Friday, 9 November 2018

2018 Remembrance - Woodbine Willie: "Mates

I would like to share a war poem that has always resonated with me. It's by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy MC, who probably isn't as familiar a name as Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Owen or Siegried Sassoon, but who wrote some powerful pieces. I first came across mention of him in a book called It's Only Me, the story of Theodore Bayley Hardy VC, vicar of Hutton Roof, which was written by David Raw who I heard give a very interesting talk about Hardy some years back. Hardy was a fellow chaplain and friend of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was born and raised in Leeds, the son of the vicar of St Mary's Quarry Hill, a poor area of the city in which he became familiar with the lives of working people and how poverty and poor living conditions were a  normal part of their lives.  After attending Leeds Grammar School and Trinity College, Dublin, and then training for the clergy, he became vicar of  St. Paul's, Worcester in 1914 but volunteered as an army chaplain on the outbreak of WW1, when he was sent to France and instead of staying behind the lines he was wherever the men he cared for were. I read one story that  said part way along a trench some  soldiers came across a sign by an entry that read The Vicarage. The soldiers commented about "The bloody vicarage being here" and Kennedy popped his head out and said that not only that but that "the bloody vicar" was here too! Kennedy was known as Woodbine Willie due to his habit of giving out Woodbine cigarettes along with Bibles to men in the trenches. Like Hardy, Kennedy was on the frontline in the trenches with the soldiers, and provided what comfort he could to them.

Becoming a Christian Socialist and pacifist during the war, Kennedy was appointed vicar of St Edmund, King and Martyr in London on his return to civilian life, and wrote Lies (1919), Democracy and the Dog-Collar (1921), Food for the Fed Up (1921), The Wicket Gate (1923), and The Word and the Work (1925). He then went to work for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, for whom he went on speaking tours around the country during which he became an outspoken advocate for the working classes. One of his celebrated quotes was:
If finding God in our churches leads to us losing Him in our factories, then better we tear down those churches for God must hate the sight of them.
Because of his empathy with ordinary working class people he gained huge respect from them, which was reflected by the response to his death from exhaustion at an early age in 1929. However, the Dean of Westminster refused to allow him to be buried in Westminster Abbey because, he said, Kennedy was a "socialist"!

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy's poems reflect his experiences in the trenches and in his working life, this poem Mates sums him up for me...

A Soldiers Mate…

There's a broken, battered village 
Somewhere up behind the line, 
There's a dug-out and a bunk there 
That I used to say were mine. 
I remember how I reached them, 
Dripping wet and all forlorn, 
In the dim and dreary twilight 
Of a weeping summer morn. 
All that week I'd buried brothers, 
In one bitter battle slain, 
In one grave I laid two hundred. 
God! What sorrow and what rain! 
And that night I'd been in trenches, 
Seeking out the sodden dead, 
And just dropping them in shell-holes, 
With a service swiftly said. 
For the bullets rattled round me, 
But I couldn't leave them there, 
Water-soaked in flooded shell-holes, 
Reft of common Christian prayer. 
So I crawled round on my belly, 
And I listened to the roar 
Of the guns that hammered Thiepval, 
Like big breakers on the shore. 
Then there spoke a dripping sergeant, 
When the time was growing late, 
"Would you please to bury this one, 
'Cause e' used to be my mate? " 
So we groped our way in darkness 
To a body lying there, 
Just a blacker lump of blackness, 
With a red blotch on his hair. 
Though we turned him gently over, 
Yet I still can hear the thud, 
As the body fell face forward, 
And then settled in the mud. 
We went down upon our faces, 
And I said the service through, 
From "I am the Resurrection" 
To the last, the great "adieu." 
We stood up to give the Blessing, 
And commend him to the Lord, 
When a sudden light shot soaring 
Silver swift and like a sword. 
At a stroke it slew the darkness, 
Flashed its glory on the mud, 
And I saw the sergeant staring 
At a crimson clot of blood. 
There are many kinds of sorrow 
In this world of Love and Hate, 
But there is no sterner sorrow 
Than a soldier's for his mate.

GA Studdert Kennedy MC ("Woodbine Willie")

Further reading:
The Unutterable Beauty: The Collected Poetry of G. A. Studdert Kennedy, [1927 Diggory Press]