Woodbine Willie: Taking God and cigarettes to the frontline

By Jerry Chester
BBC News, North West

Image source, Canon Paul Tongue
Image caption,
Woodbine Willie handed cigarettes along with the bible to soldiers

Opinions were divided over the role of chaplains in World War One - poets Robert Graves and Siegfried Sasoon for example, were highly critical of them. But despite that, some became well-known, including Woodbine Willie, who won the Military Cross (MC) for his bravery.

A measure of the impact made by the Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, better known to the public as Woodbine Willie, is the reaction to his death in 1929, at the age of only 46.

King George V sent a telegram of condolence to his family; ex-servicemen sent a wreath with a packet of Woodbines at the centre; 100 unemployed men marched from the Labour Exchange to Worcester Cathedral to pay their respects; 1,700 people filed past his coffin in a single day as it lay in a Liverpool church.

A clue to his universal appeal comes in the words of Canon Raven of Liverpool Cathedral, who said: "We let him work himself to death… he gave his life for us".

Of course, Woodbine Willie was not the only army chaplain to achieve national prominence.

'Ease burden'

The Reverend "Tubby" Clayton helped set up a rest house for soldiers called Talbot House - which became known to the troops as Toc-H after the phonetic signalling code used by the army.

After the war Toc-H mushroomed into an international Christian organisation, which still exists today with the same aim, to "ease the burden of others and bring together disparate parts of society".

During the course of the war 185 chaplains died and three were awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Reverend Theodore Hardy was the most decorated non-combatant of WW1, winning the VC, DSO and MC.

The 54-year-old cleric ignored calls for him to retire and was killed only four weeks before the end of the war.

Before the outbreak of WW1 though, Mr Studdert Kennedy was the vicar of St Paul's church, at the heart of one of Worcester's most notorious slums.

It was not until November 1915 that he was given permission by the Bishop of Worcester, to become an army chaplain.

'Total betrayal'

He earned his nickname through the unusual way of getting the attention of troops.

"Even though he was an asthmatic he was a very heavy smoker and he used to go along the troop trains at Rouen, where he was based at the time, giving out the bible, but also packets of Woodbines to all the soldiers to send them off," said Sandra Taylor.

Mrs Taylor campaigned to get the war memorial at St Paul's church restored - it was designed by Mr Studdert Kennedy.

Canon Paul Tongue, who has inherited all of Mr Studdert Kennedy's papers, said he was not prepared to stay safe behind the lines.

"He felt this was a total betrayal of the men he was supposedly supporting - he wanted to be in the thick of it with them, though he wouldn't carry arms or anything.

Image caption,
The war memorial at St Paul's church in Worcester was designed by Mr Studdert Kennedy

"There's a story about two men walking down a trench and they came across a post with a board on it saying The Vicarage.

"One of them said to his mate 'Look - the bloody vicarage' and Studdert Kennedy poked his head out and said 'And here's the bloody vicar'."

That willingness to be in the thick of the action eventually earned him an award for bravery.

"He won the Military Cross at Messines Ridge in 1917 and brushed it off as no big deal, whereas in fact he'd been out bringing in wounded troops under fire - he was a very modest man," Mrs Taylor said.

"But, once he came back from the war he was a changed man - before the war he advocated that men should go and fight for what they believe in, for their loved ones, but after the war, having seen the horrors that he did he came back and wrote and talked about peace."

He started to write poetry, the first volume of which had sold 400,000 copies by 1922, according to Mr Tongue. Further published work, up to 1925, displayed increasing anger.

"He could have been one of the richest clergy in the land with the number of books he wrote, but... it was all given away," said Mr Tongue.

Image caption,
There is a stained glass window in memory of Woodbine Willie in St Paul's church, Worcester

Despite being a chaplain to the king, Mr Studdert Kennedy proved he was no establishment figure by becoming a fierce critic of the hardships faced by returning soldiers.

He toured the country speaking on behalf on the Industrial Christian Fellowship.

He was due to give a talk for them in Liverpool when he fell ill and died.

This cleric, famed for his modesty and self-sacrifice, would probably have been pleased to know that the most public memorial to him in Worcester, Studdert Kennedy House, is dedicated to helping people with mental health problems.

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