Eighty years after his death, the troops’ chaplain, Woodbine Willie, is being celebrated in the city he served. Richard McComb reports.
“War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast table. It goes splendidly with bacon and eggs. Real war is the final limit of damnable brutality, and that’s all there is in it.” – Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy
It is 2.30 in the morning, pitch black, at an indeterminate point on the Western Front. An observation Zeppelin – “a German sausage” – is hovering over head, trying to pinpoint British troops.
Inside a concrete shelter, seized from the enemy, a young Army chaplain reflects on the thwarted attempts to bring down wounded men from the line amid the hell-fire of shelling. One soldier is “blown to pieces” lying on a stretcher.
The chaplain writes: “I wish we could have got those chaps down. It was murder to attempt it though. That poor lad, all blown to bits – I wonder who he was. God, it’s awful. The glory of war, what utter blather it all is ...”
The Anglican priest was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, better known to a generation of soldiers as Woodbine Willie, a nickname gained through his habit of seeing off frontline troops with a hearty farewell, a copy of the New Testament and a packet of Woodbines – scripture and fags before battle.
The lines quoted above are taken from Glory of War, written by Studdert Kennedy as part of The Hardest Part in 1918. The book was one of many prose collections and poems written by the battlefield padre, who served on the Somme, where he was gassed, before winning the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry” in 1917. In his writings, he sought to reconcile the horrors of war with his faith in a loving God.
The world he describes may be the stuff of history books; just two Britons survive today who saw frontline action in the First World War. And yet present day troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq makes the brutality of war described by Studdert Kennedy, and the struggle to reconcile this legally sanctioned murder to a benevolent belief system, as relevant now as it was during the Great War.
This Sunday marks the 80th anniversary of Studdert Kennedy’s death, at the age of 45. An exhibition celebrating his life, works and legacy is being staged at Worcester Cathedral to mark the occasion. The display was due to finish this weekend but has been extended until March 14 because of its popularity.
Studdert Kennedy was appointed priest at the city’s St Paul’s parish in 1914 – it was then one of the region’s worst slum areas – and his funeral service was held there in 1929, attended by 2,000 mourners. Thousands more lined the streets to watch the funeral procession and packets of Woodbines were laid on to the coffin as a mark of affection and respect, a humorous touch which Woodbine Willie, himself a prolific smoker, would have appreciated.
A special service is being held at the cathedral on Sunday and there will be hymns, readings and poems from Studdert Kennedy’s funeral service. Two of the cleric’s most well-known poems, Waste and Come Unto Me And Rest (A Shell Hole Meditation), will be read to the congregation. Woodbine Willie’s middle child, Canon Christopher Studdert Kennedy, who is 87, is due to attend.
The service will be led by Paul Tongue, canon of Worcester Cathedral, who has researched and put together the exhibition, which includes vestments worn by the revered churchman.
Mr Tongue, aged 68, was bought up as a member of the St Paul’s parish and his father, Sam, was in his first year at primary school at St Paul’s when Studdert
Kennedy arrived. Sam, who later worked in a local foundry, became an altar server but never spoke to his son about the inspirational pacifist and campaigner for social justice.
Studdert Kennedy was succeeded at St Paul’s by John Hunt. Hunt “worshipped the ground Studdert Kennedy walked on” and kept all his printed works, handing them on to Mr Tongue as a gift.
However, it was only relatively recently that Mr Tongue started delving into the works of Woodbine Willie. He soon became fascinated by the preacher and his ability to engage with soldiers who had been posted to the killing fields of the Western Front. “He had an incredible gift,” says Mr Tongue.
Studdert Kennedy, who was born in Leeds in 1883, was the son of an Irish-born priest. He suffered from chronic asthma, a condition that was worsened by his wartime exposure to mustard gas – and smoking. His first curacy was at Rugby parish church, moving to Worcester in May 1914, a year after marrying Emily Catlow. Spurred on by his patriotic zeal, he sought a commission as a forces’ chaplain after the outbreak of war but had to wait until December 21, 1915 before being posted overseas.
A recently published anthology of Studdert Kennedy’s work, After War, Is Faith Possible?, recounts how Studdert Kennedy held a Christmas service just four days later in a freezing downpour in northern France.
He wrote a letter to his family and parishioners, telling them: “There were not many of them [communicants] but they meant it. No lights, no ritual, nothing to help but the rain and far-off roll of guns, and Christ was born in a cattle-shed on Christmas Day.”
His personality and style of preaching endeared him to the troops; the attitude of the stuffy, stand-off pulpit priest wasn’t for him and the soldiers loved it.
As After War recounts: “He cracked jokes, laughed at them, sat on the edge of the speaking platform with his legs dangling, and used salty language.
“A typical opening line that always brought laughter and applause was: ‘I know what you’re thinking: here comes the bloody parson!’”
After the war, Woodbine Willie became the country’s most famous religious author and gave up his post at St Paul’s in 1922 – his family continued to live in the city – to become chief missioner with the Industrial Christian Fellowship. He campaigned tirelessly for the poor and the dispossessed and died in Liverpool on ICF business, preparing to give Lent addresses. He told friends he was: “Worn out but not worked out!”
Supporters wanted Woodbine Willie to be buried at Westminster Abbey, such was his widespread popularity. The dean is said to have refused, saying: “What! Studdert Kennedy? He was a socialist!”
The jocular priest’s frequent use of the popular vernacular may also have played a part in the dean’s decision. “It was not unknown for Studdert Kennedy to swear, in the pulpit or wherever he was,” says Mr Tongue.
London’s loss was Worcester’s eternal gain. A memorial plaque at the cathedral is dedicated to Woodbine Willie – “A Poet: A Prophet: A Passionate Seeker After Truth: An Ardent Advocate Of Christian Fellowship.”
Eighty years after his death, Studdert Kennedy’s evocative accounts of life in the trenches retain a vivid power; and the debate he explored, of the meaning of war, means Woodbine Willie remains very much a man of our times.
* After War, Is Faith Possible? An anthology, G A Studdert Kennedy, Woodbine Willie, edited by Kerry Walters, The Lutterworth Press, priced £17.50