The half-shilling cu­rate

The vivid record of a Hert­ford chap­lin in the First World War

Hertfordshire Life - - CONTENTS -

From Hert­ford to Flan­ders, a young army chap­lain kept a vivid record of his ex­pe­ri­ences in the First World War. Sarah Reay tells her grand­fa­ther’s re­mark­able story

Rev Herbert Cowl is the only known army chap­lain to be awarded the Mil­i­tary Cross, for ex­em­plary gal­lantry on a ship dur­ing the Great War.

Herbert was born in 1886, the son of a Wes­leyan min­is­ter. In 1904 the Cowl fam­ily lived on Ware Road in Hert­ford and Herbert was head­boy at Hert­ford Gram­mar School. In that peace­ful time, litte did the fam­ily know that in 10 years’ time the coun­try would be at war and Herbert would be one of the first to vol­un­teer, as a chap­lain to the troops.

In the sum­mer of 1914, Herbert was or­dained into the Wes­leyan Church. Less than a week later Bri­tain de­clared war on Ger­many.

With pa­tri­o­tism and faith in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, churches re­sponded to the army’s call with a sup­ply of can­di­dates for chap­laincy posts to pro­vide spir­i­tual guid­ance to sol­diers and be in­volved in all as­pects of their wel­fare. Suit­abil­ity de­pended on phys­i­cal fit­ness, an abil­ity to preach ex­tem­pore, horse­man­ship and a good knowl­edge of French. Herbert had all these qual­i­ties. And in his 20s was one of the youngest Wes­leyan army chap­lains – giv­ing him an ad­van­tage in terms of be­ing able to re­late to the young sol­diers. Herbert’s jour­ney would take him to the Army Home Camp in Alder­shot and on to France and Flan­ders on the Western Front. At­tached to the 68th Brigade of the 23rd Di­vi­sion Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force, it was not long be­fore Herbert re­alised the re­al­ity of ser­vice at the bat­tle­front. He wrote home to his par­ents:

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!

He humbly signed his let­ters home, From your lov­ing son, The Half-Shilling Cu­rate, Herbert.

Serv­ing amidst the mud, may­hem and mis­ery of the front, Herbert be­friended sol­diers, held Sun­day ser­vice, buried the dead and com­forted the wounded. He re­mem­bered the cir­cum­stances of his first burial – a sergeant killed in No Man’s Land by ‘the all too fa­mil­iar story: a star-shell: a vol­ley: and his com­pan­ion was more for­tu­nate than he’:

I wish you could see that lit­tle burial-place: an old vil­lage or­chard, in whose trees the birds sang morn­ing and evening as if by choice. There were a few flow­ers in the grass, and long trails of crim­son creeper hung from the cot­tage walls on two sides. Even while the fir­ing party took their places by the grave-side, two great shells came scream­ing into the ad­join­ing gar­den, and burst with an an­gry crash. The men must lie down un­der the near­est wall: and even as I stood there read­ing the ser­vice, ev­ery Bri­tish gun in the fields be­hind chose the time to talk back to the Ger­man gun­ners. Yet, for all the hellish din of the mo­ments, the peace of that lay­ing-by seemed un­bro­ken: and when his com­rades had gath­ered from the shat­tered gar­dens around a hand­ful of flow­ers, and placed them on the up­turned soil; one felt that there was some­thing triumphant about the pass­ing of the Sergeant.

Three months into Herbert’s ser­vice he was him­self se­verely wounded dur­ing a heavy en­emy bom­bard­ment as shrap­nel sliced through the side of his head, jaw and throat. He vividly re­mem­bered the bom­bard­ment as they tried to take shel­ter:

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!”

‘Hear those grim far off voices speak­ing death. It is a new sound; it is an­other world’

Herbert was op­er­ated on and mirac­u­lously sur­vived the surgery and blood loss (there were no trans­fu­sions at the front). Un­able to walk or talk he was or­dered back to Eng­land to re­cu­per­ate and placed on a cot bed aboard the hos­pi­tal ship Anglia. Fully laden with more than 400 wounded and sick ser­vice­men from the bat­tle­front, she hit a Ger­man mine in the Chan­nel. Ly­ing close to the point of im­pact, the back of Herbert’s head was cut open from ear to

ear. He later de­scribed the scene and the calami­tous events as the ship be­gan to fill with wa­ter and lurch to the bot­tom of the sea:

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.

Once he was on deck, and de­spite his own ter­ri­ble in­juries, Herbert helped to save many lives by get­ting rafts into the wa­ter. These were picked up by ships di­verted to the scene. He was awarded the Mil­i­tary Cross in recog­ni­tion of his su­per­hu­man ef­forts.

Back in Eng­land, his sec­ond bat­tle was re­cov­ery – helped by his de­voted sis­ter Muriel – and although he was never fit enough to re­turn to over­seas du­ties, he took up work as a chap­lain in the army gar­risons and home camps. To­wards the end of the war, he de­scribed a scene of men who had re­turned to one of the camps 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 found him­self in the cen­tre of an­other war. His fam­ily were evac­u­ated from Lon­don but he stayed through the Blitz, driven by his faith to serve.

Like so many, Herbert never later spoke about the First World War. But, while lit­er­ally un­able to speak for many months due to his in­juries, he did write – co­pi­ous notes which I dis­cov­ered at the fam­ily home along with his let­ters. As I be­gan this jour­ney dis­cov­er­ing my grand­fa­ther’s story, I be­came drawn to the much un­der-recog­nised role of the army chap­lains dur­ing the Great War. Their im­por­tance was not lost at the time, as Field Mar­shal Dou­glas Haig wrote, ‘A good chap­lain is as valu­able as a good gen­eral’.

‘I found my­self sud­denly and un­ac­count­ably stand­ing on my feet in the wa­ter and the wreck­age’

Herbert Cowl’s story is told in The Half-Shilling Cu­rate: A Per­sonal Ac­count of War and Faith 1914-1918 by Sarah Reay. Or­ders via half­shillingcu­ quot­ing ‘Hert­ford­shire Life’ will re­ceive signed copies for £18 in­clud­ing postage (RRP £25).

Herbert with his de­voted sis­ter Muriel who helped him re­cover from his hor­rific in­juries

LEFT:Herbert in his First World War uni­formRIGHT:It wasn’t all hor­ror. Herbert with fel­low of­fi­cers on a ‘bathing pa­rade’

ABOVE:Sarah Reay’s bi­og­ra­phy of her grand­fa­ther along­side his medals

How­iz­ter gun in ac­tion on the front. The Bri­tish re­lied heav­ily on tow­able field ar­tillery

ABOVE:A pe­riod il­lus­tra­tion of the sink­ing of the hos­pi­tal ship Anglia by a Ger­man mine in the Chan­nel. Many lives were saved, but many lost

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