Jesus in the trenches
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, aka Woodbine Willie, first published his reflections from the trenches 100 years ago. In this edited extract, he questions the Almighty
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a British chaplain in the First World War. He earned the nickname Woodbine Willie from his conviction that chaplaincy meant having ‘a box of fags in your haversack’. His poems reflecting wartime experience in down-to-earth language, published as Rough Rhymes of a Padre were popular. The following extract is from his prose book, The Hardest Part. He was awarded the Military Cross for the rescue described in this passage.
June 7th, 1917.
In the assembly trenches on the morning of the attack on the Whyschaete-Messines Ridge. The ____ division attacked first, and our men went through their lines to the last objective.
‘What is God like?’ I remember that’s what that officer in hospital asked me. ‘You ought to know; that is your business, Padre,’ he said. I suppose it is, and I ought to know. But do I? Do I know and love God? Jesus Christ I know and love. He is splendid. I love His superb courage, His majestic patience, and His perfect love. I love His terrible wrath against all wrong and His tender kindness to the weak. Tender as a woman and terrible as a thunderstorm, Jesus Christ, I know and love; but ‘Almighty and Everlasting God,’ ‘High and Mighty, King of kings and Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes,’ ‘to Whom all things in heaven and earth and under the earth do bow and obey’, do I know anything at all about Him? Do I believe in Him? How can I find Him in this welter of sin and cruelty? I have said such words a thousand times. What did I mean? What did the men who wrote them mean? It all seems like silly sentimental nonsense in the face of this.
They are supposed to be expressions of reverence. Just now they sound like expressions of blasphemy, accusations against God. Are they superficial compliments necessary in the court of the Most High? How God must hate them if they aren’t true! And how can they be true? I wish they would not put such things in the Prayer Book. It makes one sick in the light of scenes like this. This war is the very devil; it seems to scupper all one’s ancient understandings…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the June 2018 edition of Reform