The Half‐Shilling Curate – the story of the Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl C.F. M.C.

Herbert with his sister Muriel who helped nurse him back to good health. Courtesy of Sarah Reay

On Christmas Eve 1914, Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl began his service with the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. He became the only known Army Chaplain during the Great War to be awarded the Military Cross medal for exemplary gallantry on a ship. In this guest blog post Herbert’s granddaughter Sarah Reay shares his story with us, which she has published under the title The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918

  • The role of the Army Chaplain

The Army Chaplains not only provided spiritual guidance and sustenance to the men, but they became major contributors to general morale. They also gave invaluable assistance in the Field Ambulances at the frontline, helping medical staff, from doctors to stretcherbearers. Army Chaplains worked in the Army Camps and the Garrisons too, helping to prepare men for what they had to face at the front in battle and also supporting the wounded and sick who returned home.

A British Chaplain and army medic bringing back a wounded man from the Somme. IWM Q 721

Most of the Army Chaplains had no experience of working with soldiers before the First World War. This conflict was considered to be a righteous war and the churches responded with a supply of suitable candidates. Suitability ranged from being physically fit, to the ability to preach ‘extempore’ (‘off the cuff’), an ability to ride a horse and to speak a foreign language. Herbert Cowl was one of the youngest Wesleyan Army Chaplains in 1914 ‐ despite being in his 20’s, he had all of the qualities that the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department were looking for.

  • ‘The Half-Shilling Curate’

Born in 1886 in Leeds, Herbert finished his training to become a Methodist minister in 1910. He was affectionately known by his family as ‘The Half‐Shilling Curate’ – his lack of experience led him to feel he was “not the full shilling”. Herbert’s descriptive account of his experiences as a young Army Chaplain, from his own personal letters and writings, illustrated the value of faith during the war ‐ the balance between serving God and carrying out his duties as a captain in the British Army.

Rev Herbert Cowl. Courtesy of Sarah Reay

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!

(Extract from a letter written to in France to Herbert’s parents in 1915)

  • Comforting the sick

No man wanted to be forgotten and left behind in the mud of Flanders. It was comforting for the soldiers to know, and be re‐assured, that if the worst fate should come to them, the padre, a good man would inter them and send them to Heaven with the full blessing of God.

One of the most important duties for an Army Chaplain was to comfort those who had been injured or fallen ill during their service.

For all their … ghastly wounds, they were the gayest company I remember meeting.

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.

(Observations from Rev Cowl whilst at Portsmouth Garrison in 1917)


  • The dangerous reality of war

Herbert was severely wounded on the frontline in November 1915 and was sent home to Britain on board the hospital ship ‘Anglia’. Unfortunately, she became the first Red Cross ship to be lost due to enemy action in the war off the South East coast of England. Herbert handed his life belt to someone who he thought needed it more than himself, for which he was awarded the Military Cross.


The sinking of HMHS Anglia. Courtesy of Sarah Reay

My initial memory of my ‘Grandad’ when I was about 5 years of age: He was a very old man of average height with a fine bronze-coloured weather-beaten complexion and a full head of thick snow white hair. His spoken words were delivered in a very mellow peaceful manner. His voice was soft, husky and vibrant with almost an air of magic – I had never heard anyone speak so distinctively before. I learnt later in life that this was due to a piece of German shrapnel that had slashed through his jaw and voice box during a war that had taken place many years before I was born.

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. The Army Chaplains who served so gallantly during the Great War have been largely over looked. However, let us hope now that their selfless courage is never forgotten.


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