Cowley Portable Altar; wooden case with leather handle, brass lock and hinge and internal storage for a communion set, used on the Western Front during the First World War
This Cowley Portable Altar was used by army chaplains to conduct services on the Western Front during the First World War. It is displayed here with a Communion set used by Reverend L.E. Baumer, Chaplain to the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. Then, as now, Army Chaplains were ordained ministers or priests who travelled alongside soldiers, offering them spiritual support, moral guidance and pastoral care. They were commissioned officers, but did not bear arms or command the unit they were assigned to. In the British Army, the majority were drawn from various Protestant denominations, but the department also included numerous Catholics and some Jewish rabbis.
Providing support on an individual level amidst the incalculable suffering and appalling conditions of the Western Front was a great challenge, and some Chaplains struggled. In addition to leading compulsory religious services, they were tasked with ministering to the dying and attending the burials of the dead. To cope with the enormous expansion of the British Army, over 4,400 new Chaplains were appointed over the course of the conflict, and 179 lost their lives. In post-war literature, some Chaplains were criticised for encouraging young men to sacrifice themselves for their country, but many others were praised for their invaluable moral and physical support and service to others while under fire. Three men of the corps were awarded the Victoria Cross.