Bishop of Derby on the role of chaplaincy in the First World War and ‘Woodbine Willie’.

On 19th October 2017 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Black “That this House takes note of the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele and of Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to commemorate it.” The Bishop of Derby, Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, spoke in the debate, highlighting the role of chaplaincy in the First World War and the example of ‘Woodbine Willie’, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy:

The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, and associate myself with the lovely phrase that it is both a privilege and very humbling to be part of this remembrance.

Passchendaele is, as we have heard, a symbol of war: the human cost, the sheer complexity of leadership and the sheer complexity of operations. Commemoration is not simply to remember but, as the noble Lord, Lord West, has just pointed out, to learn, to take something, to honour what people gave in their lives and commitment, and to see how that can inspire us and point us forward positively. It is a sign of huge issues in international relations, warfare and military and political leadership.

I want to offer some kind of commemoration and a platform for learning and looking to the future through what noble Lords might think is rather an esoteric and peculiar lens, although they will not disassociate it from me: the lens of chaplaincy. Chaplaincy was in one sense, almost totally peripheral. The soldiers were fighting and there were commanders and politicians, and chaplains could be seen as scrabbling around the edge, adding perhaps very little value. Yet it is a lens that allows us to ask some important questions.​

In Derbyshire, where I live and work, we produced a book for the period from 1914 to 1918 which collected memories, like those we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and others, so that people could reflect, remember and perhaps learn. There is a lovely diary entry from someone called Harold Blaylock about all things we know—the mud and the frustration—but also about the laughter and the fun that they had to try to make to survive. There are lovely stories about chaplains burying German soldiers as well as English dead. There are some very important insights about when the dead were buried in shallow graves—the noble Lord, Lord Black, mentioned how many people have never been found—an effort was made every time to write their name down, put it in a bottle and make some kind of stopper, and then put the bottle in with the body. One wonders how many millions of bottles there were and how many survive. They reflect the deep human instinct to preserve the preciousness of each person.

The chaplains were faced with not just the big issues of international relations, political judgment and military tactics but with issues that affected everybody on the battlefield about life and death, good and evil and how life can have any meaning in all that mess, which is what so many of the letters and memories were about. The Church of England tried to learn because in 1917, before Passchendaele, it set up a school for chaplaincy, having gone through the first couple of years of the war thinking it knew what to do. We obviously had to learn and to do it better.

G._A._Studdert_KennedyAn example I want to share with the House comes from just before the battle. It is the practice developed by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, whom noble Lords may know as Woodbine Willie. He was very famous. He had been a vicar in Worcester. He was called up, and he went to be a chaplain in the First World War. He was stationed in Rouen. That is where the men assembled or came back to for rest. They went on trains to the front, into all the horror that the noble Lord, Lord Black, described so powerfully. How could you be a chaplain to people in Rouen who were about to face all that or who had come back for respite? Rouen was a place of brothels and bars because when we are under stress, it is very difficult to ask the big questions about good and evil and what the mess is about and much easier to look at more immediate satisfactions and look after yourself. It is a very understandable instinct. How could you help people look at these big questions of good and evil, the meaning of life and what the mess was about? The men knew from being there what the experience would be.

Studdert Kennedy had a very interesting way of trying to help people engage with those issues. He would go to the station and there would be 600 men in the canteen waiting to get on the train. Noble Lords can imagine what they were feeling about getting on that train. He had a lovely voice, and he would go to the piano, start playing and get them all singing. That is a bit like what can happen in a good church service sometimes. You lift people out of themselves and create a spirit of connection and hopefulness and of being in it together. You create a situation of being accompanied on a pilgrimage and not being alone. Studdert Kennedy got them singing and created a ​spirit that enabled the men to feel they were part of a movement that was worth being part of. After the singing that had created that atmosphere of solidarity, he would stand on a chair and say, “If anybody wants to give me the name and address of a loved one, when you’ve gone and while you’re at the front, I’ll write to say that I’ve seen you and you’re okay”. A huge queue would form. Studdert Kennedy understood that within these big questions of good and evil, right and wrong and mess, each of us needs to know that we are precious, that we can be loved and that we can give love to other people. He would spend several days afterwards writing all those letters to say, “I saw so-and-so, and he wanted you to know he’s all right and has gone to fight. I’ll pray for him”. Each person is precious and needs to be loved.

Then, when they got on the train, before it went, he went down the whole train with two rucksacks on his back. In one were Woodbines, and he gave everybody a packet of Woodbines. That just shows that the Church, like everyone, is not immune from making serious mistakes in trying to be kind and good to people, and we certainly would not be giving Woodbines to people today, but the pastoral thing is to say, “Here’s something for you which in your culture at this moment might be a comfort”. From the other rucksack, he gave the men copies of the New Testament. Why did he do such a bizarre thing? Of course, the New Testament is a story of these huge issues, of suffering that can lead to hope and of evil that can emerge in goodness. It appeals to that spirit of solidarity, that preciousness of each person. That is what Studdert Kennedy tried to understand. It gives people a chance to step into a story that is full of all the horrors, the big picture and the little picture, but where hope keeps rising in human hearts and life can triumph over death. That was his offering. He did not tell the men that; he just gave them a book and they could read it or not—they could throw it away—but in it there was a place where these deep questions could be explored and the men could step into that story themselves, facing they knew not what.

Chaplaincy will always be a peripheral thing, I suspect, but it is worth remembering and trying to learn, as we reflect on the sheer horror painted so graphically and eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Black, that in the human hearts that we are commemorating and saying thank you for, there was powerful witness about solidarity and a spirit of togetherness—a powerful sign of the preciousness of each person and the fact that we, and they, are in a story. We are here today speaking because we believe that hope can triumph over suffering and that life emerges out of death. That is something that we need to put in our remembrance and renew our commitment to in honour of all those who gave their lives for us at Passchendaele.


Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Lab)…In my own city of Worcester, a great many initiatives have been taken—the city of Woodbine Willie, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby reminded us. The next significant event is on 4 November in St Helen’s Church. It is planned to include exhibitions, short talks, Army, Navy and Air Force cadets, re-enactors and children’s activities. The day’s activities will start with a short service at 10 o’clock led by the Royal British Legion chaplain, which will include a one-minute silence and the “Last Post”.

Lord Black of Brentwood (Conservative)…One of the most striking features of the debate was what the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, described as the hidden stories of the war, which she deployed to such effect. From the right reverend Prelate, we heard one of those hidden stories, of the chaplaincy, which I found fascinating….My noble friend Lord Lexden said that it was as if providence had given Passchendaele its name, because it has become synonymous with so many different things: with suffering and courage. It lays bare our own humility and it lets us have lessons for the future, but, most of all, as the right reverend Prelate said, from the death of so many young men springs a message of hope.

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