Tuesday 2 April 2024

Revd Herbert Butler Cowl, MC (1886-1971) – Wesleyan Army Chaplain to the 23rd Infantry Division, 68th Brigade, in the British Army during the First World War

Born on 13th September 1886 in Leeds, Yorkshire, UK, Herbert’s parents were Wesleyan Church Minister Frederick Bond Cowl and his wife, Mary Ellen Cowl, nee Butler. Herbert finished his training to become a Methodist minister in 1910. His sweetheart, Mary Louise Townsley, left England with her family, returning to her mother’s homeland in British Columbia.

On 28th July 1914, Herbert Cowl was ordained into the Wesleyan Church – and less than a week later, Britain declared war on Germany. On Christmas Eve, 1914, the Rev Herbert Butler Cowl signed up to become a temporary Wesleyan Methodist Army chaplain at Bordon Wesleyan Soldiers’ Home near Aldershot in Hampshire. In August 1915 he arrived in France as part of Kitchener’s Army with the 23rd Division of the British Expeditionary Force.

“The Half-Shilling Curate” was the nickname Herbert used when he wrote to his parents during his early days as an Army chaplain, his lack of experience leading him to feel he was “not the full shilling”. 

 In November 1915, during a heavy bombardment, Herbert was seriously wounded by shrapnel causing wounds to his neck, throat and jaw. He was taken to a field hospital where the surgeon made a tool to perform an operation to remove a piece of shrapnel still lodged in his throat. He was sent via hospital train to Boulogne where he was assessed before returning to England. 

On 17th November 1915, Herbert was taken by stretcher to the hospital ship, HMHS Anglia, and placed in a cot bed. While crossing the channel, the ship hit a German mine and sank within 20 minutes, taking with her many soldiers and nurses. 

Herbert described the scene after the ship was beginning to tilt: “… and then the sea rushed in. The inrush carried me to an open doorway in which I lay with bedding and furniture and debris reaping over me. Then a lurch of the ship flung me onto my feet so that I could struggle thro’ the wreckage, into a bathroom. Sitting on the bath side, I watched the water rising inch by quick inch: then in a mirror opposite I saw a ghastly sight which some puzzling over proved to be my own face. No man would chose to drown in a hole: so there began the grim struggle to climb the clogged passage, to gain the deck.” 

During the struggle to survive the sinking, Herbert handed his life belt to someone who he thought needed it more than he did. For this he was awarded the Military Cross. 

In 1916, Herbert married his sweetheart Mary Louise Townsley, who returned to England to look after him. 

On 15th October 2016, “The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918” written by Herbert’s Grand-daughter Sarah Reay was published by Helion & Company - ISBN number is 9781911096467.

I read the book and found it amazing – here is the link to the review I wrote about the book. https://fascinatingfactsofww1.blogspot.com/2018/07/book-review-half-shilling-curate.html?m=0

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