Part 12: Rupert Brooke and Woodbine Willie

In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1,400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.

Part 12: Rupert Brooke and Woodbine Willie

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Many cherished institutions were shaken by the Great War. Religious faith was called into question; social hierarchies were eroded; moral and political values changed in the face of catastrophe. Before 1914, Rugby had been home to two young men who rose to national prominence in the war: Rupert Brooke and ‘Woodbine Willie’. Their lives and careers, moulded in Rugby, illustrate the nation’s contrasting attitudes to the Great War, and its broader impact on national values.

Rupert Brooke 1887-1915

Rupert Brooke was born in 1887 in the family home at 5 Hillmorton Road, alongside Church Walk. His father William was a Rugby School master; his mother Ruth, puritanical and domineering. Brooke’s early education in Rugby was at Hillbrow, a prep school on Barby Road. Brooke started at Rugby School in 1901 where he showed outstanding literary talent. In 1906 he left Rugby for King’s College, Cambridge, studying Classics and English and acting in dramatic societies. Brooke attracted both female and male admirers, some of whom appreciated his literary talent, others his looks. After his degree, Brooke mixed in literary, artistic and political circles, both Liberal and Socialist, where he sought solutions to social divisions he had witnessed in Rugby. His love-life was varied and complex, and in 1912 he suffered an emotional breakdown. To recover, Brooke travelled widely in Europe, the USA and the Pacific, but he also loved to walk in the English countryside, and often returned home to Rugby. He became a fellow of King’s College in 1913.

Rupert Brooke is remembered mainly for his poems written on the outbreak of war in 1914, epitomising the patriotic mood of the time. His sonnet ‘The Soldier’, written in Rugby, envisaged his own death and contained his most famous lines. Within days, Brooke had volunteered as an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He saw an hour of fighting in 1914 at Antwerp in Belgium, before his unit moved to the Mediterranean. Brooke was a very early casualty in the war against Turkey in April 1915, but he was denied a heroic death. A mosquito bite on the lip became infected and led to blood poisoning, which proved fatal in the days before antibiotics. He was buried on the Greek island of Skyros. The publication of Brooke’s poetry in May 1915 made him nationally famous. His poetry and death inspired a generation of English patriots, including Winston Churchill, who knew Brooke well and wrote in tribute about his genius.

Woodbine Willie: Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy 1883-1929

In 1908, a young curate from Leeds arrived in Rugby to work at St Andrew’s church. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, later famous as ‘Woodbine Willie’, was now 25, and had an Irish accent from his college days in Dublin. He eventually found lodgings in Windsor Court, off Little Church Street. In Rugby there were 150 paupers in the workhouse, before modern welfare, and Studdert Kennedy’s concern for social conditions led him to the slum areas of Rugby, to pubs and tramps’ lodging houses, where he sometimes give away his money and clothes. He was a heavy smoker but also a powerful singer and speaker. Studdert Kennedy lived and worked in the town until 1912, and became an ‘adopted son’ of Rugby, where he was fondly remembered in later years. He became a vicar in Worcester in 1913 and married the next year.

Faith, hope and love in war-time

In 1915, Studdert Kennedy became an army chaplain. He gained the affectionate nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’ for offering Woodbine cigarettes to injured and dying troops on the Western Front. For his selfless actions at Messines Ridge in 1917 he won the Military Cross. His citation read: “He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.” Initially he was a keen supporter of the war, which seemed a just cause, but as he attended the wounded and dying, he converted to a different view. He enjoyed mild swearing, but as he later wrote, “There are no words foul and filthy enough to describe war”. As war progressed, he became a pacifist and Christian Socialist. While Brooke had romanticised about war in his poems in 1914, Studdert Kennedy’s war-poetry was more gritty and down-to-earth, reflecting the changed British mood after losses on the Somme in 1916. Both men believed in self-sacrifice: Brooke in service of his country, but Woodbine Willie in service of humanity.

Two army chaplains from Rugby, Dick Dugdale and Frank Harbord, Vicar of Dunchurch, fell in the war. Woodbine Willie, however, survived, and was a vicar in London in the 1920s, writing works such as After War, is faith possible ? Many were scarred or traumatised by war, and society had experienced a loss of faith. Brooke was buried on a beautiful but remote hillside on a Greek island, but when Woodbine Willie died exhausted in 1929 on a national speaking tour, aged 45, the streets were lined by thousands at his funeral, a tribute paid to few English churchmen. Rupert Brooke’s romantic vision of England was a casualty of the war, but Woodbine Willie’s faith in a shared future had survived.