The following is a script assembled for a radio programme to mark the centenary of the First Day of the Battle of the Somme. The script has been mixed with sound effects and recordings of popular songs from the First World War and is scheduled for broadcast in the UK on 1st July. Once broadcast, the programme will be posted here.
The war of 1914-1918 was known as the Great War. It was to be the war that would end all wars; it did bring an end to many things, but war was not among them.
For the Christian churches, the Great War brought deep questions. Both sides believed God was on their side during the conflict; German soldiers had “Gott mit uns” on their helmets, “God with us.” After the conflict, many people gave up the belief that God was with them, many people simply ceased to hold whatever faith they may have had.
In the midst of the conflict, the British and Allied armies had some 3,500 chaplains who tried to minister to the soldiers. Among those who served on the Western Front were Fr Willie Doyle, a Jesuit priest from Dalkey in Co Dublin, and the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, born in Leeds, his father came from Blackrock in Co Dublin and he attended university at Trinity College in Dublin. Studdert Kennedy became possibly the most famous of all the chaplains, earning the nickname “Woodbine Willie” because of his custom of handing out cigarettes to the men.
A century after the Battle of the Somme, in which both of them served, the writings of Willie Doyle and Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, Woodbine Willie still have much to say to us. Whether in wars a hundred years ago, or in wars today, what does it mean to say God is on our side, what does it mean to say “God with us?”
From the writing of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, Rouen, France, April 1916
I went to see an officer in a base hospital who was slowly recovering from very serious wounds. The conversation turned on religion, and he seemed anxious to get at the truth. He asked me a tremendous question. “What I want to know, Padre,” he said, “ is, what is God like? I never thought much about it before this war. I took the world for granted. I was not religious, though I was confirmed and went to Communion sometimes with my wife. But now it all seems different. I realise that I am a member of the human race, and have a duty towards it, and that makes me want to know what God is like. When I am transferred into a new battalion I want to know what the Colonel is like. He bosses the show, and it makes a lot of difference to me what sort he is. Now I realise that I am in the battalion of humanity, and I want to know what the Colonel of the world is like. That is your real business, Padre; you ought to know.”
From the diary Willie Doyle, at the Somme, 4th September 1916.
Men of the Fr Doyle’s battalion had gone into action in the attack on the French villages of Guillemont and Ginchy. Fr Doyle would receive the Military Cross for his bravery in ministering to the men who attacked Ginchy.
“I was standing about 100 yards away watching a party of my men crossing the valley, when I saw the earth under their feet open and the twenty men disappear in a cloud of smoke, while a column of stones and clay was shot a couple of hundred feet into the air. A big German shell by the merest chance had landed in the middle of the party. I rushed down the slope, getting a most unmerciful whack between the shoulders, probably from a falling stone, as it did not wound me, but it was no time to think of one’s safety. I gave them all a General Absolution, scraped the clay from the faces of a couple of buried men who were not wounded, and then anointed as many of the poor lads as I could reach. Two of them had no faces to anoint and others were ten feet under the clay, but a few were living still. By this time half a dozen volunteers had run up and were digging the buried men out. War may be horrible, but it certainly brings out the best side of a man’s character; over and over again I have seen men risking their lives to help or save a comrade, and these brave fellows knew the risk they were taking, for when a German shell falls in a certain place, you clear as quickly as you can since several more are pretty certain to land close. It was a case of duty for me, but real courage for them. We dug like demons for our lad’s lives and our own, to tell the truth, for every few minutes another iron pill from a Krupp gun would come tearing down the valley, making our very hearts leap into our mouths. More than once we were well sprinkled with clay and stones, but the cup of cold water promise was well kept, and not one of the party received a scratch. We got three buried men out alive, not much the worse for their trying experience, but so thoroughly had the shell done its work that there was not a single wounded man in the rest of the party; all had gone to a better land. As I walked back I nearly shared the fate of my boys, but somehow escaped again, and pulled out two more lads who were only buried up to the waist and uninjured. Meanwhile the regiment had been ordered back to a safer position on the hill, and we were able to breathe once more.”
A letter from Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, Pas-de-Calais, France, on 28th September 1916.
Studdert Kennedy was serving as chaplain to the 6th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment and wrote to Mr and Mrs F.Critchley of Smithfield Road, Uttoxeter.
I am sorry to give you the bad news that both your sons, J. and W. Critchley, were killed in a raid on the night of September 26. It will, I am afraid, be a sad blow to you. I was up in the trenches with them on the night they were killed and had a short service at which both your boys attended just before they went out. They died gallantly in doing particularly difficult and dangerous work, and you are to be congratulated on being the father of two such splendid men. One, J. Critchley, was killed at once, out in “No Man’s Land”, being shot by a machine gun straight through the heart; the other, William, I helped to carry out of the trenches to the dressing-station. Poor lad, he was wounded in the stomach, and was in much pain, which he bore with heroic patience. He died after I left him.
I buried them side-by-side in one grave yesterday afternoon. The grave is in a pretty little cemetery just behind the line, and the graves are carefully looked after. Their comrades all attended the funeral, and on all sides you could hear and see the grief they felt at the loss of two fine men and good comrades.
It would be impertinence on my part to attempt to console you for such a loss. The knowledge that your two sons did a man’s work out here, and died a true man’s death, and that their spirits are with God, will be your chief comfort.
I pass their grave every day as I ride up to the trenches, and if you would like to send out some small token of remembrance to put on it I would gladly fix it there for you. I am applying to the Graves Registration Commission to send you a photograph of the grave as soon as possible. I wish there were more I could do.
Your son William called out for me while I was in the dressing-station, and I sat with him for some time and it seemed to comfort him. He and all his comrades were great friends of mine, and I feel that I have lost a good pal and am sorry. Please let me know if there is anything further I can do. God bless you.
From the diary of Fr Willie Doyle, at the Somme, 9th October 1916
The Battle of the Somme, which had begun on 1st July 1916, was to be one of the few battles that had an official finishing date, 20th November 1916. The battle would last a further five weeks after Doyle’s diary entry.
A sad morning as casualties were heavy and many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown off at the knee, but never a complaint fell from his lips, even while they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. “Thank God, Father”, he said, “I am able to stick it out to the end. Is it not all for little Belgium?” The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased his bodily pain. “I am much better now and easier, God bless you”, he said, as I left him to attend a dying man. He opened his eyes as I knelt beside him: “Ah! Fr. Doyle, Fr. Doyle”, he whispered faintly, and then motioned me to bend lower as if he had some message to give. As I did so, he put his two arms round my neck and kissed me. It was all the poor fellow could do to show his gratitude that he had not been left to die alone and that he would have the consolation of receiving the Last Sacraments before he went to God. Sitting a little way off I saw a hideous bleeding object, a man with his face smashed by a shell, with one if not both eyes torn out. He raised his head as I spoke. “Is that the priest? Thank God, I am all right now.” I took his blood-covered hands in mine as I searched his face for some whole spot on which to anoint him. I think I know better now why Pilate said “Behold the Man” when he showed our Lord to the people.
From the diary of Fr Willie Doyle, Pas-de-Calais, Saint Stephen’s Day, 26th December 1916
On St. Stephen’s Day the men were engaged in a football match, when the Germans saw them, sent over a lovely shot at long range, which carried away the goal post — the umpire gave a ‘foul’ — and bursting in the middle of the men, killed three and wounded seven. The wounded were bandaged up and hurried off to hospital, the dead carried away for burial; and then the ball was kicked off once more, and the game went on as if nothing had happened. The Germans must have admired the cool pluck of the players, for they did not fire any more. This is just one little incident of the war, showing how little is thought of human life out here; it sounds callous but there is no room for sentiment in warfare, and I suppose it is better so…
I was riding on my bicycle past a wagon when the machine slipped, throwing me between the front and back wheels of the limber. Fortunately the horses were going very slowly and I was able, how I cannot tell, to roll out before the wheel went over my legs. I have no luck, you see, else I should be home now with a couple of broken legs, not to speak of a crushed head. The only commiseration I received was the remark of some passing officers that ‘the Christmas champagne must have been very strong!’
A letter from Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy to the Reverend Theodore Hardy, Late 1916
Hardy had joined the army at the age of 51, he was to become the most decorated of the chaplains, winning the Military Cross, the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross, dying on the battlefield at the age of 56
Live with the men, go where they go; make up your mind that you will share all their risks, and more, if you can do any good. You can take it that the best place for a padre (provided that he does not interfere with military operations) is where there is most danger of death. Our first job is to go beyond the men in self-sacrifice and reckless devotion. Don’t be bamboozled into believing that your proper place is behind the line; it isn’t. If you stay behind you might as well come down: you won’t do a ha’p’orth of good. Your place is in front. The line is the key to the whole business; work in the very front, and they will listen to you when they come out to rest, but if you only preach and teach behind you are wasting time: the men won’t pay the slightest attention to you. The men will forgive you anything but lack of courage and devotion—without that you are useless.
From the diary of Willie Doyle, Pas-de-Calais, 4th January 1917
I did not get my work finished till rather late tonight and as I had to turn out again shortly it was not worth while turning in. Some of my men were to make a raid on the enemy trenches in the early hours of the morning, dangerous work and heavy casualties often, so I make it a point to go round the line and give each man Absolution before he ‘goes over the top.’ It is a hard and anxious time and a big strain waiting for the word to be given and I know it is a comfort to them to see the priest come round and a cheery word bucks them up. All went well with the raid.
I got back to my bunk at six and slept like a top till seven, not too long you will say, but if you come out here you will find all the old-fashioned ideas about food and sleep and wet clothes and the rest of it rapidly vanishing. It is wonderful what you can do with a cup of tea and one hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. (Personally I would vote for two hours, and two cups of tea with a wee bit of bread.)
From the writing of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy
On 7th June 1917, the British attacked Messines Ridge, just south of the Belgian of Ypres. Studdert Kennedy won a Military Cross for his bravery that day.
I was running to our lines half mad with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had been once a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped to see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering, “You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? Not much great blonde Prussian about you. Then there came light. It may have been pure imagination, but that does not mean that it was not also reality, for what is called imagination is often the road to reality. It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place there lay the Christ upon his cross, and cried, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones ye have done it unto me.” From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything but a crucifix. From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a crucifix.
From a letter written home by Sergeant T. Flynn of the Dublin Fusiliers and published in the Irish News on 29th August 1917.
Fr Willie Doyle had been killed by a shell whilst ministering to a wounded man on 16th August 1917.
We had the misfortune to lose our chaplain, Fr. Doyle, the other day. He was a real saint and would never leave his men, and it was really marvellous to see him burying dead soldiers under terrible shell fire. He did not know what fear was, and everybody in the battalion, Catholic and Protestant alike, idolised him. I went to Confession to him and received Holy Communion from him a day or two before he was killed, and I feel terribly sorry after him.
He loved the men and spent every hour of his time looking after them, and when we were having a fairly hot time in the trenches he would bring us up boxes of cigarettes and cheer us up. The men would do anything he asked them, and I am sure we will never get another padre like him. Everybody says that he has earned the V.C. many times over, and I can vouch for it myself from what I have seen him do many a time. He was asked not to go into action with the battalion, but he would not stop behind, and I am confident that no braver or holier man ever fell in battle than he.
From a letter from General Sir William Bernard Hickie, commander of the 16th (Irish) Division in Flanders to a friend, 18th November 1917
Fr Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met, and one of the bravest men who have fought or worked out here. He did his duty, and more than his duty, most nobly, and has left a memory and a name behind him that will never be forgotten. On the day of his death, 16th August, he had worked in the front line, and even in front of that line, and appeared to know no fatigue – he never knew fear. He was killed by a shell towards the close of the day, and was buried on the Frezenberg Ridge… He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his Commanding Officer, by his Brigadier, and by myself. Superior Authority, however, has not granted it, and as no other posthumous reward is given, his name will, I believe, be mentioned in the Commander-in-Chief’s Despatch…I can say without boasting that this is a Division of brave men; and even among these, Fr Doyle stood out.
From the writing of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, January 1918,
When a chaplain joins a battalion no-one says a word to him about God, but everyone asks him, in a thousand different ways, “What is God like?”
His success or failure as a chaplain really depends upon the answer he gives by word and by deed. The answer by deed is the more important, but an answer by words is inevitable, and must be given somehow.
When the question was put to me in hospital I pointed to a crucifix which hung over the officer’s bed, and said, “Yes, I think I can tell you. God is like that.”
I wondered if it would satisfy him. It did not. He was silent for a while, looking at the crucifix, and then he turned to me, and his face was full of doubt and disappointment. “What do you mean? ” he said, “God cannot be like that. God is Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, Monarch of the world, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, Whose will sways all the world. That is a battered, wounded, bleeding figure, nailed to a cross and helpless, defeated by the world and broken in all but spirit. That is not God; it is part of God s plan: God s mysterious, repulsive, and apparently perfectly futile plan for saving the world from sin. I cannot understand the plan, and it appears to be a thoroughly bad one, because it has not saved the world from sin. It has been an accomplished fact now for nearly two thousand years, and we have sung hymns about God s victory, and yet the world is full of sin, and now there is this filthy war. I’m sick of this cant. You have not been up there, Padre, and you know nothing about it. I tell you that cross does not help me a bit; it makes things worse. I admire Jesus of Nazareth; I think He was splendid, as my friends at the front are splendid splendid in their courage, patience, and unbroken spirit. But I asked you not what Jesus was like, but what God is like, God Who willed His death in agony upon the Cross, and Who apparently wills the wholesale slaughter in this war. Jesus Christ I know and admire, but what is God Almighty like? To me He is still the unknown God.”
“Gott mit uns,” God with us: the lives of Willie Doyle and Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, and countless others, showed a sense of their belief in a God who was with us, not on our side in our conflicts, but at our side in our sufferings.
Fr Willie Doyle was forty-four when he was killed. His body was buried near where he fell, but its location was destroyed by shelling. He has no known grave, his name, together with thousands of others, appears on the memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery.
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy survived the war and worked for the Industrial Christian Fellowship in the 1920s, an outspoken supporter of the poor, he was disliked by many of the leaders of the Church of England. His health declined and he died in 1929 at the age of forty-five.
In 1921, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy published a collection of poetry. The collection included a poem written in Cockney dialect called “The Sorrow of God.” Lines from the poem express a sense of God’s presence in the trenches:
There’s a sight o’ things what I thought was strange,
As I’m just beginnin’ to see
“Inasmuch as ye did it to one of these
Ye ‘ave done it unto Me.”
So it isn’t just only the crown o’ thorns
What ‘as pierced and torn God’s ‘ead;
‘E knows the feel uv a bullet, too,
And ‘E’s ‘ad ‘Is touch o’ the lead.
And ‘E’s standin’ wi’ me in this ‘ere sap,
And the corporal stands wiv ‘Im,
And the eyes of the laddie is shinin’ bright,
But the eyes of the Christ burn dim.
O’ laddie, I thought as ye’d done for me
And broke my ‘eart wi’ your pain.
I thought as ye’d taught me that God were dead,
But ye’ve brought ‘Im to life again.
And ye’ve taught me more of what God is
Than I ever thought to know,
For I never thought ‘E could come so close
Or that I could love ‘Im so.