Hero vicar from Rugby spent his wages to help soldiers

Dr Linda Parker
Dr Linda Parker

A heroic Army chaplain , and former curate from Rugby, returned home from the Great War “without a penny to his name”, new research shows.

The Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy – known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, the former curate of St Andrew’s Church in Rugby, spent nearly all of his entire wartime wages on cigarettes for sick and injured troops – that’s more than £43,000 on nearly one million Woodbines.

The Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy aka Woodbine Willie

The Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy aka Woodbine Willie

Woodbines, which were strong and unfiltered, were not widely available on the Western Front and were considered a godsend in the trenches.

Historians have long known that Studdert Kennedy, who came to Rugby as a curate in 1908, ‘administered’ his own cigarettes to men on the frontline to boost morale.

Records also show that he regularly ventured – unarmed – into No Man’s Land, often under heavy machine gun and artillery fire, to give dying troops one final “gasper”.

Clutching his Bible for protection, the ‘Battlefield Saint’ would whisper the Lord’s Prayer and hold their hands until the end.

His selfless bravery, particularly at the Battle of Messines, earned him a Military Cross and the affectionate, lasting nickname, ‘Woodbine Willie’.

But the true extent of his generosity has until now remained a mystery.

Biographer Dr Linda Parker spent five years researching Studdert Kennedy’s life and is the first person to calculate his outlay.

She estimates that he gave away a staggering 865,000 cigarettes, and possibly far more, at his own expense.

Over the course of nearly three years, between December 1915 and September 1918, Studdert Kennedy spent £43,249 – every spare penny of his Ministry of Defence salary, she says.

Dr Parker, the author of A Seeker After Truths: The Life and Times of G. A. Studdert Kennedy (Woodbine Willie) 1883-1929, said he sacrificed his own family’s financial future to safeguard the emotional wellbeing of the men in his care.

“Studdert Kennedy was one of the First World War’s true heroes – a courageous and selfless Christian who gave away everything he had for the benefit of others,” Dr Parker said.

“With the exception of his family’s annual living expenses, he spent the rest of his salary – his family’s entire income, really – on the men he took under his spiritual wing.

“People have long known that Studdert Kennedy gave out cigarettes, but no one had previously thought to put a monetary figure on his generosity.

“Through the course of my research it became clear that he did, in almost complete certainty, spend virtually everything he owned.

“He filled his backpack with Woodbines, Bibles and a great deal of love.”