Commemorations WW1 Uncategorized

Remembering the Army Chaplains of the Great War

Our latest Blog by Sarah Reay takes a look at the role of Army Chaplain’s throught the story of her grandfather, Rev Herbert Butler Cowl.

In the world of academia, references to Army Chaplaincy are few, and Rev Cowl’s story sheds new light to the subject.

“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!”

These were the words written by the Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl, a young Wesleyan Army Chaplain, to his parents on his way to the frontline in 1915.

Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl C.F. M.C. (Author's private collection)
Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl C.F. M.C.               (Author’s private collection)

Most of the Army Chaplains were new to such challenges – they had no experience of working with soldiers in the field of war. Herbert and the thousands who volunteered during the war to become Army Chaplains wanted to do their best and support the men under their pastoral care. 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 and / or German. Herbert Cowl was one of the youngest Army Chaplains in 1914 – he had most of these qualities and he was in his late 20’s.

As we remember the Centenary of the Great War, the Army Chaplains seem to be an almost forgotten group of men who carried out a vital role during the war. Not only did they provide spiritual guidance and sustenance to the men, but they became major contributors to general morale. Also, they gave invaluable assistance in the Field Ambulances at the frontline, helping medical staff, from doctors to stretcher-bearers. They worked in the Home Camps and the Garrisons too, helping to prepare men for what they had to face at the front in battle and also supporting the wounded and sick soldiers who had returned to Blighty.

Sunday parade service at Bordon - Authors private collection
Sunday parade service at Bordon – Authors private collection

No man wanted to be forgotten and left behind in the mud of Flanders. It was comforting for the soldiers to know, and be re-assured, that if the worst fate should come to them, the padre, a good man, would inter them and send them to Heaven with the full blessing of God!

After the war, there were a number of Army Chaplains, who became popular public figures, including the famous Rev. Studdert-Kennedy M.C., known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, for handing out Woodbines (cigarettes) to the troops; the Rev. ‘Tubby’ Clayton and the Rev. Neville Talbot who co-founded ‘Toc H’ Talbot House in Poperinghe, Belgium. Talbot House was styled as an “Every Man’s Club”, where men were welcome, regardless of rank, and Christianity was promoted as an alternative to the other types of recreation on offer in the town. However, there were many other Army Chaplains who carried out incredible acts of bravery, too many to detail in this blog, but they were a band of brothers who have been largely been forgotten over the last 100 years.

Throughout history, men going to war have always sought the support of the representatives of their church. However, the First World War saw an unprecedented need and demand for Army Chaplains. During the war over 3,000 Chaplains were recruited from the different religious denominations. Of these, 179 made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives for King, Country and God.  We need to remember them!

The Rev. Herbert B. Cowl C.F. M.C. considered himself no hero, but this is his story – one of many stories that has never been told.

Let us hope that more stories regarding the Army Chaplains of the Great War will come into the public domain over the coming years. Their selfless courage must never be forgotten.

Book Cover - The Half Shilling Curate, with kind permission of the publisher, Helion & Company
Book Cover – The Half Shilling Curate, with kind permission of the publisher, Helion & Company

More information on Army Chaplains can be gained from the Museum of Army Chaplaincy at Amport House, Amport House near Andover, Hampshire.


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