Review of “The Half-Shilling Curate”

The Half-Shilling Curate: a personal account of war & faith 1914-1918
by Sarah Reay
Published by Helion & Company, 2016
Hardback, 191 pages including bibliography, index, glossy, illustrated
ISBN  978 1 911096 46 7
Cover price not stated but publicity material gives £25

A very nicely produced hardback in the style and to the very high quality standard we have come to expect from Helion. “The Half-Shilling Curate” tells the story of Herbert Butler Cowl MC, a Wesleyan Army Chaplain of the Great War, through his letters, service record and other contemporary sources and is written by his granddaughter. It is a very well crafted work, full of interest and worth reading.

Cowl was born in Leeds in 1886, the son of a Wesleyan Methodist Minister. He evidently had a warm, close family and grew up as his father was moved between posts in Bournemouth, Highgate, Wandsworth and Hertford. When Herbert decided to follow his father into the church, he returned to Leeds and was educated in theology at Headingley College. Before the Great War, Herbert took up a ministry at Street in Somerset. He was a keen naturalist and fisherman.

On volunteering his services as an Army Chaplain, Herbert was sent to Bordon in Hampshire, where he worked with men in training at the nearby camp and at the railway troops depot at Longmoor.  He was initially assigned to the 9th (Scottish) Division until the authorities considered that a Wesleyan might be better working with an English formation. He began an association with the 23rd Division, particularly the 13th (Service) Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry  and the 68th Infantry Brigade, and went to France with that brigade on 25 August 1915.

It seems that Chaplains did not enjoy universal respect among the front line troops and it was the case that it took some time for Herbert to be taken into the hearts of his brigade. That he came to be highly regarded was almost certainly due to a combination of his personality and the fact that he was never far from the trenches: he was present in the dressing stations and dugout, sharing the dangers. During his relatively short time in France the 23rd Division held the line near Armentières.

Herbert was severely wounded at Gris Pot on 25 November 1915, being struck by a fragment of a large exploding German shell that cut his neck, broke his jaw and entered his throat. Pouring with blood and while salvoes of shells rained down on the area, he was recovered by other men nearby and eventually evacuated to a base hospital at Boulogne.

His woes were not yet over. He was loaded onto the hospital ship “Anglia”, which after leaving for England on 17 November 1915 and passing a position four miles off Dover hit a mine. She sank within 45 minutes, taking 134 passengers and crew to their death. By sheer luck, Herbert found himself in the English Channel, managed to reach a small raft and was picked up from it by a patrol boat. He was taken to Dover and thence to hospital in London.

Herbert was awarded the Military Cross in the King’s Birthday Honours of 1916. After making a recovery he married, was posted to the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division at Colchester and later spent much time with the Portsmouth Garrison and Naval Port Mission.

The final chapters of the book take us through his most interesting post-war life and we are left with an excellent impression of this man of faith. “The Half-Shilling Curate” also includes several short biographies of other officers, men and nurses who are mentioned in the text: they are well researched and of a great interest in themselves.

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