Historical book follows life of an army chaplain hero who was awarded the Military Cross

Hospital Ship ANGLIA.  <a href=”URL TO IMAGE”>Photo Credit:IWM</a>
Hospital Ship ANGLIA. Photo Credit:IWM

Four years ago Sarah Reay discovered letters written by World War One hero, Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl. He was her grandfather and she wrote a book about him.

Cowl served his country during the ‘war to end all wars,’ suffered a serious injury to his larynx and lost a portion of his jaw.

While traveling home on the hospital ship ‘Anglia,’ the ship hit a mine, and numerous people including his orderly and nurse were killed.

Despite the injury, he attempted to rescue as many people as he could before the ship disappeared beneath the waves 30 minutes later.

Cowl went down with the Anglia but managed to swim to a raft before being rescued by a patrol and returned to England.

He was awarded the Military Cross for exemplary courage but being very hesitant to discuss his time at war, most of his heroism stayed a mystery.

In 2012, Reay discovered the letters he had written home during the war.

When she was younger, Reay explained, she knew little about her grandfather. Always curious about his voice, she assumed he was a magical person.

She discovered that following his injury he could not speak, so to communicate he had to write down his experience and send confidential letters to his parents.

The letters are very fragile, but that makes them more special, she said. There is also a love story running through her book.

When Cowl was wounded, he was not sure if he would live or not. His brother-in-law sent a telegram to a woman in British Columbia asking her to come swiftly.

She came to England and nurtured him back to health.  Mary Louise Tinsley known to most as May, married Cowl.

After the war, Cowl was posted at Stonehouse and became the chaplain at Wycliffe College.

It appears he made a notable impression on Wycliffe as he consoled the teachers who survived the war as well as school boys.

An article for the school magazine in 1919 complimented Cowl for his brevity, setting a record at short sermons and his “chumminess” with small as well as large.

The headmaster at Wycliffe College persuaded him to return as chaplain for the second time in 1947, Stroud News and Journal reported.

As one of the youngest Army Chaplains to go to Flanders and France and as one of the youngest Army chaplains to be presented with the Military Cross, she is very proud of her grandfather, Reay said.

Reay released her book, The Half-Shilling Curate: A Personal Account of War & Faith 1914-1918, in October 2016 and received great praise from fellow authors and historians.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE