Tuesday, June 26, 2018

On the wire

War, 1928
woodcut print, John Moody 
G.A. Studdert Kennedy
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy is one of the best-known British chaplains of the First World War; his war-time nickname “Woodbine Willie” was gained from his practice of offering cigarettes to wounded and dying soldiers as he attended to their physical and spiritual needs. He was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in 1917, when during an attack at Messines Ridge, he risked his life to cross a heavily shelled area to procure morphine for the wounded and to care for and retrieve injured soldiers from No Man’s Land.  In his 1919 collection of essays, The Hardest Part, he wrote,
The cutting of the world in two by the sword has helped me to see it whole.  Men’s minds are of necessity less parochial, less insular, and more cosmopolitan, in the best sense, than they were. As a consequence of this there is a quickened interest in ultimate questions, a desire to know the meaning of it all.*

Although an enthusiastic supporter of the war at its onset, its experiences changed him, and after the war ended, he became a vocal pacifist. His first collection of poems, Rough Rhymes of a Padre (1918), was dedicated “To the Officers and Men of the 46th and 24th Infantry Divisions living here and beyond the veil… by one who is proud to have been their comrade.” One of the shortest poems in the collection is titled “War.”  
Bamforth song card, WWI


There’s a soul in the Eternal,
Standing stiff before the King.
There's a little English maiden
There's a proud and tearless woman,
Seeing pictures in the fire.
There's a broken battered body
            On the wire.
            —G.A. Studdert Kennedy

The poem simply describes four victims of war. The first is a soldier who has risen from the dead, but whose stiff posture, even in heaven, recalls his body’s rigor mortis and the military discipline that was demanded of him in life. The final snapshot is that of a dead man suspended on barbed wire in No Man’s Land; the adjectives “broken and battered” link his sufferings with those of Christ.

The two middle images are those of women on the home front who grieve the dead, each in her own way. One is an idealized English sweetheart, the other a woman who seems almost heartless in her pose of detachment. By including both women, the poem suggests there is no single way to mourn and that outward appearances may be misleading.
Bamforth song card, WWI

In its structure and imagery, the poem also connects the brokenness of the soldiers with the emotional devastation of the home front. The sorrowing maiden is linked with the battered body of the dead soldier in the poem’s only two indented lines (“Sorrowing” and “On the wire”), while the resurrected soldier and the “proud and tearless woman” are alike in their stoic restraint. 

Studdert Kennedy rejected platitudes and easy answers as he searched for the meaning of war and God’s place in the conflict. In his essay “God in History,” he wrote,
War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast-table. It goes splendidly with bacon and eggs.  Real war is the final limit of damnable brutality, and that’s all there is in it. It’s about the silliest, filthiest, and most inhumanely fatuous thing that ever happened.  It makes the whole universe seem like a mad muddle. One feels that all talk of order and meaning in life is insane sentimentality…. Men are driven to the conclusion that war is the will of the Almighty God. If it is true, I go morally mad. Good and evil cease to have any meaning…. War is the crucifixion of God, not the working of His will.**
* Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, The Hardest Part, Hodder and Stoughton, 1919, pp. xii-xiii.
** Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, “God in History,” in The Hardest Part, Hodder and Stoughton, 1919, pp. 32, 35, 44.

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