A blogpost from Gateways to the First World War Co-Investigator Dr Emma Hanna.
During the centenary commemorations we should also remember the chaplains who served with Britain’s armed forces during the Great War. This is a group I have come to know in recent years, even though I never set out to research British military chaplaincy 1914-18. During the research for my latest book, Sounds of War: Music in the British Armed Forces During the Great War (CUP, forthcoming), it was music that took me to the chaplains. Wherever there was music - as a form of recreation, rest, recuperation or worship - a military chaplain was never very far away.
The history of chaplaincy in the Great War is very interesting. As Mike Snape underlined in his book Clergy Under Fire (2007), chaplaincy arrangements with the BEF from August 1914 were not what they should have been. Mobilization tables at the War Office did not include chaplains, so there was no provision for any other chaplain than the Principal Chaplain who was attached to GHQ: chaplains therefore had to attach themselves to general hospitals and field ambulances as ‘unexpected, if not unwelcome, guests’. Manual Hints and Instructions had been issued in the 19th century but they related to garrison life in the Victorian regular army – family/prison/hospital visits etc – vastly different on the Western Front. There was little guidance for chaplains and no courses of instruction until 1917, and even that was short-lived. In his 1918 publication Tips for Padres: A Handbook for Chaplains, Everard Digby emphasized that chaplains were attached officers not under direct command. He directed chaplains that ‘If you are really good at any sport, play for the Battalion team, but don’t take on committee work, and never be the secretary. Certainly sing at the concerts, if you can sing well, but don’t be responsible for the entertainments. It is not your job; you are not “the only man with nothing to do in the Battalion,” although the Commanding Officer may think so, and you have not the time for these things, unless your work is to be neglected.’
From what I have seen, many of the best-loved chaplains did the exact opposite of what Digby advised. Of the chaplains I have studied in the course of my work, I have become particularly fond of a few, among them the Reverend Pat Leonard, an Anglican chaplain serving with the King’s Own and then the RFC/RAF, who described the role of chaplain as ‘a Jack of all trades.’ Another is the Reverend Herbert Cowl, a Wesleyan chaplain who served with the Durham Light Infantry. Cowl and Leonard are among approximately 5000 chaplains who served with the British armed forces during the Great War. Of that number, 179 chaplains died in the course of their service and three were awarded the Victoria Cross. In addition, sixty-seven DSOs and 487 MCs were awarded to clergy serving with the forces. One of those DSOs was given to Pat Leonard, and one of the MCs was awarded to Herbert Cowl. He had volunteered as Wesleyan Army Chaplain in 1915 and saw first action in trenches at Laventie in September 1915. Like many chaplains who had to work themselves in to their units, Cowl developed a closer affiliation with the RAMC, particularly the 71st Field Ambulance. Like many other chaplains, Cowl quickly recognised that there was no fixed programme of work. He learned that his full concentration needed to be focused not only on the spiritual, moral and mental, but also the physical and medical needs of the men he was assigned to serve.
Like Pat Leonard’s, Cowl’s letters give us valuable aural and atmospheric details that can be hard to come by. When Cowl arrived in France in late August 1915, he described how his unit were marching and singing ‘Til the Boys Come Home. He described hearing the guns, ‘those grim far off voices speaking death. It is a new sound; it is another world; and it calls to unprecedented scenes and experiences.’ Cowl became known for his physical stamina. In one letter home, he described how they had done two twenty-three mile marches ‘on French roads, under a blazing September sun, and with full pack and ammunition.’ He recorded that ‘Hard things are said of man, and of God, at such times, when men only keep their feet by sheer will-power.’
Cowl’s open-air parades followed the same order of service as an indoor service. Singing was a popular part of worship, and at one of his services in a loft at a deserted farm, just out of the fire-zone, were 20 armed men singing ‘for all they were worth’. Cowl also held services in an old theatre several miles away from his unit’s headquarters. Like all servicemen in the area, Cowl went to Armentiéres to see some newly released Chaplin films while shells crashed nearby. However, it was the traces of music in Cowl’s wartime experiences which most interested me. I was particularly taken with the account of Cowl working with the 69th Field Ambulance ADS near Bois-Grenier, 3.5 km south of Armentiéres. As their mess was a mile away in the village inn, Cowl and the doctor, Philip Gosse, would have to walk between the two locations several times a day for their meals. As this was an area which happened to be a target for German snipers, to steady their nerves the doctor and chaplain played The Cock of the North on mouth-organs - the only tune they knew how to play - much to the amusement of the sentries on duty.
In November 1915, Cowl received severe facial wounds in the course of his duties and he was evacuated out of Calais on board the hospital ship Anglia. On its way to Dover the vessel hit a mine one nautical mile from Folkestone and sank within 15 minutes. Of the 390 people on board, 134 were killed. Cowl, despite the severity of his injuries, was later awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the disaster. However, Cowl would never be fit enough to return to the front lines, so in August 1916 he was re-assigned to the Portsmouth Garrison where he held services in the Kings Theatre at Southsea.
Like John Leonard and Philip Leonard-Johnson’s The Fighting Padre: Pat Leonard’s Letters from the Trenches 1915-1918 (Pen & Sword, 2010), Sarah Reay’s The Half-shilling Curate: A Personal Account of War and Faith 1914-1918, (Solihull: Helion, 2016 – a third edition coming soon) provides a fascinating insight into the wartime experiences of a chaplain during the Great War. The fact that Reay is Cowl’s granddaughter adds to the wonderful depth, context and detail of research, but like The Fighting Padre it is written with evident love and respect for the subject without lapsing into sentimentality or partiality. The Half-shilling Curate is a very welcome addition to the wartime narratives of the thousands of clergymen who strove to improve the morale of the men under their care, and who went out of their way to share many of the privations, burdens and dangers of war with them.
The transcribed letters of Pat Leonard are held in the Imperial War Museum, catalogue number IWM 16268: https://www.iwm.org.uk/
The Museum of Army Chaplaincy is situated in Amport, and can be contacted via their website: https://www.chaplains-museum.co.uk/
An annual conference is held at Amport House every summer, and the details of the 2019 conference will be circulated on the Gateways website in the near future.
© IWM (Q 12111) A chaplain conducting church service from the nacelle of a Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b night bomber at No. 2 Aeroplane Supply Depot, 1 September 1918.