Woodbine Willie

The Rev George Anketell Studdert Kennedy was the son of a parson who followed in his father’s calling and in 1914 became vicar of St Paul’s, Worcester. Within a few weeks the Great War began and George, like many other young clergy, immediately volunteered as an army chaplain and soon found himself on the western front, right in the middle of the ‘war to end all wars’.

By the time the war was over he had achieved an odd new name, a Military Cross for ’exceptional bravery’ and an honoured place in its annals. The young chaplain had become ‘Woodbine Willie’ – a nickname given him by the soldiers in the trenches, but which stuck with him for the
rest of his life.

People under fifty probably won’t have any idea what a ‘Woodbine’ was, but for my generation it was the cheapest way into the forbidden joys of smoking. ‘Woodbines’ – small cigarettes – were available in packets of five (rather than ten or twenty) and so even pocket money could buy them.

During the Great War they were the standard popular ‘fag’ in an era when almost all men smoked. Indeed, my father, tending wounded and
even dying men as an army medic, would routinely light a cigarette and place it between their lips.

‘Woodbine Willie’ carried a permanent supply of Woodbines in his pockets along with his Bible – hence the nickname. He gave men a
cigarette and at the same time, in the most natural way, offered them encouragement, sympathy and prayer. He insisted on sharing
all their experiences, including going into No Man’s Land to minister to the injured and dying – allies or enemies.

The chaplains serving on the battle-field won the universal respect of the troops. They insisted on sharing the life of the trenches and getting to know the soldiers personally.

This led many chaplains, including Studdert Kennedy, radically to alter their approach and even their theology. They quickly realised how remote the average soldier was from formal church services and the language of the Bible and the Prayer Book. They came back after the War determined to change things in church, but it wasn‘t easy.

Studdert Kennedy moved from being a typical Edwardian parson, who thought that the main object of a war was to win it – he once joined the troops for bayonet practice – to being a convinced pacifist who thought the best thing to do with wars was to end them.

After the war he became a vicar in the City of London, a published poet and in the early days of radio a popular broadcaster. When he died in 1929 it was reported that crowds lined the pavements as his funeral procession made its way through the streets. Food for the Fed-up was the title of a book he wrote principally for the soldiers in the trenches. It was the Creed explained in their language. The Unutterable Beauty was the title of his Collected Poems, many of them based on his experience of the western front.

He did indeed find a mysterious beauty in the grim humour, honest fear and raw courage of the men with whom he had so often shared a
cigarette and a prayer.

David Winter


With many peaceful blessings




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