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.


Commemorations WW1 Uncategorized

What’s in a name?

Dr Chris Kempsall from the University of Sussex and an AHRC Researcher listed on the WW1 Experts List, talks “What’s in a Name” and contacts between combatants.

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 79005) British and French soldier in conversation at the entrance to a dugout at Bernafay Wood, 13 October 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (Q 79005) British and French soldier in conversation at the entrance to a dugout at Bernafay Wood, 13 October 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

When members of the Entente alliance met for the first time during the First World War there was often a period of intensive cultural exchange. Often the soldiers of the different combatants had previously had, at best, limited contact with the people of other nations. How they came to understand each other was a crucial part of building a functional alliance.

However, these initial contacts were often complicated by competing issues of national identity and vocabulary. What names did the soldiers of each army wish to be called by and did these preferences match the names and ideas their newfound allies already held?

As the cornerstone of the Entente alliance, the identity assumed by French soldiers was a manifestation of their own political ethos. The self-styled Poilus, or ‘hairy ones’ that composed the French army viewed themselves not just as soldiers but politicised defenders of the ideal of French republicanism.  Such was the importance of their goal they believed it could not be achieved without becoming dishevelled by both dirt and hair.

For their part, the British soldiers took on the identity of Tommy Atkins, a term that had existed since at least the early 19th century. Being a ‘Tommy’ was a less political role that that of a Poilu, with the British soldiers seeming to draw strength from the inclusive nature of a term that meant common soldier.

Both the British and French soldiers recognised the preferred nature of each other’s identities and would generally adapt to referring to each other as such. However, this was not always without incident. The tendency within the British army to refer to the French as ‘Frogs’ or variations on this theme endured throughout the war, much to the annoyance of their French allies. This situation was not improved by the fact that the British appear to have passed this habit on to the arriving American soldiers in 1917 and 1918, which caused friction between these new allies.

THE HUNDRED DAYS OFFENSIVE, AUGUST-NOVEMBER 1918 (Q 49809) British, French, American and Australian soldier with a German prisoner reading President Wilson's message to the Kaiser at Corbie, 24 October 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
THE HUNDRED DAYS OFFENSIVE, AUGUST-NOVEMBER 1918 (Q 49809) British, French, American and Australian soldier with a German prisoner reading President Wilson’s message to the Kaiser at Corbie, 24 October 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


For their part, whilst some French soldiers recognised the different nations that composed the British army and its empire but often, for convenience sake, simply used the term ‘British’ as a catch-all description. This in turn often caused irritation in some Scottish soldiers who objected to being stripped of their own national identity.

The arrival of American soldiers in the war’s latter years also brought a new plethora of potential collective names, with their own political dangers. British soldiers found that different groups of these men would answer to ‘Doughboys’, ‘Sammies’, and ‘Yankees’ but would also react angrily to being identified by the ‘wrong’ name. This was particularly notable in the way those who came from states that had once been part of the Confederacy reacted to being called ‘Yankees’ or ‘Yanks’.

Whilst these nicknames could sometimes be used out of a mocking humour, they were often motivated by a grudging form of respect based upon an understanding of each nations place in the Great Power system. Names bestowed on allies who were viewed as being notably inferior were often much more derisive. One British soldier noted that the military High Command had issued an order for British soldiers to stop referring to their Portuguese allies as ‘Pork and Beans’. An order which had little success.

THE PORTUGUESE ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1917-1918 (Q 64443) Investiture of British and Portuguese officers in the Portuguese sector, France. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
THE PORTUGUESE ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1917-1918 (Q 64443) Investiture of British and Portuguese officers in the Portuguese sector, France. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
Commemorations WW1 Uncategorized

The Importance of the Local in Engaging with World War One

In the latest Blog post, Dr Katherine Cooper from the School of Literature, Language & Linguistics at Newcastle University and New Generation Thinker 2016 talks about the importance of ‘the local’ and their engagement with WW1 history.

As a Geordie, I have always had a real sense of the local. Newcastle and the North East play a real part in my identity as both a British citizen and as a researcher.

For me, many of the narratives around the centenary of World War One, from BBC documentaries to memorial events can often seem very London-centric or focussed on the South-East.

Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland

Yet the narratives that I have found most interesting and most engaging in thinking about the war and my own relationship to it, have been those that I have uncovered in the archives of Newcastle and Northumberland.

Tyne Bridge Newcastle
Tyne Bridge Newcastle

My interest in this war is longstanding and I, like many others always associate it with the soldier poets, with the Cenotaph in London, with mile of graveyards in France. Even in terms of my academic work, it often it seems very far away, both historically and geographically.

It was fascinating, for me, then to find the stories of men (and women) who had grown up in the places that were familiar to me.

To imagine the nurse, who lived two streets away from my current home in Newcastle itself, who shipped out to Salonika and to read her diaries and hear of her journey, her excitement and the hardships of new wartime life.

Captain John Evelyn Carr (Photograph: Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)
Captain John Evelyn Carr (Photograph: Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)

To read about the adventures of Captain John Evelyn Carr who grew up in the same suburb as I did and who kept meticulous diaries of his service in France, collecting cuttings from newspapers, adverts and other ephemera as he travelled through France.

To examine the letters of the couple, William and Barbara, from County Durham, who wrote to each other almost every day, right through William’s training at Catterick Garrison in North Yorkshire. Their correspondence even includes letters from their two children to their father in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.

Even to flick through local men’s light-hearted responses to the war in the magazine of the 16th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, The Growler, which, much like its famous contemporary the Wipers Times, satirises commanding  officers and mocks those behind the lines for their ‘cushy’ safe jobs.

The Growler c. 1916 (Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)
The Growler c. 1916 (Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn)

What made a real connection – rather than thinking of the war as something that happened to other people – was thinking of people who had walked through the same streets as me, visited Tynemouth beach or done their shopping in the market towns of Northumberland, shipping out to war and taking these memories and these places with them.

And, I think, for many people these events can seem far away in terms of both locality and time, and this can make them seem alien or even irrelevant.

Although we all know that men from all the UK and, indeed, all over the world, fought in World War One, it brings the whole experience very literally closer to home to learn of the experiences of those from, well, closer to home.

When Carr writes of his experiences on the first day of the Somme, it seems incredible that there was a man from the leafy suburb of Gosforth there at the front, on that day (and there were many more besides, and from all over the North-East, as his account testifies).

He describes helping to evacuate the wounded from the frontline describing ‘I spent I think quite the busiest day in my life, the wounded began pouring in about 11am & continued coming all day, in the 2 stations we had approximately 4000 cases, I evacuated 2 trains including 966 cases, many being terribly mutilated, the sights and agonies of the men are too awful for words.

‘It is a sight never to be forgotten seeing there splendid men lying like helpless babies, & one poor fellow died while I was putting him into the train & I had to take him back’.

Carr’s experiences certainly struck a chord with me because of this local connection and I wanted to see if this was a way of helping others to connect with or commemorate the war, particularly during these centenary years.

In 2014 I won an AHRC Collaborative Skills Development Award to run a project with the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn. The project aimed to use local stories, like that of Carr, to help local school children to engage with the experiences of World War One.

Working with a group of archivists, film-makers and postgraduate students, we made two films documenting the school students’ responses.

The sense of locality, of recognising the familiar names of Morpeth, Newcastle, Durham, Ponteland, Alnwick in these letters and photographs really helped these local sixth formers to relate to their experiences. The local accounts helped to bring the war home to students who were surprised to hear about the roles people from towns and villages they knew had performed during the war.

Bringing the war closer to home, in this instance, served as a really useful way of helping to promote these connections to a new generation.

Moreover, as local archives and libraries are increasingly threatened with cuts and closures, this can mark out a great way of demonstrating the value of their collections and even bringing in some much-needed financial assistance.

The local, whether in Devon or Dumfries, Dunston or Dublin, can help us all to identify with the events of the past and to connect with them more meaningfully in the present.