshead School Children 1939 courtesy Gateshead Libraries
School children evacuated 1939. Courtesy Gateshead Libraries

As many of my regular readers know, I have recently written about the loss of my mum. I have delayed publishing this wonderful guest post from historian Gillian Mawson because it is a story that resonated so closely with my mother’s experience as a child during WW2 that I found it quite hard to comment on it. At the age of just 10, with her 6-year-old brother, my mum was evacuated out of London to Bedfordshire and was so traumatised by her experience at the hands of the woman who took them in that even in old age she would recognise similar abusive traits in others. It would bring back all those unhappy memories, and when she felt most vulnerable it caused her a great deal of distress, even in her 80s. Gillian has written a number of books describing, often in their own words, the wartime experience of evacuees. Some had a wonderful time, but others, like my mum, were less fortunate and it is important that all their stories are heard. So I am thrilled Gillian has written this post for my blog, focusing on the teachers’ experience, and the responsibility they felt towards their young charges. Full details of Gillian’s latest book can be found at the end of the post. Do take a look – the immediacy and freshness of some of the memories are heartrending.

During the Second World War, thousands of British teachers were evacuated with their pupils, yet we hear their stories far less often than those of child evacuees. These men and women took on a great responsibility. Cut off from their own families, they not only educated the children in their care but did their best to monitor their health and happiness, providing comfort when their pupils were homesick or distressed.

Maureen Brass described preparations at St Dominic’s Infant School, London

‘The week before the evacuation, we gave parents lists of what the
children should bring with them, made labels showing their names,
the name of the school and the school number. Ours was school
number 0302. On the morning of September 1st 1939, the children
assembled in school around 7.00am. The staff had arrived at 6.00am.
At 8.00am we set out from the school, waved off by tearful mothers,
grandmothers and others. The groups, Seniors, Juniors and Infants,
with staff and helpers, walked in fours to Kentish Town West Station.
We all boarded a train that was waiting for us and set out into the
unknown.’

Mary Richardson taught at Cork Street School, Camberwell, and recalled the school’s arrival in Kent;

‘Each teacher was assigned 10 children and after a long train journey,
we arrived at Sevenoaks where we were neatly put into cattle pens
to be counted. We then caught another train and arrived at Brasted
station, which is quite a distance from the village, so when we
arrived at the church hall we were a sorry sight – tired, thirsty and
afraid. Mothers came and chose us and I was seized upon by the
lady at the village shop and bakehouse. We had promised to try to
keep families together but with four Peabody girls and four
Sparrowhawk boys, this proved impossible. Some of the younger children had head lice, some had wet themselves and their clothing was dirty,
ragged and unsuitable. However, the Kent ladies were brilliant, extra
clothing was found, menus were changed to accommodate townies
who never ate ‘greens’ and cuddly toys given to comfort the weepy ones.’

Guernsey children and teachers arrive July 1940 in Disley Cheshire
Guernsey evacuees and their teachers arrive in Cheshire, 1940

When the children arrived at their new billets, they wrote their new address on a postcard, together with a short message for their parents. Their teachers advised them to write phrases which would cheer up their anxious parents, such as ‘Dear Mum and Dad, am living with nice people. I am very happy. Don’t worry about me.’ However, this had tragic consequences for one little boy and his family. He left his new billet, placed his postcard, with the above message, in the letter box then went for a walk. Sadly he fell into a canal and drowned. His family were advised of his death that evening, but two days later, his postcard with its poignant little message arrived at their home.

In many cases, whole schools were evacuated to open air camps in the countryside. When Derby School was evacuated to Amber Valley in Derbyshire, the teachers became virtual ‘foster parents’ to 200 boys. Elisabeth Bowden’s father was the Headmaster of Derby School and she moved into the camp with her parents;

‘Mum, Dad and I lived in a bungalow whilst the pupils and the other teachers
were billeted around the camp in large wooden huts. It was a huge responsibility
for those adults, in charge of 200 boys. Mother had some petrol because
she drove the emergency vehicle. Several times she had to take boys
with broken arms, limbs and that sort of thing, to hospital.’

Although many evacuees received loving care from their wartime foster parents, others did not. Children endured physical and mental cruelty at the hands of unsuitable hosts because billets were not fully vetted before the children were placed there. Children were sometimes ‘rescued’ from these situations because their teachers noticed their unhappiness or observed bruises and marks.

Peggy and Betty White were evacuated to Oxford and were very happy in the home of Mr and Mrs Murphy. However, when Mrs Murphy was due to have a baby, the girls had to move out and, as Peggy recalls, their next billet was very different;

‘We moved in with Mrs Fisher who turned out to be the most wicked
woman we had ever met. From the very next day, we were beaten
and made to do all the housework before going to school. We had to
get up at five each morning and we were sent to bed as soon as we
got in from school. As an extra punishment we would be shut, one
at a time, in a dark coal-shed all night. We lived there for about a year,
which to us seemed like forever. One day Betty’s teacher, Mrs Payne,
saw the terrible bruises on her. She questioned us both, and we said that Mrs
Fisher would kill us if we ever told anyone. Mrs Payne took us back to the
house and told us to pack our belongings in a suitcase while she had words
with Mrs Fisher. Then we all left. As we walked along the road in
the gathering dusk, with our battered suitcase balanced precariously on
Mrs Payne’s bicycle, she said, ‘Where would you like to live most of all?’
Betty and I cried in unison, ‘With Mrs Murphy.’ She replied, ‘That’s just
where we are going.’ We skipped the rest of the way there. Mrs Murphy
cried when she saw us and so did we.’

The teachers who remained with their evacuated pupils carried a huge burden of responsibility during the war. Miss Grace Fry’s life was completely changed by her wartime experiences. She was evacuated with her pupils from Guernsey to Scotland for five years and remarked some years later, ‘It was the evacuation that decided me, I was not going to get married and I wasn’t going to have children because I had had enough with all that during the war.’ Looking back today, child evacuee, Kathleen Cowling, believes, ‘We were very fortunate in having teachers who stayed with us throughout the war years and provided some continuity in our lives – they sacrificed a lot.’ John Davis adds, ‘My memory is of the unfailing kindness of the staff at a time when their own personal lives must have been under great stress, as well as the responsibility of teaching and caring for such a large number of children in very difficult circumstances.

My latest book, ‘Britain’s Wartime Evacuees’ can be viewed here:

evacueeshttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Britains-Wartime-Evacuees-Evacuations-Accounts/dp/1848324413/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

My sincere thanks to Gillian for this post. You can find out more about her valuable work at her blog https://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

On the 11th hour – Wilfred Owen & a most moving poetic parable

The 11th of November, and Remembrance Sunday were days my father held above most others. Some of my earliest memories involve standing to attention by the black & white television in the back room as  Big Ben chimed, the guns went off to mark the end of the minutes silence and the Queen stepped forward to place her poppy wreath. I remember lots of sad, old faces; berets, medals and inevitably, wheelchairs.

I have very mixed feelings about war and the waste of young lives it inevitably involves. I admire our armed forces and still keep Remembrance Sunday as a mark of respect for my father and all it meant to him.

However, I feel that despite all the horrors of the wars of the 20th century politicians have learnt nothing. Young men and women are still sent into war zones about which we know very little for causes we hardly understand. My daughter’s 17 year old friends are talking about the army as an alternative to university and unemployment, but seem to assume combat is an extension of a Playstation or X Box game. It is hard to listen to.

So today, I reserve a place on my blog for a poem that has always been one which has moved me more than any other as a ‘commandment’ to us to think long and hard before once more sending our troops into situations where they die with honour; heroic in defence of their comrades and their units. But for a wider good? Who is entitled to make that decision?

Inspired by a parable in the Book of Genesis , in this poem, Wilfred Owen acknowledges God’s mercy in a way he rarely does in his work; but he leaves man to take the final decision. And it is the wrong one.

The Parable of the Old Man & the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen – written 1918

God rest their souls.

No Wriggling gets a guest slot: Hellish Nell: Helen Duncan – spiritualist, martyr or fraud?

A quick post just to let you know that No Wriggling has been given a guest slot over at Kith and Kin Research today. My subject is wartime spiritualist Helen Duncan and her trial under the Witchcraft Act in 1944. It is a fascinating story of exploitation, superstition and suspicion. Was any aspect of her ‘gift’ genuine? Was the government really concerned about the possibility of a war time security risk? Go over to Kith and Kin Research – The blog and see what you think…..

My thanks to Luke Mouland at Kith and Kin for allowing me to hijack his fabulous blog. Luke posts regularly on genealogy and social history and he is well worth a regular visit.