Book Group Report, October 2018

By Judith Phillips

 “The Half Shilling Curate” by Sarah Reay was the first reading recommendation for our October meeting. The author’s grandfather was the curate in question, the Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl, who volunteered as an Army Chaplain with the Durham Light Infantry during WW1. Using his own accounts and diary entries, Sarah Reay tells the story of his life, including his attentive and hands-on care of the troops at the Front in France. He is severely injured and sent back to England on the HMHS Anglia, which has the misfortune to be hit by a German mine and sink. Even at this stage, Cowl helped others in distress and after was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry on that day. While not returning to France, he continued as an Army Chaplain and the book then charts the following decades as a Methodist Minister, his family life and the faith that sustained him throughout.

A previous Book Group suggestion inspired this month’s choice for one member, who brought along “The Great War in Portraits” by Paul Moorhouse and Sebastian Faulks. The book contains portraits in many forms – photographs, pencil sketches done in the field, formal portraits as well as before and after images where soldiers had required surgery and facial reconstruction after injury.

A diverse range of artists and genres are represented in the book, the harsh and brutal reality in Otto Dix’s portraits contrasting with softer pencil sketches of a soldier resting in a trench with eyes closed. The book was written to accompany an exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014.

Personal WW1 experience as a Lieutenant in the Norfolk Regiment, and then the Army Claims Commission, influenced Ralph Mottram’s novels “The Spanish Farm Trilogy”. The connection between the three stories is the Spanish Farm, home to the Vanderlynden family, and their relationships with the thousands of soldiers billeted there as they pass to and from the trenches. A slow yet compelling read, the reader gets a sideways look at WW1 through the interaction of the French/Flemish farming community with the British troops stationed so close to the Front. The book won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature in 1924 and was the inspiration for the 1927 silent film ‘Roses of Picardy’.

Heading back to the theme of military chaplains, our next discussion centred on “A Prayer for Gallipoli: The Great War Diaries of Chaplain Kenneth Best”, edited by Gavin Roynon. Best’s first taste of military life came after becoming an Army Chaplain and a posting to Egypt, closely followed by his arrival in Gallipoli in May 1915. He only feels he is truly fulfilling his role by serving up and close with the men in the trenches, giving hands on help wherever he can, and being able to communicate with and relate to men of all ranks and levels. His diary entries show he felt no fear at the time, irrespective of the sheer volume of disease, death and mass burials that his job brought him into contact with. He was awarded a Military Cross in 1918 for his services as a chaplain.

Moving away from the direct action of WW1, Deidre Beddoe’s “Back to Home and Duty” considers the role of women between the two World Wars. While using examples of women from all classes, Beddoe also focuses on the private and public lives as well as women’s work careers. There was a post WW1 expectation that women would return to their domestic duties in the home, and not carry on working. The book highlights women’s struggles against this preconception as well as the politization of their actions, with the acknowledgement that sadly, many women’s lives remained pretty much as they had been before the war.

The last reading selection for the meeting was “Of Arms and The Heroes – The Story of the Birtley Belgians” by John Bygate. Having edited a previous book written about this community of Belgians living and working near Birtley during WW1, and with the help of previously unseen archives, Bygate has written in great detail about the Belgian community of Elisabethville. The various chapters cover the building and running of the munition’s factory, the village built, separated from Birtley, to house over 3000 Belgian workers and their families, and the provision of schools/hospital/churches/shops etc. to cater for this segregated community. Complete with photographs and maps of Elisabethville during the war years, Bygate brings the reader up to date with details of the few reminders of any evidence of the Belgians and their lives in Birtley during WW1

Our November Book Group Meeting, to coincide with the ‘To Serve King and Country’ exhibition running at the Bowes Museum, will take place in the Music Room, next door to the exhibition. So why not call in, pull up a chair and sit and listen for a few minutes as the group make more recommendations for WW1 reading.


All underlined titles are available through the County Durham Library Service.


Programme of events and activities

The exhibition “To Serve King and Country”: Exploring the role of Teesdale in the First World War is now up and running at the museum until 3rd March 2019. In conjunction with the exhibition, we have a programme of events and activities.

The WWI Bookgroup meets on the third Tuesday of the month. So we plan to meet on Tuesday 20th November, Tuesday 18th December, Tuesday 15th January and Tuesday 19th February. For these four meetings, we’ll meet near the exhibition. We usually each bring one or two WWI-related book to introduce to rest of the group – but you don’t have to bring a book – just come along and join us for some lively discussion. Everyone is welcome.

On alternate Thursdays, at 2.15, a project volunteer will lead a short gallery talk in the exhibition space, giving an overview of the exhibition and highlighting a few stories or objects of their choice. The talk lasts no more than 30 minutes and there’s an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the exhibition. The talks are free with admission passes and to Friends. The next gallery talk will be on Thursday 29th November.

A Knit and Natter group will be in the Picture Galleries on alternate Thursdays, again starting at 2.15 and going on until 4.00. As well as knitting (or crocheting) flowers to go onto the WWI-inspired community artwork hanging in the Entrance Hall, the group will be knitting blankets, hats and mitts to send to charities who support war victims and ex-service personnel. Wool, needles and patterns are provided – and there are experienced knitters on hand to help you. Even if you can only mange a few rows when you drop in or perhaps you’ve never tried, you’ll be very welcome. The sessions are free with admission passes and to Friends. The next meeting will be on Thursday 22nd November.

In the New Year, some of the project volunteers will give short presentations on people and events they have researched. We are also planning to have an event to mark the end of the project in March 2019 – again, details will be put onto the museum’s website as soon as possible. For further details, keep an eye on the Events page of the museum’s website, and information will circulated in future e-newsletters.