20th Sep, 2018

Wartime hero Willie's kind habit cost him a packet

A HEROIC British Army chaplain known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, the former vicar of St Paul’s Church in Worcester, returned home from the Great War “without a penny to his name” after spending his entire wartime wages on cigarettes for sick and injured troops, new research has revealed.

The Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – also known as the ‘Battlefield Saint’ – sent the equivalent of more than £43,000 up in smoke on nearly a million Woodbines – strong, unfiltered cigarettes – for the Allied forces, historians now believe.

Historians have long known that Studdert Kennedy, who came to Rugby as a curate in 1908, ‘administered’ his own cigarettes to men on the frontline to boost morale.

Records also show that he regularly ventured unarmed into No Man’s Land, often under heavy machine gun and artillery fire, to give dying troops one final “gasper”.

Clutching his Bible for protection, the Battlefield Saint would whisper the Lord’s Prayer and hold their hands until the end.

His selfless bravery, particularly at the Battle of Messines, earned him a Military Cross from King George V and the affectionate nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’.

But the true extent of his generosity has remained a mystery – until now.

Biographer Dr Linda Parker spent five years researching Studdert Kennedy’s life and is the first person to calculate his outlay.

She estimates that he gave away a staggering 865,000 cigarettes, and possibly far more, at his own expense.

Over the course of nearly three years, between December 1915 and September 1918, Studdert Kennedy spent £43,249 – every spare penny of his Ministry of Defence salary, she says.

Dr Parker, the author of A Seeker After Truths: The Life and Times of G. A. Studdert Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’) 1883-1929, said he sacrificed his own family’s financial future to safeguard the emotional wellbeing of the men in his care.

She said: “Studdert Kennedy was one of the First World War’s true heroes – a courageous and selfless Christian who gave away everything he had for the benefit of others.

“With the exception of his family’s annual living expenses, he spent the rest of his salary – his family’s entire income, really – on the men he took under his spiritual wing.”

Studdert Kenendy’s grandson, The Reverend Canon Andrew Studdert-Kennedy, Team Rector in Marlborough, Wiltshire, and an Honorary Chaplain to the Queen (QHC), agrees with Parker’s findings.

He said: “Anecdotes about my grandfather’s generosity are part of the annals of history.

“My grandmother allegedly came home one day to find him dragging their mattress downstairs to give to someone in need, and another time he gave his coat away.”

Andrew added: “With this in mind, I’ve no doubt whatsoever that he did everything within his financial means to help those men on the front line.”

Born in Leeds in 1883, Studdert Kennedy enlisted as a Temporary Chaplain to the Forces (TCF) when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914.

His fame spread when he was sent to the blood-soaked trenches of the Somme, Ypres and Messines.

He routinely prayed with dying soldiers on the frontline and was awarded the Military Cross after running through “murderous machine gun-fire” at Messines Ridge to deliver morphine to men screaming in agony in No Man’s Land – a role he was not expected to do or paid for.

Dr Parker, one of the UK’s leading historians of religion and the First World War, said: “People have long known that Studdert Kennedy gave out cigarettes, but no one had previously thought to put a monetary figure on his generosity.

“Through the course of my research it became clear that he did, in almost complete certainty, spend virtually everything he owned.

“He filled his backpack with Woodbines, Bibles and a great deal of love.”

Rev’d Studdert Kennedy was sent home from the front lines after being gassed at the Battle of the Canal du Nord in 1918. He became a committed pacifist, social reformist, bestselling author and poet, and was given the role of personal Chaplain to King George V.

He died in 1929 aged just 45. His funeral took place at St Paul’s Church, Worcester.

King George V sent a telegram of condolence, 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, and 1,700 people filed past his coffin.

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