Author investigates fascinating tale of the Half-Shilling Curate
A Northumberland woman has published a book about her grandfather, an Army Chaplain during the Great War, which developed from the wealth of his writings and letters from that era.
And there’s no doubt that the experiences of the Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl during the First World War and beyond make for a fascinating story, now in print as The Half-Shilling Curate – A Personal Account of War & Faith 1914-1918.
Herbert was one of the youngest Wesleyan Army Chaplains to go to France in 1915, having volunteered at Christmas time in 1914, and was one of the first and youngest to be awarded the Military Cross for exemplary gallantry.
He was assigned to the Durham Light Infantry and the Northumberland Fusiliers, but his service was cut short when he was severely wounded during a heavy bombardment at the front and his journey back to England was aboard the ill-fated hospital ship Anglia, which hit a German mine in the English Channel.
Despite being a ‘cot case’ – one of the most seriously injured – he survived the sinking and, not only that, when he was in the water, he gave his life raft to someone he thought needed it more than him.
He had stayed on the ship until the bitter end and he was awarded the MC for gallantry as his actions in the water were spotted by an officer.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a love story with the Rev Cowl first meeting Sarah’s grandmother in Yorkshire before her family subsequently emigrated to Canada.
When they met, Herbert wasn’t supposed to have feelings for a woman because he was going through his preordination. “He couldn’t commit himself to this girl, because he had no future,” Sarah added.
He had to ask permission from her parents to write to her and when he finished his church training, he went over to Canada – not an easy journey back then.
Later, Sarah’s grandmother made the trip in the opposite direction when she received news that Herbert had been seriously injured and was back in England.
Sarah was six-and-a-half when her grandfather passed away and she remembers him quite vividly. “I just thought he was a bit intriguing, a bit magical,” she said.
“I can remember him talking to people using his hands and he had this magical way of speaking. I was in awe of him really.”
His voice was ‘so captivating’ because of his injuries during the war, which required surgery to replace part of his throat with a glass tube.
“He had to have his food mashed with the back of a fork,” added Sarah. “I just thought, ‘Granddad likes to have his food crushed’.”
Although she never had any intention of writing a book, the project began when Sarah started to look through boxes of her grandfather’s letters and photos. “I just loved his style of writing, it’s so beautiful.”
Plus, when Herbert was in hospital after being injured, he couldn’t speak at first and so had to write everything down to communicate. “It’s a really interesting insight into not only what happened to him, but his thoughts,” Sarah said.
Initially, she transcribed the letters and writings so that the family would have a record and be able to read them without damaging the originals.
A neighbour read them and said it was a pity they couldn’t be padded out so Sarah decided to do some research and the project grew and grew, involving trips to archives and museums all over the country as well as expeditions to northern France.
And there have been some eerie coincidences during the four-year process, with Sarah saying it almost feels as if her grandfather is guiding her through the process.
At one point, she visited a small town in France to visit a museum, where she received a great welcome. The museum was near to a war cemetery which she also visited.
Later in her research, she discovered that when her grandfather was first injured, he was helped by a young man who died himself the following day and it turns out that this man is buried in that very same cemetery.
Sarah now hopes to be able to go back, present a copy of her book to the museum and, of course, pay tribute at the grave of the soldier who helped to save her grandfather’s life.
In another case, she was down in Peterborough for an unrelated reason when she saw a postcard seller who was packing up at the end of the day. Sarah asked him if she could have a quick look at his First World War box.
She was about to leave when she picked up a card featuring a picture of Bordon Camp where her grandfather was sent in 1915.
Turning it over, she saw the words, ‘Keep safe, love to all, Herbert’. Sarah cannot confirm whether it is her grandfather’s writing, but obviously there is every possibility.
The pre-release reviews of Sarah’s work from academics and members of the military have been hugely favourable, with retired Durham Light Infantry soldier, General Sir Peter de la Billière, stating: ‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general; and this book proves it. I admire this book for bringing to life the pressures and courage of fighting and the horror and frequency of death in the frontline during the Great War’.
If the book is as well-received by the wider public as these initial reviews, then The Half-Shilling Curate is sure to be a fitting tribute to Sarah’s grandfather.
And perhaps it will put to bed an embarrassing incident which happened not long after her grandfather’s death when Sarah was a young girl – and to which she admits in the book’s preface. A boy at school had a large container of German plastic soldiers, which Sarah thought was great, not least because it would make her brothers really jealous.
She asked if he would swap and tried to think of something that might entice the lad, before remembering something of her grandfather’s which had been hidden in a cupboard.
The deal was done and, at first, no one in her family could understand why the boy had agreed to the swap until somehow they put two and two together and discovered that Sarah had traded away her grandfather’s Military Cross.
Luckily, her father knew the boy’s father and the deal was reversed, but it’s clear that the incident remains imprinted on Sarah’s mind to this day.
And if you were wondering why the book is called the Half-Shilling Curate, then it’s because that’s how her grandfather signed off his letters home. But to find out where that nickname came from, you’ll just have to buy the book.
“He was a great character and, where possible, I wanted to indicate his personality,” Sarah said. “I think people will be able to relate to him – he loved nature, he loved animals and he was a sportsman.
“I felt that there was so much in his story that needed to be shared.”