A HEROIC British Army chaplain from Warwickshire who became known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ during the First World War returned home “without a penny to his name” after spending his entire wartime wages on cigarettes for sick and injured troops.
The Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the former curate of St Andrew’s Church in Rugby, is the subject of new book Seeker After Truths.
Studdert Kennedy, who was 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 Allied troops.
Studdert Kennedy, who moved to Rugby as a curate in 1908, 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, he would whisper the Lord’s Prayer and hold their hands until they passed.
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.
Dr Linda Parker spent five years researching Studdert Kennedy’s life and she estimates he gave away a staggering 865,000 cigarettes, and possibly more, at his own expense.
Over the course of nearly three years, between December 1915 and September 1918, Studdert Kennedy spent no less than £43,249 – every spare penny of his Ministry of Defence salary.
Dr Parker said he sacrificed his own family’s financial future to safeguard the emotional wellbeing of the men in his care.
She added: “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.
“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.”
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.
Studdert Kennedy was sent home from the frontline 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, 1,700 people filed past his coffin, and ex-servicemen fittingly sent a wreath with a packet of Woodbines at the centre.
Dr Linda Parker’s book A Seeker After Truths: The Life and Times of G. A. Studdert Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’) 1883-1929, is published by Helion.