Woodbine Willie

Geoffrey Studdart Kennedy (1883-1929)

Before we were married my wife, Rachel, lived in Godstone, Surrey where the Rector was Christopher Studdart Kennedy. His father, Geoffrey, had achieved fame in the First World War. He was known as ‘Woodbine Willie’.

Geoffrey was born in 1883, the 12th of 14 children. His dad was a vicar in Leeds, his family was Irish. He went to university in Dublin and trained for Anglican ministry.

His life and ministry were always characterised by compassion and generosity. His heart was for the poor; he often rejected the easy and comfortable option.

He married Emily in 1914 but left his young wife behind when he responded to the call to serve his country as an army chaplain. He arrived in France in 1915.

He was always involved with the men, always offering gifts of bibles and Woodbine cigarettes – which earnt him the nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’.

He lived with the men in the trenches, encouraging, supporting and comforting them. He was there in the thick of battle finding and rescuing the wounded, comforting the dying, burying the dead.  

In 1916 he endured the bloody horrors of the Battle of the Somme; in 1917 he won the Military Cross for his courage during the attack on Messines Ridge.

He suffered with severe asthma, that required hospitalisation in France and leave in England, but he always returned to the front.

Musing on Woodbine Willy, his heart for the poor, his compassion in the face of suffering and death has resonated with me in today’s world. His first son, Patrick, was born when he was in France. Before he met Patrick he wrote:

‘The first prayer I want my son to learn to say for me is not, ‘God keep daddy safe,’ but ‘God make daddy brave, and if he has hard things to do make him strong to do them.’ Life and death don’t matter, Pat my son; right and wrong do…’

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