The Half-Shilling Curate : One Man’s Account of the Great War and Faith


Having volunteered as an Army Chaplain in Christmas 1914 and being assigned to Durham Light Infantry and Northumberland Fusiliers, Herbert Cowl would venture to the killing fields of the Western Front armed only with his faith…


 The Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl 


‘The Half-Shilling Curate’ – as The Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl was affectionately known to his family – saw his Great War military service cut short when he was severely wounded during a heavy bombardment at the front line. On his journey back to England, he was placed in a cot bed aboard the hospital ship Anglia, when she hit a German mine in the English Channel. While recovering, he was awarded the Military Cross for exemplary gallantry.

Now, 100 years on, Herbert’s granddaughter – Sarah Reay – is paying tribute to his story with the publication of his own personal letters and writings in her much-anticipated new book: The Half-Shilling Curate. A Personal Account of War and Faith 1914-18.

“My father, Michael Cowl (the son of ‘The Half-Shilling Curate’), encouraged me to nurture an inquisitive interest in history from an early age,” says debut author Sarah, aged 50, who lives in rural Northumberland with her husband and two sons.

“I’ve flown a First World War bi-plane 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.”

Published by Helion & Company Ltd, The Half-Shilling Curate will officially be launched at the Literary and Philosophical Society Library in Newcastle on Thursday, 27 October. BBC News editor and author Hugh Pym – whose grandfather was also a Great War chaplain – will introduce the evening, which will include a short talk by Sarah on her book and Army Chaplaincy in the Great War.

“Twenty years after the Great War ended, my grandfather had a family and was a Methodist minister living in Acton, when the Second World War was declared,” adds Sarah. “He stayed in London – enduring the Blitz. A spiritual man to the end of his life in 1971, 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.”

Duncan Rogers, Publisher at Helion & Company Ltd, adds: “The pre-release reviews of Sarah’s work from academics and members of the military have been hugely favourable, with retired Durham Light Infantry soldier General Sir Peter de la Billière stating: ‘A good chaplain is as valuable as a good general’; and this book proves it. I admire this book for bringing to life the pressures and courage of fighting and the horror and frequency of death in the frontline during the Great War’.

Menin Gate South book cover


Menin Gate South in Memory and in Mourning

Paul Chapman

(South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016)

Hardback £30.00

397 pp,

with Panel Index: Menin Gate (South)


I was intrigued upon the arrival of this book for review. At first glance it appeared to be a stand-alone work – no other titles by the author were listed on the inside pages or the inner ‘blurb’ – and yet this work was clearly only a part of a bigger story. On flipping open the back cover for details of the author I found reference to the ‘In Memory and In Mourning series’ drawing upon ‘years of intensive research’. So I could see that a small amount of investigation and research on my own part was called for – no effort must be spared in serving the members of The WFA where book reviews are concerned.

Some of you may already be aware of Paul Chapman and his mission to bring to life the lists of names of those who fought and fell in Flanders over the course of the First World War – I have to apologise now and say that up until this point I was ignorant of his painstaking endeavours. My enquiries found that Chapman has spent the last ten years and more, researching and collating details regarding the British and Empire soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and are buried and commemorated in the Ypres salient. Of these 210,000 casualties, the author states that he has produced biographical details relating to over 20,000 soldiers.

The resulting work In Memory and In Mourning is intended for publication over six volumes. The series started in spring 2015 and I understand that three editions have been released prior to Menin Gate (South). These are:

Menin Gate (North)

Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

So we have here one man’s dedicated commitment to researching and recording the personal histories of the men who gave their lives for their country - and in defence of Flanders and the Ypres salient during the conflict of 1914-18. In the words of the author, his mission became ‘…to ensure that their stories are preserved for future generations and battlefield visitors’. The headstones in the CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) cemeteries record the casualty’s name, rank, regiment, service number, date of death and for some, the age. The memorials to the missing give simply the name, regiment and rank. It was the desire to learn more about the man behind a limited list of basic facts which led Chapman to begin researching the background to many of the names; in his own words ‘explaining and answering more of the who, what, where and why’.

Paul Chapman has a proven track record in the WFA as founder and ex-Chair of the Northampton branch of The Western Front Association; he is also a member of the Talbot House Association. His link to the First World War includes his grandfather who served with the Canadian Army Service Corps and subsequently took on a role within the ranks of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission. For a number of years Chapman has been involved in arranging and escorting tours to the Ypres Salient, which has proved to be the springboard for this tremendous undertaking. 

This fourth book in the planned series is once again the result of years of research augmented by frequent trips to the battlefields. In an introductory chapter - titled Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial South - Chapman provides a summary history of the Menin Gate memorial, which was officially inaugurated on 24 July 1927 in a ceremony led by Sir Herbert Plumer (‘of Messines’ fame who spent much of the war at the Flanders front) and including King Albert of Belgium. Within some selected highlights, the reader is told of the veteran visiting after 1927 to find his own name and details recorded on the memorial. A Private J Smith of the Black Watch is listed – with the remarkable service number ‘1’. Also listed is Lance-Corporal Thomas ‘Pat’ H Rafferty, who was the inspiration for cartoonist Captain Bruce Bairnsfather’s ‘Old Bill’ character. This opening section concludes with reference to the nightly ‘Last Post’ ceremony; and the annual ‘Poppy Parade’ at Ypres on Armistice Day.

Following this introduction the book is organised into six unnumbered chapters, each covering and named for a set of between seven and nine panels from the memorial; starting with panels 2-8. There are no separate chapter headings – so one simply turns over the last page of the ‘introduction’ to find the following section heading (you can tell it is a heading because it is in capital letters):


The text then provides some background information on the Gurkhas on the Western Front particularly the assault on Mauser Ridge on 1 May 1915. The name of Ran Bahadur Bura, Rifleman 4579, who was killed that day, is picked out for a short set of family details. Next is a paragraph on the actions of the Lahore Division at the end of April 1915 – with 57th Wilde’s at the forefront of the attack – and the latter regiment’s losses. Chapman provides a paragraph of biography on Major Francis Taylor Duhan, 19th Punjabis and also on Captain Leonard De Lona Christopher , 40th Pathans. This section now concludes with:


Followed by:


The rest of the book proceeds in the same vein. Although I have mentioned ‘chapters’ there is no recognisable arrangement of this kind; the sections on each memorial panel follow on in chronological order with the addition of Chapman’s background and biographical summaries and pen portraits, as in the first example above. At the very end the book closes with a short index of the panels and the battalions and regiments on each. There is an unfortunate typo in that the pages are headed Menin Gate (North) when they are in fact the correct listings for Menin Gate (South).

This editorial lapse brings me to my criticism of the book. The detail and purpose attached to the research is of the highest order in my view. However the presentation could have been so much better not just in terms of style and format but also to assist anyone looking to use the book for research purposes. There is no index of the soldiers for whom biographical details have been included. There is no page index for battalions/regiments. No use had been made of emboldened type and/or different fonts to help break up the pages and the various sections on panels/units/individuals. There are no sources provided for the information on the various units and operations – or for the individual biographies. If one throws open the book at a random page then you are faced with two sheets of what appears to be continual text all in the same font and print size, with an occasional paragraph indent.

The book is at the middle/higher price end of the market at £30 – some readers would have expected more in terms of the presentation and organisation of the contents. It would also have been useful to have had some photos of the memorial and the panels – or perhaps a diagram of the layout. There are no photos or illustrations included. These shortcomings may of course have been necessary to meet the production costs. However if I am prepared to spend £30 on this book I would probably consider that a further £5 is worth adding to its price if it can deliver improvements in its format, presentation and organisation.

So – should you buy this book? For me the answer is yes, if only because I feel that simply owning the book and having it on my bookshelf is a way of paying tribute to those names within its pages, and all those soldiers commemorated on the Menin Gate. It is also a book I would enjoy having with me on a visit, being able to look up background information on names from the memorial in front of me. For some it will probably be a reference book to look up at a local library or in the (increasing) absence of the latter then to borrow from a friend with more space on their bookshelves or a few more £ to spare.

Paul Chapman is to be warmly thanked and applauded for his research and for bringing this valuable information to our attention. He allows us to engage with the personal histories of the men who fell in Flanders, reminding the reader of the reality of war through their stories.

Now, where is that letter for Santa that I started… I have a few titles from the In Memory and In Mourning series to add.



Reviewed by WFA member Dennis Williams



Book Cover of Great Sacrifice the History of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School


Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War


Jane Ainsworth

720 pages

Helion & Company (2016)


‘A memorial book like no other.’


‘Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War’ is several books and a variety of types of book all in one: at its heart,  it is a ‘memorial book’ - the record of each of the 76 ‘boys’ featured on the war memorial that was unveiled at the school in the early 1920s; it is also a comprehensive the history of a Yorkshire Boys’ Grammar School from its founding in the 17th century through all its headmasters, benefactors and buildings; and thirdly it is a thoughtfully compiled and meticulously curated collection of often fascinating, insightful and even unique photographs, papers, census record detail and statistics.

My copy of ‘Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War’ is carefully tabulated numerous times because as a reference book it 'drills through' the history including every 'accretion' to provide the definitive recordof each 'boy' who has been researched. No detail has been left out. On the one hand this compromises the readability of each man's story, however the added value is to read on, and through the family, friends and connections who were touched by a life, and often feel amazed and delighted to find some recompense in their death on learning that their kid brother survived the war, entering it as a private and ending it as a major, or that his younger sister, happily married, raised a family and lived into her 90s, or in one case to the age of 101. You are left, time and time again, with the impression of a huge family saga across some hundred years between 1880 and 1980. Editorially, a substantial part of the research might be left out: do we need quite so much detail from the Census returns so that we know who were witnesses to a 'Boys' sister's wedding in the 1920a? Yes, where it is reasonable to imagine these people were all part of a wider circle of family friends and intimates: it allows you the reader to create in your mind's eye a wedding photograph where gaps exist in the wedding group for those who had died. Is it necessary to include, unedited, the verbatim reports from the newspapers that reported a death? Yes, if you want to build up a sense of how the information was handled, to the point where ideally you would see a facsimile of the newspaper: that is always 'grounding' to see old, but familiar items being advertised, or other local stories in the news. 


‘Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War’ will be of interest to the local historian, those interested in researching family histories in Barnsley and a source of reference on some of the men of Barnsley who served during the First World War. It should also be held up as an excellent example of what kind of details it is possible to find behind 'a name'. Here, working over two years, and in contact with relatives, archives and collections a rich variety of photographic material and other content has been uncovered, all that adds to giving shape and character to the boys, who served as men during the First World War, and died doing so. 


In any other situation, the amateur sleuth, the local historian or the family historian would at best only be able to enjoy the kind information gathered here by amassing their own small library of books, pamphlets, files and archive records, and probably even then, having to rely on archived records or microfilm from their local library. Here, it has been brought together in one place. ‘Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War’ is many things therefore: a reference book, a ‘memorial book’, a local history and unique resource. it is also a potential springboard for winkling out even more, say from the army 'War Diaries' that would begin to provide an impression of how each 'boy' spent their years of service: the theatres of war they entered, the roles their Brigade played, when they were in training, reserve or in 'the thick of' for a few days at a time of front line action. It could be a springboard too for stories, where the historical novelist could make reasonable assumptions about how the 'boy', joining others, trainied, served, was wounded, survived for a while ... but ultimately did not. ‘Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War’ should also be of interest to historians; here is evidence that can be plucked from the detail to support all kinds of arguments, not least, that these 'boys' represent the 10-13% who died - that however 'shocked', danaged or changed, most men returned. 


The stories of the 76 boys, alone filling nearly 400 pages, would be enough content and have a clearer purpose and greater immediate appeal to someone with an interest in the British Army during the First World War. The history of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School, however infleuntial its headmaster and staff on the boys at that time should have been a separate publication or kept to 12 or so pages. It is with the 'Boys' that I would like concentrate my thoughts. 

'Memorial Books' are a genre of book like no other: they take as their starting place a First World War memorial, provide its context, then in turn, with as much information as the archive and existing records permit, and the researcher is prepared to offer, a brief biography and service record is given for each man. In some circumstances, a photograph has been found to introduce them and their family. In most cases the Census return provides a place of birth, a place of residence and immediate family members. The relevant detail is given to help maintain the narrative. We might learn where they were educated, when they left school and where employed, when and where they enlisted and be given an idea of where and how they served. As a memorial deals with those who died during the First World War, how they ‘met their end’ and their subsequent burial, and possibly reburial and where they are remembered is also provided. Local newspapers, usually repeating the same background information, will have published an obituary of some kind at the time: this, in preciséd form or paraphrased can be given too. Online you can offer everything, in print being selective is necessary.  In print, these publications can take the form of a pamphlet, or a book. Often, some kind of compilation of the names was created as a sheet of names at the time the memorial was unveiled in the 1920s. The 50th Anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, or the Armistice, often triggered the creation of books, with each soldier, featuring on a page or two. The centenary of the First World War has seen a landslide of such books and a quite overwhelming plethora of websites too; there are, after all, some 700,000 men who died who could be remembered in this way.


The challenge, working with whatever format, print or online, is to put the men, their lives and war service at the heart of the endeavour. A roll of honour to four of five men is less likely to result in a book; a roll of honour containing many hundreds of names too great a task for one person and too much information for a single book which is where a website comes into its own. How to compile and share the data, record and story of each man has remained a problem until the Internet came along. Now that we have and use the Internet a number of stunning examples of the 'Memorial' website have been produced. Increasingly this kind of project ‘to tell the stories of those named on a memorial’ is undertaken by a team of people, often with Heritage Lottery funding. These vary considerably in scope, style and usability. The very best have at the heart of them, a searchable archive of the men: who they were, how they served and met their end, and where and how they have been remembered. Online it is as easy to accommodate a few names, as it is thousands.


One important role ‘Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War’ plays is to connect present day students with the institution where they are taught. The school on the present day site has kept the tradition of reading out the 76 names featured on the memorial each year and for this, the book now provides ample detail to ‘bring the men and their families to life’. It is this information that matters above all else. What would be wonderful to include would be detail from the various Division and Regimental Histories and war diaries relating to each man’s war service. What did they do during the war? Where were they moved to? We know when they enlisted, and we know when they died, but too often the intervening weeks or months, is missing. This is what happens when a person's life starts to come off the page - you want to know more. 


When you learn that a boy spent only a year at Barnsley Holgate Grammar or even if they were there fore a few years, it is clear that their lives, whilst touched by the school, could not have been at its centre, whether or not they visited as old boys, or contributed to the Alumni magazine. An aside, is to understand why a boy left after a year? Reading the detail one has to imagine that cost as a factor, without a full scholarship, or the means to meet the fees, once they turned 14 a boy (and girl) needed to find employment. So many of our 'boys' become a clerk, or apprentice at this age, their formal schooling over. Their family would have come first, for many their Church would have come second and for others still, their place of work, or club where they played football or university. They also belonged to a Battalion and a Regiment, with whom they served and died, and amongst whom they are for the most part buried. Ample material is given to create a sense of the person in their family setting, but of course it is their wartime service that is being remembered. 


The entries on the ‘Boys’ makes up some 395 pages of this 716 page book, entries running from between 1 and 12 pages, with the median at 5 pages.


Taking an example, Private Sidney Nicholson of the 21st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps, including his own 'cover page' - a portrait of him uniform, runs to 8 pages.  We learn when and where he was born, the number, names, ages siblings, birth, background of parents and their marriage, their education, and for how long he attended Barnsley Holgate Grammar School, and then where he was employed. If a brother, or brothers enlisted we learn this too. If a brother survived the war we learn what they did, whether they married and had children. In Sidney’s case, his younger brother Ernest with whom he joined up, survived the war, rose through the ranks all the way to Major, became a bank manager, married, had three children and lived well into his 90s. We are made to reflect, of course, on the life that brother Sidney, and the hundreds of thousands of other young men like him, never got to enjoy.


There may be one or more photographs. And we learn where they are buried and where remembered. In the case of Sidney Nicholson, his name also appeared on the memorial in the long disappeared Ebenezer Chapel. Any, and all obituaries in local newspapers are given. A detail that you begin to spot, how a family remembered their son, sons or husband with a notice in the paper each year for four or five years. Bereavement is palpable in such detail.


Taking another example, Arthur Shipley. He was at Barnsley Holgate Grammar School for just one year. It could hardly have been formative, or definitive. He happened to be the nephew of the headmaster, he had been privately educated before he arrived at Holgate, and afterwards went to Haileybury College public school and gained a place to study history at Cambridge. An important part of his story beginning when he enlists yet in a few sentences only we learn that he served in Gallipoli and died on the Somme. Arthur Shipley is remembered on four memorials, and appears on his parents' headstone and on the Haileybury College memorial website we are told. Made available online, what is known about Arthur Shipley would add colour to these memorials too, and perhaps be encouragement to others to research the his war record.


In conclusion, sometimes ‘less is more’ : a ‘memorial book’ focused on the men featured in a Roll of Honour, and this alone, with some setting of context, would have a wider-readership than a book the size of a small dictionary that publishes content, particularly on the history of the school, that has a different audience, relevance and purpose. The boys have been researched meticulously. There is ample information to be able to begin to paint a picture of who they were: choir boy, scholar, footballer, apprentice, teacher, son, brother, cousin, fiancé, army volunteer or conscript, private, NCO, or officer … even a conscientious objectior. Additional information, particularly on their respective service experience could have been, given a few years more resaerch no doubt, where the emphasis was placed. How and where did these men train, when did they go over to France, were they in a 'quiet spot' at first, and then thrown into a battle or two or three. 


There are certainly hundreds of thousands of British 'boys' and men who served in the First World War who are but a name on a memorial plaque in a park, post office, school or railway station. Learning from the achievement of ‘Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War’ they can then go on to research and publish, I would hope, in a least two formats: a memorial book, possibly hardback, with each person's story told, kept with or close to the memorial itself and brought out to read from on occassions of remembrance and an open, digital version so that the connections indicate here begin to touch others - not least their now distant relatives and ancestors. 


Other books recently reviewed by The Western Front Association of this type include 'The Boys of Blackhorse Road: The story of an elementary school war memorial' by Malcolm Doolin and 'The Barnetby Boys. A north Lancashire town at war' by Roger Frankish, 'Railwaymen of Cumbria Remembered' by Peter Robinson. Memorial websites that tackle this information in a readily researched and interactive format include 'Craven's Part in the First World War' and 'Ossett WW1 History'. 


 Book Cover of We Are All Flourishing
 We Are All Flourishing

Hardcover: 360 Pages

Publisher: Helion & Company

Authors Jan Chojecki and Michael LoCicero

Published (15 October 2016)



We Are All Flourishing : The Letters and Diary of Captain Walter J J Coats MC 1914-1919


I read ‘We Are All Flourishing’ over two days and ‘cover to cover’.


Though not a novel, ’We Are All Flourishing’ reads just as well, indeed, the diary format makes it easier to follow the chronology of events, especially as we have some a good sense of what was going on throughout 1914-1918.

W J J Coats begins many of his letters with a variant of ‘I am flourishing’ and ‘I am extremely flourishing’ and ‘We are all flourishing’. Educated a Glasgow Academy, and then as a boarder at Fettes College, Edinburgh, you can imagine him putting this in every letter he would have been obliged to write home each week. All he is saying is ‘I am well,’ though coming from the Western Front he might just be saying ‘I am still alive!’


Walter Coats was an officer with the 9th Highland Light Infantry (Glasgow Highlanders).


There is a noticeable change in the usually optimistic tone when he simply writes ‘I am going strong’ or says nothing of the sort, just sticking to his news. You get the sense that things are out of kilter, that his usual confidence has been warn thin by physical exhaustion, unpleasantness weather and too long spent soaked through, and of course the war itself even those standing by his side, or who he was with moments ago, are killed or seriously wounded. His delight, and pleasure and life shines through: he remarks how the men appear to enjoy bayonet practice, saying that: ‘It is a cherry thing to teach and I think they rather like it’, while him taking a nasty stumble into the bottom of a trench produces laughter, not cursing.


As the Battalion Machine Gun Office, Walter took part in the battles of Neuve-Chapelle, Loos and Arras, the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres.


As these are mostly letters, they were always written with a single reader in mind: often his father, or mother, sometimes a sister, brother or friend. The diary component is less personal and rarely reflective. The ebb and flow of a battalion, sometimes in a front line trench, often in reserve and even more often on the march, training, or taking part in sports events, becomes clear. As he survives, for the first two years through extraordinary luck: a shell smashes into the ground in front of him, fails to go off, and only just misses removing his leg while another time his C.O., standing at his side, is shot through the head. For the second half of his war, Walter is in a staff role that keeps him largely out of the front line.

’We Are All Flourishing’ is full of photographs that are directly related to the text, the very pictures the author sent or was sent in the letters that are published. The supporting footnotes are invaluable, adding to what is both of useful historical record, as well as a ‘good read’. Not Robert Graves, but easier to see, from day to day through each month and the seasons, what was going on and placing him, and his battalion in a wider context.

His preoccupation is the war on his part of the line. He was well placed, as a junior officer, to both record what ‘the men’ were doing, and the role staff and command played. You begin to appreciate the scale of running a battalion and come to admire the management of affairs, the amount of scrupulously completed paperwork. You get a sense of history being made and of the gradual innovations in made kit and practices.

Throughout ‘Captain Walter’ has both a horse and a servant - though in this regard, we learn a tad more about the horses while the servants (he had three or four during the entire period), are only named in passing. In this regard, I am left wondering what a servant did for a Captain, Staff or otherwise.

You get a sense of the way the Battalion moved, both vertically: north and south along the Western Front, as well as how and when it moved horizontally: west to east, into reserve or into front line trenches, or out again into billets, bivouacs and estaminets.

It is remarkable to note how often Walter wrote home, and how the letters he sent and the letters he received could cross northern France and England so quickly. He notes that a letter sent from Glasgow one day, would arrive in the evening of the second day; while letters sent from London could arrive on the day they were posted. Parcels he regularly received contained perishable goods, typically chicken, but sometimes grouse or other meats were sent out too. On receipt, a little scraping away of mould and the items were consumed without ill effect. Socks feature often, as Walter either requires a weekly supply, those he wears being too destroyed after a week on his feet trudging at length through water-filled trenches, or he requires none at all. His sword is discarded early; the kilt is replaced by ‘breeks’ eventually too.

There are notable insights specific to actions where he provides greater detail than probably appears in the War Diary. The author is disparaging of the press many times, and corrects any opinion his parents might have got by what they might have read; as a result you come to trust his word as a true record of what was taking place.

The detail is telling: the volume of paperwork to complete as men are mobilised; his need to be sent books on ‘Field Devices Pocket Book’, ‘Infantry Training’ and ‘Field Service Regulations’, the uselessness of the French match his friend Math in a motorbike accident, his need for cheap colour hankies and handing their swords back - we even learn that out of boredom he tried to cut his hair with a pair of nail scissors and a shaving mirror. We get tips, such as filling boots with castor oil to soften them up and the curious incident of an officer having a wardrobe sent down the line to try to use as a canoe in a waterlogged trench, then later an officer having an old carriage, without its wheels, dropped into a pre-dug hole to make a dugout for him and how for a while their front line billets were lit by electric light from the German lines. I like the line he borrows from someone else, saying that at time they have to walk about like ‘half-open pocket knives’ or the story of the British soldier who took a German prisoner and was leant a torch by his prisoner to see their way back.

Walter goes off to Divisional Staff School mid-November 1916 we learn how his day is filled. He described that one of the tasks of the Staff Captain is to arrange ceremonial parades. He describes how ‘everyone who thinks they are anyone follows along’ and that ‘very often no one looks at the troops that are being inspected.’ He says that it had always struck him that it is ‘in many cases an inspection by the troops of the people walking around rather than the other way around’. p.265

As Walter belonged to a family of four boys and three girls, I wonder at how many letters other family members wrote home, as both his brothers were serving, while his cousin Elsie, in her turn, served as a nurse.

This is an enlightening, easy and insightful read that is worth having for the pleasure of reading, but also as a valuable reference for the insights it gives to the daily activities of a Battalion from the first weeks of the war, and many months later through the demob process too.


Review by Jonathan Vernon 


If you have enjoyed this review you may like to hear what the Sunday Herald (Glasgow) had to say in its piece 'Letters from the front'. You can also catch up with one of the authors talking about the book on BBC Radio Berkshire. You need to go 2h 8mins into the programme. 



Front cover of Railwaymen of Cumbria remembered
Railwaymen of Cumbria Remembered

By Peter Robinson and Micheel Peascod

48 pages illustrated, A4 format.

Available from CRA Book Sales

50 Tattershall



SN5 8BX.  

Price £4.00 post free. 


‘Railwaymen of the First War’ as a title would threaten to fill several volumes of books, encyclopaedic in size and scope so it is just as well that ‘Railwaymen of Cumbria Remembered’ produced by the Cumbrian Railways Association narrows its focus to the men who served and died during the First World War who hailed from what were then the counties of Cumberland and  Westmorland, with the Borough of Carlisle, District of Sedbergh and a part of North Lancashire. (With the creation of the county of 'Cumbria' in 1974 these districts were brought together, and the county of Westmorland lost).


On this scale, and for someone from the area, the stations and routes including those lines lost in the 1960s, and many of the surnames will sound familiar: Beck, Braithwaite, Horsefield, Moffatt, Sedgwick, Tomlinson and Wilson all suggest Cumberland to me. While the railway companies of the time delight in such local names as 'The Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway', 'The L&NW and Furness Railways Joint Lines' and 'The Cleator & Workington Junction Railway', as well as the regional and national 'biggies' such as 'The North Eastern Railway' and 'The Caledonian Railway'. These are names that will have personal resonnance, and meaning to some - not least those who live in these parts now, or come from the North West of England. 


The Furness Railways Memorial at Barrow-in-Furness Station
 The war damaged Furness Railway war memorial at Barrow-in-Furness station (1)


If you are like me, you will stop to look at a station memorial plaque. Whenever I see such a roll of honour, typically a brass plaque mounted on a wooden board, or set in stone, I glance over the names: you can only wonder if you know their great-grandson or great nephew or niece. Who were they? More like us, than not, most of all, given their youth, like the students you see at this time of year making their way to distant universities. I wonder about the lives these men who served and died would have had.  It is what broke the heart of my late grandfather when he thought about it too closely: his family were from Wigton and Dalston, the train from Carlisle to Newcastle their root to employment in the North East over a century ago. Many of the men he served with, even some he enlisted with, came from Cumberland.


 Memorial to the employees of Maryport and Carlisle Railway Company
Memorial to the employees of Maryport and Carlisle Railway Company


Looking at photographs of these memorials, even seing them in the flesh, there is always a risk that a list of names is reduced to a kind of 'Braille for the sighted' - markings that form an embossed pattern that have little meaning. It is therefore indispensable and important work to undertake research into who these people were, publish it and share it. Even where the information is scant, for example, lacking the clues to know where the men listed by Scottish Railways came from - at least the process has begun to give these men their fuller identity: they had worked on the railways,we know, but they were born in a town or village, went to school there, found work on the railways and with war in 1914 they joined up as volunteers or by 1916 through conscription. In their cases, like some 15% who served, they were killed in action, or died of their wounds or an illness or some other mishap - most are buried in northern France, plenty are 'missing' while one or two, with dreadful injuries, made it back to the North West only to die later of their wounds.  It is difficult to comprehend the scale, depth and nature of the grief and how this was even common place where a street by the end of the war might have seen many young men, husbands too, lost. 


Whether a memorial has five names on it (The L&NW and Furness Railways Joint Lines), or thousands (The Midland Railway, or The North Eastern Railway), each name represents a son, brother, husband or colleague. Some of their jobs require further explanation though. I am ingtrigued to know what an 'Underman' did? Or a 'Fire Dropper'? 'Lampman'(2)? 'Under Shutter'(3)? Or 'Caller-offer'(4)? I can 'Google them', but what would be wonderful, would be a new edition of 'Railwaymen of Cumbria Remembered' with this kind of detail included. In this small way, some of the names begin to rise off the page amd they become recognisable people not all different to young men today. 


These are some questions that should spark the curious to seek out more detail and add it to the task that has been begun here. In 2016, with so many records and varieties of sources digitised the task, though still a big one, begins to become possible. 


Map showing the railways of Cumberland and Westmoreland
Railways of Cumberland, Westmorland and Northc Lancs at the time of the First World War


A brief background to the railways is given, the hundreds of thousands working in the industry, a crucial part of the war effort of course. This is a story worth expanding, how certificates had to be issued by 'management' from February 1915 saying whether a man from the railways had been freed to enlist. A map isn't included in the book, but the authors have kindly provided the one you see above. It has always been a curious thing, knowing Cumbria, to come across a signal box or even a railway station in a field, with a garden with little indication left of the line they once served.

Whilst the main lines remain, many of the branch lines, as well as the railway companies these men worked on have long gone. It’s as if there’s another role that can be played here; not just recording the men who were lost to the battlefields of the Western Front (where most served and died), but the history of the railway companies too.


I’m also interested to know how many and which roles were later taken up by women and how men returning from the war returned to the railways.


Whilst many of the men can be traced to their home towns, others cannot.


Further work here for the amateur sleuth, perhaps taking a look through the million+ Pension Cards saved by the Western Front Association? And where a man can be traced, here lies an opportunity to learn a bit about where they lived and went to school. Similarly, though faced with many divisional and regimental histories to read, there is an opportunity to uncover a person’s service history. Details from ‘The Border Regiment in the Great War’, for example, would add colour to a reasonable section of the men, as would reference to war diaries: in this way we come to understand how and where these men served. 


‘Railwaymen of Cumbria Remembered’ is a worthy and commendable endeavour


No name should be left unidentified on our memorials to those who served and died during the First World War. Whilst it will be rare to find a photograph, to be able to create a potted biography, it is nonetheless an important reminder that those names represent people like us, young men for the most part, with their lives ahead of them, all the more so the 17 year old identified who served and died. On the other hand, the 49 year old who died, married with children, may have had a son or two serving alongside him. How were communities in Cumberland and Westmorland impacted by the loss of their men?


‘Railwaymen of Cumbria Remembered’ is a terrific piece of work in its own right with considered and creative thought given to the design: type face choices, lay out on the page and other detailing that is respectful and fitting. A range of Art Nouveau design glyphs are used to 'pace' the material and fill unwanted 'white space' in a reverential way. 


Were I still living in the North West, or had any relatives left to visit, I would be picking out one of the memorials featured here to see if I could build on its beginnings. This is for others to be encouraged to take up, through organisations such as the Cumbrian Railways Association, working with their regional branch of The Western Front Association.


With the author’s permission I would like to scour my regimental history of the Border Regiments to see if a few of the names featured in ‘Railwaymen of Cumbria Remembered’ could be developed and included in our daily piece ‘Remember on this Day’ where someone who lost their life is remembered. Sometimes, from modest beginnings, the many thousands who follow the Western Front Association website and social media pages, are able to add some detail, and in the rarest of cases, produce a photograph of someone we had never seen before.


The Internet encourages the weaving of new connections, where men remembered on these railway memorials, for example, may have already been picked up elsewhere - not least in expanding records of the many military cemeteries where they were buried, on memorials to the missing, or in their local church or school. For example, ‘Missing But Not Forgotten. Men of the Thiepval Memorial-Somme’ may include a name that appears in ‘Railwaymen of the First War’.


Books such as this form a genre of their own, whether 48 pages ‘Railwaymen of the First War’, or nearly 300 ‘Missing But Not Forgotten.Men of the Thiepval Memorial-Somme’, in fact another currently under review ‘Great Sacrifice. The Old Boys of Barnsley Holgate Grammar School in the First World War’ runs to over 700 pages! Others reviews by The Western Front Association include ‘The Boys of Blackhorse Road Elementary School’ and ‘The Barnetby Boys’, which includes a good many men who worked on the Lincolnshire Railways and whose lives, loves, losses and brought to life in this book.


Websites, though in many forms, whilst varied in scope and ambition, from ‘Craven’s Part in the Great War’  to ‘Ossett in WW1’ also show how information once online is readily shared and built upon.


It may still be some four or five years away, but I wonder if by the early 2020s local communities commemorating the centenary of the unveiling of some of these memorials will have an even more complete picture of the men whose names they featured?


The Cumbrian Railways Association have a number of records which would allow someone wishing to do so to add more detail about the railways and the sort of work these men did. The Cumbrain Railways Association have a number of staff registers and a database of staff too. The Association meets twice a year. For detals visit The Cumbrian Railways Association website.




(1) The Barrow memorial was damaged in 1941 during a German bombing raid. It still acts as the focus fir the town's remembrance.

(2) A 'lampan' would be responsible for tending signal lamps used at night.

(3) An 'under shunter' would be part of a larger team in a goods yards. 

(4) A 'caller-offer' would have called off the wagon numbers, either checking in wagon or preparing them for despatch.




Page 1 of 4

Sponsored Link

pen and sword 2014

Back to top