Book Review: The Half-Shilling Curate, by Sarah Reay

Sarah Reay, The Half-Shilling Curate (Helion and Company, 2016). Second Edition - £20.

The Half-Shilling Curate, or more accurately the Rev. Herbert Cowl MC, served as a chaplain in the First World War, both in France and on the home front. Cowl was a Wesleyan minister, a Military Cross winner, and perhaps most importantly, grandfather to author Sarah Reay. This personal connection between Reay and her protagonist creates a very loving narrative and her admiration of Cowl clearly shows through in this biography of his war experiences.

For, as one of the many family photos shows, Reay had personally met her grandfather before his death in 1971, and remembers his 'very mellow peaceful manner' of speaking. As a child the only marks of his war service she witnessed were his husky voice and damaged jaw, which made him 'a very slow eater', which she would later learn were caused by a life-threatening shrapnel wound.

From the base of personal anecdote and family stories, Reay has used a wealth of letters and memoirs to build this biography, with the benefit of a phenomenal family archive which would make any historian jealous!

She has left many lengths of Cowl's writing whole, allowing him to speak for himself and for the reader to understand his caring but humerous personality. Sections of narrative have been woven together with the addition of thorough research from newspapers, records and the words of those who served alongside him. The result is a comprehensive narrative, giving a great insight into the life of a man who, in following his religious calling, volunteered for war service and in the process survived both shellfire and a sunken ship.

Cowl was just one among thousands of chaplains to the forces in the First World War, yet this book demonstrates the importance of his personal story and gives the reader a good demonstration of the experiences and duties of an army chaplain.

Of the many recent books I've read following individual servicemen in the First World War, this is one of the best. The narrative is both caring and informative, illustrating the special character of Cowl, not only as a competent chaplain, but also as the author's grandfather.

Cowl's war service in France was all too brief. He spent just three months overseas in 1915, before sustaining a serious shrapnel wound to his jaw, neck and throat. However, the horror of his war was not over, as his ship home, the HMHS Anglia was sunk in the Channel. It was here that he won his Military Cross, for giving away his lifebelt to someone he considered to be more in need.
Image result for herbert cowl mc
Although short, his service provides a snapshot of life at war, from the relaxed nature of life behind the lines to the brutal reality of industrial war. He described the early days of his time in France, of the "open-air cafe" they operated, and the good foods of 'steak, potatoes, carrots and onions: figs, cheese, and as much of all as one could eat!', which were provided to them 'absolutely free!'

Perhaps most remarkably, among his surviving writings is an account of his shrapnel wound which described with harrowing honesty his 'grim struggle for life'. This is coupled with his letter home which rather euphemistically phrased the same incident as a 'gorgeous little shake-down' so as not to cause concern!

The 'Half-Shilling Curate' is a must-read for anyone interested in life during the First World War. Cowl's fascinating experiences have been wonderfully compiled and thoroughly researched by Sarah Reay into this really interesting book. It provides not only an insight into the life of faith at the front, but also a personal account of how someone - particularly a non-combatant - coped with the 'new occasion' of war.


All quotations and photographs above are taken from 'The Half-Shilling Curate', which is available here.
Follow author Sarah Reay on twitter  - @shillingcurate - for more about her grandfather and army chaplains.

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