Woodbine Willie

22 March 2013

THERE was a time when the immediate panacea for anyone suffering shock or extreme stress was to thrust a lighted cigarette between their lips, if possible followed by a mug of well-sugared tea. Certainly cigarettes played a large part in helping both soldiers and civilians cope through two world wars, regardless of the (then unknown) long-term effects.

The Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was well aware of the comfort that soldiers found in lighting up, and he became so famous for offering Woodbines - the most popular cheap cigarettes of the day - to the troops in the trenches of the First World War that he was for ever after known as "Woodbine Willie" (Comment, 1 March).

He described his chaplain's ministry as taking "a box of fags in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart". He won the Military Cross in 1917, at Messines Ridge, in Flanders, after running into no man's land to help the wounded during an attack on the German front line - an act that was fully in character with his passionate care for his soldiers.

Born in Leeds, Studdert Kennedy had read divinity and classics at Trinity College, Dublin, before becoming an ordinand at Ripon Clergy College, then in the city of Ripon, next to the Diamond Jubilee clock-tower.

During the war, he became a Christian Socialist, and later worked for the Industrial Christian Fellowship. It was on one of his lecture tours to Liverpool, for the ICF, in 1929, that he was taken ill and died at the early age of 46. Now he is not only remembered in the Church of England Calendar on 8 March, but on a new plaque put up by the Ripon Civic Society, on the site of the original Ripon College. It was recently dedicated by the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer.

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