The Half-Shilling Curate

A Personal Account Of War & Faith 1914-1918

Sarah Reay

Date Published :
December 2016
Publisher :
Helion and Company
Contributor(s) :
Hugh Pym
Illustration :
approx 40 b&w ills & 2 maps
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding. : Hardback
ISBN : 9781911096467
Pages : 200
Dimensions : 9.25 X 6 inches
Stock Status : Available


The Half-Shilling Curate, as he was affectionately known by his family, tells the very personal story of an army chaplain - The Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl - from Christmas Eve 1914 to the end of hostilities in 1919. His descriptive account, from his own personal letters and writings, illustrates the value of faith during the war and the balance between serving God and carrying out his duties as a captain in the British Army. Herbert's engaging story told of the man who matured from humble Christian beginnings to the start of his journey discovering faith, love and a sense of duty and moral responsibility. At the outbreak of war, he volunteered to become a Wesleyan Army Chaplain.

With meticulous detail, the reader is taken on Herbert's journey with the Durham Light Infantry 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. Whilst serving at the front, his service was cut short when he was severely wounded during heavy enemy bombardment at the front. On his journey back to England, he was placed in a cot bed aboard the hospital ship Anglia when she hit a German mine in the Channel. As a result of Herbert's actions on that fateful day, he became one of the first Wesleyan Army Chaplains to receive the Military Cross for exemplary gallantry. 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 at Colchester and Portsmouth.

Twenty years later, Herbert - a Methodist minister with a family living in Acton - found himself in the center of another battle: the Second World War. As he stayed in London through the London Blitz, again the reader gains an understanding of one man's faith during war and the comparisons that can be seen for a new generation. Herbert's story concludes with the final chapter of his life and the intimate observations of a spiritual man driven to follow his faith during war.

Foreword written by Hugh Pym, BBC Health Editor

About The Author

Born and educated in Pembrokeshire, Sarah Reay lives in rural Northumberland with her husband and two sons. She began her working life as a horse instructress in the New Forest, relocated to Corsica in order to become a fluent French speaker, worked as a project manager for a property developer in London and now runs a facilities management consultancy with her husband in the North East of England. However, from an early age, her father - Michael Cowl (son of 'The Half-Shilling Curate') -encouraged her to nurture an inquisitive interest in history. Those early days of youthful curiosity developed in her a great enthusiasm for bygone times - especially the Great War. From the thrills of flying a First World War Tiger Moth to visiting the sombre graves of those fallen in battle, Sarah embarked on years of research in locations across England, France and Belgium to become a dedicated self-taught historian. Sarah’s unstinting and unrelenting desire to research meticulously the account of her grandfather’s role in the Great War has given her a considerable understanding of army chaplaincy. As a Christian, Sarah has become engrossed in her grandfather’s unique and intriguing tale of war and faith.


‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general’; and this book proves it. Meticulously researched and brilliantly written it is a book to be read whether schoolboy, historian or retired general.

- General Sir Peter de la Billière KCB KBE DSO MC DL. Former Commander-in-Chief of the British forces

"Amid the noise, haste and destruction of the Western Front, comes a previously unheard and yet utterly original voice telling of the humanity that somehow survived the devastation."

- Dr Emily Mayhew. Author of ‘Wounded’ and Research Associate, Imperial College School of Medicine, London

"This intensely personal story is told with considerable care to ensure that the reader is able to understand as much as possible of what Herbert Cowl experienced. It is strongly recommended."

- The Rev. Dr Peter Howson. Author of ‘Muddling through: The Organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in World War One.’

“ … A very nicely produced hardback in the style and to the very high quality standard we have come to expect from Helion … It is a very well crafted work, full of interest and worth reading …”

- The Long, Long Trail

“Sarah Reay's story of her grandfather, the Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl MC, is well researched and includes many excerpts from his letters.”

- Stand To! The Journal of the Western Front Association

“The text is a moving and well-documented story of an admirable family member. 4 stars.”

- Soldier Magazine

“In many ways, The Half Shilling Curate is the story of the 5,000 chaplains who served with the British army in the First World War, 179 of whom died during that service. What makes it particular is the story Sarah Reay tells of the long-distance courtship and eventual marriage of her grandparents, whose ardent love and decency shine from the pages in both words and photographs.”

- The Times Literary Supplement

"This is a very nice book. The author tells Herbert's story with a blend of simple clarity and enough detail to keep us engaged. She has a natural degree of affection and pride in her grandfather that sings through the pages and this serves to help the finished article along. Herbert is one of those footnotes of the war we find in the big tomes. The centenary has fleshed people like him out for us. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn't. Happily this example is a success."

- Mark Barnes, War History Online

“ … Sarah Reay has written a book which shows why her grandfather felt compelled to serve as a military chaplain, why he served in the way he did, and what it was like to be a man of faith, vision and patriotism on the Western Front. She has done justice to her grandfather and his generation with insight, understanding, and imagination.”

- Western Front Bulletin

"A good read for those with an interest in learning about life at the front, the chaplaincy in action, or just looking for an inspiring tale."

- StrategyPage

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