FOR decades, Belsay author Sarah Reay only knew her grandfather as being the kind, white-haired elderly man with a husky voice and a habit for eating impossibly slowly.

So when she stumbled across a archive of his life – from school days to the trenches and tragedies of the First World War and the darkness of the Blitz in the war that followed – she began to rethink everything about the man she knew. Now with the release of her debut book The Half Shilling Curate she is sharing Herbert Cowl’s story with the world.

Based around the hundreds of letters, diary entries and photographs Herbert kept through his 85 years, The Half Shilling Curate is the personal account of his life in The Great War, proving that ‘a good chaplain is as valuable as a good general.’

A theology student with a ambition to work in the church, Herbert was ordained the day that it was announced Britain would go to war.He joined up with the Durham Light Infantry, which he later followed to France, witnessing the reality of Flanders on the Western Front.

“There is an impression made by some historians that chaplains played a lesser role in the war, and that they weren’t in the trenches with the other troops, but that wasn’t true.

“From his letters we know that Herbert wanted to join in with the comradery, and thought of himself as no different to the other men. Chaplains were, and still are, a great source of comfort for troops. Many of the soldiers were religious at the time, and when you are up against death at any given moment, faith was a enormous comfort.”

It was whilst in uniform that Herbert coined himself the nickname of ‘The Half-Shilling’ in letters back to his family, which referred to his lack of experience and youth as a fledging chaplain.

“He was under no illusions that he was inexperienced and unprepared for what was to come,” said Sarah. “He was poking fun at himself for not being the full shilling. There is something quite touching in that.”

From his letters, Sarah learnt about how Herbert, despite his inexperience, helped to prepare soldiers for their fate, by comforting those who were fatally wounded in their final hours.

Herbert suffered several near misses himself however.

While fighting in Flanders, he was hit with flying shrapnel, which cut through his face and jaw and became lodged in his throat.

Of the event, Herbert recalled “A piece of shell – that proved afterwards to be as large as a thumb – had smashed through the jaw, through the roots of the tongue, and landed across the back of the throat.”

It wasn’t until Sarah had found these medical records in storage that she was finally able to understand why her grandfather spoke strangely, and had great difficulty eating during meal times.

The next tragedy took place whilst Herbert was onboard the Anglia hospital ship, which was destined to transport wounded soldiers from France and Flanders home to the white cliffs of Dover.

Carrying 400 wounded servicemen, along with the ship’s crew and a complement of doctors and nurses, disaster struck as the ship collided with a German mine, hidden in the sea. An SOS signal was unable to be sent due to the machinery capable having been destroyed in the explosion.

Herbert writes: “We were less than four miles off Dover. It was a remarkable instantaneous thing: for in a second full of stunning flash and a hollow roar – that palace of comfort and order was transformed into a pandemonium.

“The smiling face of the Sister was running with blood: the orderly a few paces away was a lifeless heap against the wall. My cot was crumpled into scrap-iron, and I was tumbled into the water.”

Lifeboats were dispatched to Anglia, but while Herbert was on the ship’s deck waiting to be rescued, he began a mission of his own.

Watching as men jumped and fell overboard into the water, Herbert alone dragged as many raft seats as he could from the deck-rail, and dropped them down to those beneath, putting those lives before his own.

He remembered: “At last the end drew near: the deck tilted till a foothold was impossible and climbing the rail, I sat on the side of the ship and waited the last plunge. Only a few men were left with me then – like so many on that boat, scared and cringing creatures.”

Herbert, helped by a lifebelt, was able to swim to a raft for safety before Anglia sunk after 45 minutes from the explosion.

Whilst parts of Herbert’s tale are tragic, it is clear from The Half-Shilling Curate that he was also an optimist to the end of his life, and a hopeless romantic, from the minute which he first laid eyes on the love of his life, May Louise Townsley’s, face.

He writes to his parents that is he “off colour” with some unidentifiable illness, only to later confess that the illness was in fact love, which he’d fallen into after meeting young May in Yorkshire during his theology studies – the girl who he felt seemed “to possess all the qualities which his ideal specifies.”

As in every good romance story, complications arose, and Herbert was deemed not to be of a suitable class for May, and he nearly lost for forever when she moved to Canada with her family.

But even the Atlantic couldn’t keep the two apart, and after hearing of his injuries, May, who would later would become Sarah’s grandmother, crossed the ocean to be reunited with him.

The last few chapters of the book are dedicated to Herbert’s life as a Methodist minister, and his recollections of London during the Blitz.

Herbert passed away in 1971 from leukaemia at 85.

“I never set out to make a book,” Sarah said. “But I felt that my grandfather was such a fine example of what it means to be a truly selfless and genuinely good person is, and I think we could do with more of that in the world.

“None of our family knew about his experiences.

“He never boasted or bragged about anything – even when he was awarded the Military Cross for exemplary gallery after his action on the HMHS Anglia.

“Even if he would have liked to have shared his stories, the injuries to his throat made talking a real hardship. Keeping a journal of his experiences therefore seemed to be a way for him to communicate the things which happened to him.

“Finally now, he can share his story with others.”

To order The Half Shilling Curate visit A percentage of the proceeds of every book sold will go to The Salvation Army charity.