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Woodbine Willie – July 2016

The Somme, 1 July 1916. Woodbine Willie was not far behind the line when the whistles blew and the men began to charge. Mametz Wood, their target, was the southernmost village on the 18-mile frontline of the Somme. Over the past week British artillery had pounded the Germans with 1.5 million shells, outnumbering the total number fired in the first year of the war. 250,000 of those shells rained down upon the Germans in the hours just before the charge began; they could be heard exploding in London, a distance equivalent to Dubliners hearing an explosion in Killybegs or Cork.
It transpired that at least one third of the British shells were duds. Only six of all the thousands of booming British guns were actually powerful enough to crack the otherwise impenetrable German concrete bunkers. The bombs had destroyed some but by no means all of the barbed wire; the surviving coils would entangle many of the advancing soldiers in wire that was as thick as a human finger.
As such, when upwards of 100,00 British and Irish soldiers began the charge across No Man’s Land, they came in for a big surprise. All across the frontline, the Germans had regained their composure and erected machine gun nests. Their water-cooled Maxim guns were capable of firing up to 600 bullets a minute. It only took one to kill you.
Calamity ensued in what would amount to the costliest defeat in British history. Among nearly 20,000 British soldiers killed in the opening day were 2065 men from the 36th (Ulster) Division and another 700 from four other Ulster regiments. Also gone were over a thousand Irishmen who had enlisted in British regiments such as the Tyneside Irish, which was all but annihilated in the the battle. A further 40,000 Allied soldiers were wounded, while the German Army also racked up 10,000 casualties.
The Welsh also suffered grievously, not least the Welsh 38th Division who lost 4,000 men killed or wounded. However, if there was any positivity at all for the Welsh 38th it was that they were blessed with one of the most charismatic and brilliant padres to emerge during the entire war.
His given name was Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy but he would become known as Woodbine Willie. His father was from Blackrock, Co. Dublin; his mother hailed from Emyvale, Co. Monaghan. The church was in his genes. His paternal grandfather was Dean of Clonfert in Co. Galway. His father was Vicar of Quarry Hill, one of the worst inner city slums in northern England, where Woodbine Willie was born in 1883.
The seventh child, he was a scruffy and absent-minded boy, forever day-dreaming. His siblings recalled how he laughed like a donkey but the poor fellow also suffered from asthma. He studied Classics and Divinity at Trinity College Dublin before embarking upon a short stint as a teacher. Having joined the church, he was sent into the industrial slums of Rugby where he instantly proved his unusual credentials by frequenting the pubs and becoming friendly with those drinking within. His hitherto disillusioned parishioners were impressed although his penchant for giving away all his money and clothes to the needy compelled his landlady to seize his payment and ration it out to him.
He married a coal merchant’s daughter with whom he moved to Worcester where they proved a successful double act. Their vicarage was constantly awash with people afflicted by depression, alcoholism and loneliness coming to seek guidance and hope. He was particularly good with children, often slipping them a penny so they could buy some fruit or nuts.
By the start of the war he was fast becoming one of finest soapbox orators of his generation, holding listeners spellbound with an Irish brogue resonating with eloquence, empathy and humour. Initially he was all for the Allied cause, urging the young men of his parish to enlist. Many took him at his word and sallied forth for death and glory.
Over the next year, he became appalled by the relentlessly grim stories that came back from the Western Front and Gallipoli. Aghast at his role in the recruitment campaign, he sought redemption by enlisting as an army chaplain. By early 1916 he was based in a canteen shed in Rouen, a staging post for new troops bound for the frontlines. He quickly enchanted the green recruits with prayer and song; he was a fine baritone and excelled at singing ‘Mother Machree’, a great hit for Count John McCormack, before the war.
It was at Rouen that he became famous as the man who distributed Woodbine cigarettes and New Testaments to the departing troops. ‘Take a box of fags in your haversack and a great deal of love in your heart,’ he would advise as walked the aisles of the departing trains, carriage after carriage, distributing his wares to every private and officer he passed. And then he would stand upon the platform and watch the train chug away, across the River Seine, leading its cargo of men to whatever lay in store at the Western Front
In June 1916 he went to the front as padre to the 38th Welsh Division. Most of the shells that pummelled the Germans before the Somme were made by women in Britain and Ireland. As he listened to them whistle through the sky, Woodbine Willie wrote: By George, it’s a glorious barrage … We’re all in it – sweethearts, mothers and wives. The hand that rocks the cradle wrecks the world. There are no non-combatants. We’re all in it, and God, God Almighty, the loving father who takes count of every sparrow’s fall, what is He doing? It is hard to fathom.’
On 1 July his division captured Mametz Wood. It came at a terrible cost with communication breakdown leading to the death and injury of thousands over the ensuing two weeks. Woodbine Willie was by his men’s side throughout. He spent the next four months doing his bit to maintain morale, helping to bring in the wounded, offering solace to the dying, penning letters to loved ones on behalf of those who could not write.
One reason why the men adored him was because he was also not afraid to confront the immense doubts that so many of these ostensibly Christian soldiers now felt. They had seen enough of war to believe in Hell but their faith in Heaven and a benevolent God was by no means so assured.
By the time the Somme finally ended in November 1916, over one million soldiers from both sides were dead. Woodbine Willie returned to England and embarked on a five-month tour of British army bases, to boost morale and bolster the Christian faith. In June 1917, he returned to the front. He won a Military Cross during the gruesome battle of Passchendaele for stomping across No Man’s Land under heavy fire and rescuing wounded soldiers, Allied and German alike. He was later assigned to the School for Physical and Bayonet Training, dubbed the ‘School of Courage’, where he did his bit to reignite the zest for life in men who had been sent back from the trenches – ‘dazed, sullen, stupid, dismal, broken’.
It was here that he began his book ‘The Hardest Part’ in which he wrote, ‘The brutality of war is literally unutterable. There are no words foul and filthy enough to describe it.’ Appalled by ‘the glorious madness of God’, as he described it, he became a successful poet, giving all proceeds to a charity for the blind.
He went on to become one of Britain’s most outspoken pacifists. ‘When I went to the war, I believed that the war would end to the benefit of mankind,’ he declared. ‘I believed that a better order was coming for the ordinary man, and, God help me, I believe it still. But it is not through war that this order will be brought about. There are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war. War is a universal disaster and, as far as I am concerned, I’m through.’
In 1927 he received an invitation from Trinity College Dublin to deliver a Sunday sermon to the students at the College Chapel. He apologised that his Sundays were ‘booked up’ for the next two years but proposed that he might be able to give a weekday address instead. Unfortunately his end came before he had that opportunity. In 1929, he was hit by pneumonia that, combined with his asthma, his smoking and the mustard gas he inhaled on the Western Front, proved too much. He was forty-five years old.
His death was greeted with widespread sorrow amongst the working class who turned out in their thousands to follow his coffin after his funeral in Worcester Cathedral. Tributes poured in from the King and Queen but perhaps the most moving tribute was from the soldiers whom he had served alongside. As his coffin was lowered into its grave, a number of his old comrades stepped forward and solemnly showered it with packets of Woodbines.

Waste by Woodbine Willie
Waste of Muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,
Waste of Youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, waste of God – War!