Woodbine Willie was the name the troops gave to an asthmatic padre who served with them on the front line in World War One. He was alongside them at the Somme and at Ypres where he was awarded the Military Cross for his courage.
The London Gazette of August 1917 reported:
“He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own, and enemy wounded, assisting them to the Dressing Station …”
“There was no morphine. That was the horror. Someone must go for it. I went. I went because the hell outside was less awful than the hell in. I didn’t go to do an heroic deed or to perform a Christian service; I went because I couldn’t bear the moaning any longer.”
It was this courage, this ability to tell it how he saw it, that earned Woodbine Willie the respect and the ear of a wide slice of post-war British society. He spoke to thousands – both from the pulpit and through his books and poems – about “the cruelty and folly and waste of war” and about the need for social reform in Britain.
His audiences – the poor, the working-class, the well-to-do and old soldiers – also included King George V to whom he had been appointed chaplain in 1920.
Woodbine Willie’s real name was Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy. He was born in 1883, to Irish parents – the eleventh of the fourteen children of the Reverend William Studdert Kennedy. Their family home, the vicarage, was in a deprived area of Leeds. Geoffrey never forgot the level of need he saw as a child.
His path into priesthood was straight-forward. He went to Leeds Grammar, then Trinity College Dublin – had a few years as a school-teacher – and then joined Ripon Clergy College in 1907. By the time war was declared he had been ordained six years and married to Emily Catlow for only a few weeks. A year later, 1916, he was celebrating Christmas with the troops in France.
He had volunteered with enthusiasm: “I cannot say too strongly that I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere.”
The experience tore his certainties to shreds: “… it’s damnable, it’s a disgrace to civilisation. It’s murder – wholesale murder.”
Much of Woodbine Willie’s poetry and writing after the war exposed and explained what he had seen. In the introduction to his book The Hardest Part, written immediately after the war, he writes that he hopes his sons will read the book and that it will:
“kill in their minds that power of sickly sentimentalism, that idiotic pomp and pageantry of militarism, that provide the glamour and romance for the mean and dirty shambles that are the battlefields of the world’s great wars.”
Woodbine Willie died from pneumonia in Liverpool in 1929, aged 45. The book suggests he was exhausted by the constant touring that separated him from his family for most of the week. On top of all the travelling he was asthmatic, a smoker, and possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress.
His generosity had left him with little to leave to his wife and three young sons. Even the royalties from his books, many of which had been frequently reprinted, had mostly disappeared.
This book, a carefully laid out tale of a Christian life, quotes widely from Woodbine Willie’s own writing and from those who knew him, those who heard him speak and those related to him. There is no doubting the regret that was felt when this gifted, prophetic speaker died so young.
Two days after his death The Liverpool Echo described him as:
“A man of intense vitality, glowing with compassionate sympathy, tortured by pity for human suffering and feeling that he had a message for mankind, he gave himself with it, with an utterly reckless and unselfish generosity.”
Bob Holman, author of Woodbine Willie: An Unsung Hero of World War One, has campaigned against poverty for over a quarter of a century. He is a community worker and co-founder of the Fare project in Glasgow.