Stories of non-combatant heroes in World War I abound. One of the best-known was the Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, widely celebrated as “Woodbine Willie” for his gifts of cigarettes and Bibles to Allied soldiers.
For many soldiers, Studdert Kennedy’s face was the last one they saw before they died. He would whisper the Lord’s Prayer to dying men and hold their hands as their lives drained away.
He was awarded the Military Cross, and after the war, King George V made Studdert Kennedy his chaplain. A new biography — A Seeker After Truths: The Life and Times of G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) 1883-1929 (Helion and Co.) — reveals that Studdert Kennedy returned penniless to England after the war.
Biographer Linda Parker’s research reveals that he spent his entire wartime wages, save providing for his wife, buying cigarettes and Bibles for soldiers on the front line. Until now, no one had worked out just how much this remarkable man expended to comfort stricken men.
Parker writes that Studdert Kennedy distributed 850,000 cigarettes, using every spare penny he had during his tour of service from 1915 to 1918.
He found that 96 percent of the men at arms were smokers. The army supplied a ration of tobacco and cigarette paper. Woodbines, a ready-rolled version, were strong-tasting and without filters. They were not widely available. Word quickly spread about Studdert Kennedy’s generosity. Regardless of danger to himself, he would crawl unarmed into No Man’s Land to comfort dying men and give them a final smoke.
“Studdert Kennedy was one of the First World War’s true heroes,” Parker said. “He was a courageous and selfless Christian who gave away everything he had for the benefit of others.”
Born in Leeds and vicar of a poor parish in Worcester before the war, he returned as a pacifist and became a prolific writer. He died at age 45. Large crowds lined the streets of Liverpool to bid him farewell.