By Norris Burkes Ledger
Posted Nov 12, 2017
As I spend Veterans Day on a cruise ship to Florida, I can’t help but feel an astonishingly greater appreciation for those who serve in the armed forces.
I boarded the ship in Southampton, England, the same port where millions of combat soldiers went to the front of both great wars. The port was the primary target of enemy planes, and became the most bombed city in Allied territory.
One of those soldiers was Army Chaplain Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl, whom I’ve come to know through the acquaintance of his granddaughter, Sarah Reay. Last month, Reay shared her grandfather’s story during my weekend with Baxter’s Battlefield Tours.
At the outbreak of World War I, Chaplain Cowl volunteered to serve as a Wesleyan Army Chaplain. He was attached to the Durham Light Infantry where he faced the stark reality of Flanders and France on the Western Front.
Sarah barely knew her grandfather, but she discovered his voice in his letters stored in the family attic. These letters begin in Herbert’s childhood and continue through to the war’s end in 1919. They pulsate with the value of faith and define the delicate balance between serving God and swearing allegiance as a captain in the British Army.
In an August 1915 missive, Cowl writes to his parents:
“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!”
After a few months at the front, Cowl sustained a severe wound during enemy bombardment and had to be evacuated by stretcher to the hospital ship, Anglia.
As Sarah told his story, my mind drifted to a predictable end where the good chaplain is settling into a post-war Parrish assignment.
Not so. A massive explosion rocked his hospital ship when it hit a German mine in the Channel. Miraculously, the chaplain found the strength to rise from sickbay and toss life rafts to those souls thrown overboard.
Cowl escaped only to face the most difficult battle of recovery. He’d sustained a broken jaw and damaged throat, threatening a chaplain’s most vital tool — his voice. Surgeons told Cowl that his speech would recover, but he would never preach again.
Cowl proved them wrong. Though unable to return to the front, he recovered well enough to continue his chaplain service on the home front with returning soldiers.
In one letter home to his parents, he described some of the soldiers as ”…the heroes of the hour and very well they knew it, but for all their pathetic disfigurements and their ghastly wounds, they were the gayest company I remember meeting.”
For his exemplary gallantry, Chaplain Cowl was awarded the Military Cross, but more astounding, he was the only chaplain in World War I to receive the Military Cross Medal for his action on board a ship during the entire war.
Twenty years later, the humble Methodist minister found himself in the center of another battle — the Second World War. Rather than seek a safer place, he stayed in London through the Blitz, preaching his lessons of resilience to a new generation.
Now, as I stand on the windy deck overlooking the vast and chilly Atlantic, I’m keenly aware of how much safer our world is because of the service of millions of veterans. They gave their blood and their lives and deserve our continued thanks.
Read more in Sarah’s book ″The Half-Shilling Curate, A Personal Account of War & Faith in 1914-1918″ or visit her website www.halfshillingcurate.com
Email: [email protected]. Voicemail 843-608-9715 Twitter @chaplain www.thechaplain.net.