Poignant letters home from Leeds’s Great War chaplain

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A new book will tell the story of a Methodist minister from Leeds who became one of the youngest army chaplains of the Great War.

Debut author Sarah Reay has written The Half-Shilling Curate based on the experiences of her grandfather the Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl, who grew up in Headingley.

Herbert, whose own father was also a Wesleyan Methodist minister in Leeds, was 28 when he embarked for the Western Front attached to two north-east regiments, the Durham Light Infantry and Northumberland Fusiliers.

He had studied theology at Headingley Wesleyan Methodist College, now a Catholic pastoral centre, and met his wife while visiting a chapel in the village of Foggathorpe in East Yorkshire.

During his time as a volunteer chaplain, Herbert cheated death twice and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry.

Nickhamed ‘the half-shilling curate’ by his family, he was wounded during a bombardment and sent back to England on a hospital ship. During the evacuation, the convoy hit a German mine in the Channel, but Herbert was rescued.

Mrs Reay, who lives in Northumberland, is marking the 100th anniversary of her grandfather’s service by publishing his personal letters and diaries with the support of her father Michael, Herbert’s son.

“My father encouraged me to nurture an inquisitive interest in history from an early age,” said the 50-year-old.

“I’ve flown a First World War Tiger Moth and visited the sombre graves of those fallen in battle – spending years researching in locations across France, Belgium and England to become a self-taught historian. As a Christian, I became engrossed in my grandfather’s unique and intriguing tale of war and faith, which I have recounted in The Half-Shilling Curate.”

The book has been backed by BBC News editor Hugh Pym, whose own grandfather was also an army chaplain during the period, and he has written the foreword.

After the war, Herbert settled in west London to raise a family, and he remained in the city during the Blitz. He died in 1971.

“A spiritual man to the end of his life, this story of one man’s faith during war has a universal message, which is as relevant today as it was back then. I am immensely proud of my grandfather’s story, and to have been able to pay tribute to him in my book,” added Sarah.

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