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The Half-Shilling Curate

Introducing a book documenting the remarkable story of a chaplain who miraculously survived World War One and lived through the Blitz in World War Two 


The Revd Herbert Butler Cowl was the only known Army Chaplain during the Great War to be awarded the Military Cross Medal for exemplary gallantry on a ship. 

Herbert's engaging story begins with the background to the man who matured from humble Christian beginnings, the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, to the start of his journey discovering faith, love and a sense of duty with a moral responsibility that was to shape his life through two world wars. 

In the summer of 1914, Herbert Cowl was ordained into the Wesleyan Church – less than a week later, Great Britain declared war on Germany. It was considered to be morally justifiable - patriotism and faith were inextricably linked. Herbert volunteered straight away to become an Army Chaplain.  

It 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 French. Herbert Cowl was one of the youngest Wesleyan Army Chaplains in 1914 - he had all of these qualities. He was only in his 20s so his age would have given him a distinct advantage in terms of being able to relate to the young soldiers. 

THE HALF SHILLING CURATE - froWith meticulous detail, the reader is taken on Herbert's journey with the 68th Brigade, from the objective view of life in the Army Home Camp in Aldershot, to the adventure of France and the reality of Flanders on the western front near Armentières.  

Herbert signed his letters home to his parents, ‘From your loving son, The Half-Shilling Curate, Herbert.’ 

When the 68th Brigade arrived in France, it was not long before Herbert realised the reality of pending active 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! 

Whilst serving at the front, Herbert's service was cut short when he was severely wounded during heavy enemy bombardment at the front. The first miracle of his story was that he survived his initial injuries: 


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!”   

Herbert Cowl was operated on and miraculously survived the surgery. 

On his journey back to England he was placed on a cot bed aboard the hospital ship, Anglia. The ship fully laden with over 400 wounded and sick servicemen from the battlefront was on its way back to Blighty, when she hit a German mine in the Channel.  

HBC - sketch painting of Angli

The wounded chaplain later described the scene and the calamitous events of the day: 


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. 

In effect, this was the second miracle of his story. Once on the deck of the ship, Herbert helped to save many lives.  

His second battle was recovery and although he was never fit enough to return to overseas duties, he returned to work as an Army Chaplain in the Army Garrisons and Home Camps in England. The book gives an insight into day-to-day life and the strains of service as an Army Chaplain on the home front. 

He once described a scene of men who had returned 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 a Methodist minister with a family living in Acton, North London found himself in the centre of another battle - the Second World War. His family were evacuated but he stayed in London through the Blitz for the people remaining. Again the reader gains an understanding of one man's faith during war. 

Herbert's story concludes with the final chapter - the intimate observations of a spiritual man driven to follow his faith during war. His faith never faltered. 

In the preface the author Sarah Reay, Herbert’s granddaughter asks, ‘Who was Herbert?’ From her earliest memories of childhood, she recalls her first memories of a much loved grandfather. Like so many, Herbert never spoke about the war. However, due to his injuries sustained on active service, he was unable to speak for many months so he wrote everything down. He wrote copious notes which the author discovered at their family home (along with letters) 100 years after they had been written during the Great War. 

As Sarah began her journey discovering her grandfather’s story, she became drawn to the much under recognised role of the Army Chaplains during the war. One example of this comes in a letter written by her grandfather in 1915: 


A doctor in the mess had said, “he had never been near enough to a parson to touch him with a barge pole before”. However, at the end of the altercation, ‘the doctor rose to his feet with angry flush, and as he left he said, “I don’t care what you fellows say; but the chap who has got religion is a damned lucky chap”! 

We sometimes forget the words of Field Marshal Douglas Haig when he famously said: ‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general’. 



THE HALF SHILLING CURATE - froHerbert’s unique story is told in The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918.

More information is available at www.halfshillingcurate.com and discounted signed copies of the book can also be purchased through the website.  

Baptist Times, 23/08/2018
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