The story of Hertford’s WWI army chaplain Herbert Cowl
PUBLISHED: 19:47 08 November 2020 | UPDATED: 10:38 10 November 2020
From Hertford to Flanders, a young army chaplain kept a vivid record of his experiences in the First World War. Sarah Reay tells her grandfather’s remarkable story. Article originally published in October 2018
Rev Herbert Cowl is the only known army chaplain to be awarded the Military Cross, for exemplary gallantry on a ship during the Great War.
Herbert was born in 1886, the son of a Wesleyan minister. In 1904 the Cowl family lived on Ware Road in Hertford and Herbert was headboy at Hertford Grammar School. In that peaceful time, litte did the family know that in 10 years’ time the country would be at war and Herbert would be one of the first to volunteer, as a chaplain to the troops.
In the summer of 1914, Herbert was ordained into the Wesleyan Church. Less than a week later Britain declared war on Germany.
With patriotism and faith inextricably linked, churches responded to the army’s call with a supply of candidates for chaplaincy posts to provide spiritual guidance to soldiers and be involved in all aspects of their welfare. Suitability depended on physical fitness, an ability to preach extempore, horsemanship and a good knowledge of French. Herbert had all these qualities. And in his 20s was one of the youngest Wesleyan army chaplains – giving him an advantage in terms of being able to relate to the young soldiers.
Herbert’s journey would take him to the Army Home Camp in Aldershot and on to France and Flanders on the Western Front. Attached to the 68th Brigade of the 23rd Division British Expeditionary Force, it was not long before Herbert realised the reality of 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!
He humbly signed his letters home, From your loving son, The Half-Shilling Curate, Herbert.
Serving amidst the mud, mayhem and misery of the front, Herbert befriended soldiers, held Sunday service, buried the dead and comforted the wounded. He remembered the circumstances of his first burial – a sergeant killed in No Man’s Land by ‘the all too familiar story: a star-shell: a volley: and his companion was more fortunate than he’:
I wish you could see that little burial-place: an old village orchard, in whose trees the birds sang morning and evening as if by choice. There were a few flowers in the grass, and long trails of crimson creeper hung from the cottage walls on two sides. Even while the firing party took their places by the grave-side, two great shells came screaming into the adjoining garden, and burst with an angry crash. The men must lie down under the nearest wall: and even as I stood there reading the service, every British gun in the fields behind chose the time to talk back to the German gunners. Yet, for all the hellish din of the moments, the peace of that laying-by seemed unbroken: and when his comrades had gathered from the shattered gardens around a handful of flowers, and placed them on the upturned soil; one felt that there was something triumphant about the passing of the Sergeant.
Three months into Herbert’s service he was himself severely wounded during a heavy enemy bombardment as shrapnel sliced through the side of his head, jaw and throat. He vividly remembered the bombardment as they tried to take shelter:
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 was operated on and miraculously survived the surgery and blood loss (there were no transfusions at the front). Unable to walk or talk he was ordered back to England to recuperate and placed on a cot bed aboard the hospital ship Anglia. Fully laden with more than 400 wounded and sick servicemen from the battlefront, she hit a German mine in the Channel. Lying close to the point of impact, the back of Herbert’s head was cut open from ear to ear. He later described the scene and the calamitous events as the ship began to fill with water and lurch to the bottom of the sea:
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.
Once he was on deck, and despite his own terrible injuries, Herbert helped to save many lives by getting rafts into the water. These were picked up by ships diverted to the scene. He was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his superhuman efforts.
Back in England, his second battle was recovery – helped by his devoted sister Muriel – and although he was never fit enough to return to overseas duties, he took up work as a chaplain in the army garrisons and home camps. Towards the end of the war, he described a scene of men who had returned to one of the camps 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 found himself in the centre of another war. His family were evacuated from London but he stayed through the Blitz, driven by his faith to serve.
Like so many, Herbert never later spoke about the First World War. But, while literally unable to speak for many months due to his injuries, he did write – copious notes which I discovered at the family home along with his letters. As I began this journey discovering my grandfather’s story, I became drawn to the much under-recognised role of the army chaplains during the Great War. Their importance was not lost at the time, as Field Marshal Douglas Haig wrote, ‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general’.
Herbert Cowl’s story is told in The Half-Shilling Curate: A Personal Account of War and Faith 1914-1918 by Sarah Reay. Orders via halfshillingcurate.com quoting ‘Hertfordshire Life’ will receive signed copies for £18 including postage (RRP £25).