The Half-Shilling Curate: A Personal Account of War & Faith 1914-18 by Sarah Reay

half Shilling CurateThe Half-Shilling Curate tells the very personal story of a young Army Chaplain, the Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl, who was my grandfather. The descriptive account, dating from Christmas Eve 1914 to the end of hostilities in 1919, includes his personal letters and writings, and illustrates the importance and value of faith during war.

I remember my grandfather from my childhood; not as a wartime hero or a man of great qualities, but as a peaceful man with gentle kindness. It was not until many years later, on the discovery of my grandfather’s letters from the Great War, did I find myself immersed in the powerful beauty of his writing and an untold story…

Over the last three years, my journey has taken me from my home in the North East of England, with research on the Durham Light Infantry, to The National Archives; local record offices and libraries across the country, to church records; national and local newspapers; to Belgium and to the remains of frontline trenches where my grandfather was seriously wounded. I have paid my respects to the men who did not make it home and I have reached to the skies over Yorkshire in a First World War Tiger Moth biplane. Every possible source and place has been visited – recollections gathered from people who remember the Rev. Cowl to the discovery of my grandfather’s spoken words in a recording marking the 50thAnniversary of the Great War.

I needed to discover what sort of man would volunteer to join the Army as a non-combatant at the beginning of the war? Why did he volunteer? What training and preparation did he receive before going out to France? When Herbert arrived on mainland Europe, why was he compelled to spend as much time as possible in the trenches when he could have chosen an easier and safer position away from the frontline? Through days, weeks, months and years of research, these were the questions that I needed to answer.

When badly wounded and on his way back to Blighty, once again he risked his own life to save others. Part of the history regarding the sinking of the hospital ship, Anglia, has now been re-written as a result of Herbert’s private recollections.  His selfless actions that fateful day earned him one of the first Military Cross medals to be awarded to a Wesleyan Methodist Chaplain during the war.

Herbert Cowl was the Army Chaplain who brought dry matches to the trenches so that the soldiers could light their Woodbines. When he was wounded during a heavy bombardment in Flanders, his brigade lost not only their Army Chaplain but their special friend, the Padre. It would be his greatest regret during the war that he could not return to the frontline after receiving a shrapnel wound to his neck and jaw, which left him unable to speak. So, once recovered and well enough to resume his duties, he carved himself a role on the Homefront as a Garrison Army Chaplain (first in Colchester and secondly in Portsmouth). Years later, during the Blitz in the Second World War, he faced further challenges.

Herbert’s faith never faltered; a holy and humble man, he followed his duty with a sense of moral responsibility. Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions of the war regarding Army Chaplains was the fact that many of them stayed safe in Headquarter administrative posts. On the contrary, they went unarmed out into No Man’s Land to support their men. I have found many untold stories of incredible bravery from the men who represented the Royal Army Chaplain’s Department. 179 Chaplains made the ultimate sacrifice of giving their lives to their faith and their country.

The Half-Shilling Curate (as my grandfather was affectionately known by his parents) is a moving, true and untold account of a spiritual man, which will appeal to all readers, whether Christian or Atheist. It lingers, provoking thoughts on the meaning of faith in such strenuous times of war. A universal and human story, it tells of one man’s war, his faith and love. However, the meticulous detail of events will interest academics – shedding new light on a Christian man who had complete trust in God and a patriotic duty to serve his King and country, and it includes an objective view on the day-to-day happenings of a Nonconformist ministry during the Great War.

This is a very private account that has been kept quiet for 100 years,  The Half-Shilling Curatewill be published on 15 October 2016.  The book launch will take place in the Sir James Knott Library at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle at the end of October. Built in 1825, ‘The Lit & Phil’ is the largest independent library outside London. Given Herbert’s lifetime passion for books and learning, it is an especially fitting choice of venue with its floor to ceiling bookshelves dressed in history.

My next adventure is to uncover the story of The Half-Shilling Curate’s daughter. A lifetime oath of secrecy was pledged at the beginning of the Second World War… I hope to discover the truth regarding my aunt’s intriguing and mysterious past… But that’s another story!

To stay up-to-date with developments on The Half-Shilling Curate. A Personal Account of War & Faith 1914-18, visit

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