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]

Thursday 8 November 2018


As we approach Remembrance Day and the centenary of the end of WW1 many of us are remembering both lost relatives and those who fought and returned home, but often to suffer the awful consequences of war. As a child I spent much time keeping company with a bedridden Grandpa whose lungs were wrecked by exposure to mustard gas, in 1918 at the age of just 18, the effects of which took many years to emerge but which resulted in him wasting away to a skeletal figure until he died when I was 9 years old.

Joseph William Schofield 1899-1967 Photo taken 1917
Grandpa signed up to the Lancashire Fusiliers on 9th October 1915, aged 16 years and 4 months. He was posted to 4/5th Battalion which had been formed at Southport in Spring 1915 as a home service depot or training ("fourth line") unit.  He would never talk about his wartime experiences but his service records for his second period of service give some of the missing details. His first period of service is unrecorded in the archives as he was under age when he signed up in 1915 and, as with the records of others like him the details of that previous period were destroyed on his discharge. He served until 6th June 1916 before being discovered to be under age and sent home: my only evidence of this is  part of a letter that survived in his service records file in the National Archives (in the burnt records, so only fragments of each sheet survived) in which he wrote to the army in 1919 querying his entitlement to a gratuity in which he had been short-changed by £4 and in which he gave the dates of his previous period of service.

His second period of service began on 31st January 1917, at the age of 17 years 7 months (but he declared on his enlistment sheet that his age was 18 years 1 month!) so presumably he was still under age. This probably explains why, in the this second enlistment, he joined a different regiment where he wouldn't have been recognised: the South Wales Borderers, being initially put into the 57th training battalion based at Kinmel in Wales.  He later transferred into the Royal Welch Fusiliers - it's the RWF cap badge he is wearing in my precious photo above. He was sent to France in early April 1918 where he was gassed the following month, resulting in his being shipped back to hospital where he remained until 9th September.

On release from hospital he was transferred to the Army Service Corps as a Driver, where he remained until eventual demob in January 1919. This last period of service in WW1 saw him posted firstly to the ASC at Willesden and then onto the 666 Horsed Transport Depot Company who were based at Blackheath in London, having been flagged as unsuitable for overseas service after being gassed.  Grandpa had, as a youngster, worked on a farm so was presumably familiar with horses.

He suffered recurrent bouts of pain as a result of the gassing, and appears to have been hospitalised again between 24th September and 16th October, although he was able to resume work after the war - as a tram conductor and then tram driver, and went on to marry in 1922 and raise a family of four  children. Despite his health he worked as an RAF civilian driver in WW2, driving a long transporter vehicle known as a Queen Mary, collecting and delivering aircraft parts to bases across the country. His health continued to decline and by the time I was born he was bedridden. He died on 15th March 1967, aged 67. 

A WW2 Queen Mary of the type driven by Grandpa in WW2