Woodbine Willie – musical reflections

These poems, from The Unutterable Beauty by G. A. Studdert Kennedy, have been set to music by Richard Rice-Oxley, who has also recorded them.

  1. The Spirit
  2. Prayer before an Attack
  3. Paradise
  4. Solomon in all his Glory
  5. The Suffering God (omitting verses 2–9)
  6. A Mother Understands
  7. To Stretcher-Bearers (read)
  8. A Song of the Desert (On the Hindenburg Line, 1918)
  9. Waste
  10. The Comrade God
  11. Marching Song

The Spirit

When there ain’t no gal to kiss you,
And the postman seems to miss you,
And the fags have skipped an issue,
Carry on.

When ye’ve got an empty belly,
And the bully’s rotten smelly,
And you’re shivering like a jelly,
Carry on.

When the Boche has done your chum in,
And the sargint’s done the rum in,
And there ain’t no rations comin’.
Carry on.

When the world is red and reeking,
And the shrapnel shells are shrieking,
And your blood is slowly leaking,
Carry on.

When the broken, battered trenches
Are like bloody butchers’ benches,
And the air is thick with stenches,
Carry on.

Carry on,
Though your pals are pale and wan,
And the hope of life is gone.
Carry on.

For to do more than you can
Is to be a British man,
Not a rotten also ran
Carry on.

Prayer before an Attack

It ain’t as I ’opes ’E’ll keep me safe
While the other blokes goes down,
It ain’t as I wants to leave this world
And wear an ’ero’s crown.
It ain’t for that as I says my prayers
When I goes to the attack,
But I pray that whatever comes my way
I may never turn me back.
I leaves the matter o’ life and death
To the Father who knows what’s best,
And I prays that I still may play the man
Whether I turns east or west.
I’d sooner that it were east, ye know,
To Blighty and my gal Sue;
I’d sooner be there, wi’ the gold in ’er ’air,
And the skies be’ind all blue.
But still I pray I may do my bit,
And then, if I must turn west,
I’ll be unashamed when my name is named.
And I’ll find a soldier’s rest.


When machine-guns start to play
At the ending of the day,
And the sun’s last burning ray
Bleeds and dies.

When the sable warp of night
Is first cleft by silver light,
With its sudden curving flight
Of surprise.

It is then that England calls
From its cottages and halls,
And we think of four dear walls
And her eyes.

When the children’s prayer is said,
And they lie tucked up in bed,
And the fire is burning red –

Solomon in all his Glory

Still I see them coming, coming
In their ragged broken line,
Walking wounded in the sunlight,
Clothed in majesty divine.

For the fairest of the lilies,
That God’s summer ever sees,
Ne’er was clothed in royal beauty
Such as decks the least of these.

Tattered, torn, and bloody khaki,
Gleams of white flesh in the sun,
Raiment worthy of their beauty
And the great things they have done.

Purple robes and snowy linen
Have for earthly kings sufficed,
But these bloody sweaty tatters
Were the robes of Jesus Christ.

The Suffering God

The Suffering God (omits verses 2–9)

If He could speak, that victim torn and bleeding,
Caught in His pain and nailed upon the Cross,
Has He to give the comfort souls are needing?
Could He destroy the bitterness of loss?

Father, if He, the Christ, were Thy Revealer,
Truly the First Begotten of the Lord,
Then must Thou be a Suff’rer and a Healer,
Pierced to the heart by the sorrow of the sword.

Then must it mean, not only that Thy sorrow
Smote Thee that once upon the lonely tree,
But that to-day, to-night, and on the morrow.
Still it will come, O Gallant God, to Thee.

Swift to its birth in spite of human scorning
Hastens the day, the storm-clouds roll apart;
Rings o’er the earth the message of the morning,
Still on the Cross the Saviour bares His heart.

Passionately fierce the voice of God is pleading,
Pleading with men to arm them for the fight;
See how those hands, majestically bleeding,
Call us to rout the armies of the night.

Not to the work of sordid selfish saving
Of our own souls to dwell with Him on high,
But to the soldier’s splendid selfless braving,
Eager to fight for Righteousness and die.

Peace does not mean the end of all our striving,
Joy does not mean the drying of our tears;
Peace is the power that comes to souls arriving
Up to the light where God Himself appears.

Joy is the wine that God is ever pouring
Into the hearts of those who strive with Him,
Light’ning their eyes to vision and adoring,
Strength’ning their arms to warfare glad and grim.

So would I live and not in idle resting,
Stupid as swine that wallow in the mire;
Fain would I fight, and be for ever breasting
Danger and death for ever under fire.

Bread of Thy Body give me for my fighting,
Give me to drink Thy Sacred Blood for wine,
While there are wrongs that need me for the righting,
While there is warfare splendid and divine.

Give me, for light, the sunshine of Thy sorrow,
Give me, for shelter, shadow of Thy Cross;
Give me to share the glory of Thy morrow.
Gone from my heart the bitterness of Loss.

A Mother Understands

Dear Lord, I hold my hand to take
Thy Body, broken here for me,
Accept the Sacrifice I make,
My body, broken, there, for Thee.

His was my body, born of me,
Born of my bitter travail pain,
And it lies broken on the field,
Swept by the wind and the rain.

Surely a Mother understands
Thy thorn-crowned head,
The mystery of Thy piercèd hands –
The Broken Bread.

To Stretcher-Bearers

Easy does it – bit o’ trench ’ere,
Mind that blinkin’ bit o’ wire,
There’s a shell ’ole on your left there,
Lift ’im up a little ’igher,
Stick it, lad, ye’ll soon be there now,
Want to rest ’ere for a while?
Let ’im dahn then – gently – gently,
There ye are, lad.  That’s the style.
Want a drink, mate?  ’ere’s my bottle,
Lift ’is ’ead up for ’im, Jack,
Put my tunic underneath ’im,
’Ow’s that, chummy?  That’s the tack!

Guess we’d better make a start now,
Ready for another spell?
Best be goin’, we won’t ’urt ye,
But ’e might just start to shell.
Are ye right, mate? Off we goes then.
That’s well over on the right;
Gawd Almighty, that’s a near ’un!
’Old your end up good and tight,
Never mind, lad, you’re for Blighty,
Mind this rotten bit o’ board.
We’ll soon ’ave ye tucked in bed, lad,
’Opes ye gets to my old ward.

No more war for you, my ’earty,
This’ll get ye well away,
Twelve good months in dear old Blighty,
Twelve good months if you’re a day.
M.O.’s got a bit o’ something
What’ll stop that blarsted pain.
’Ere’s a rotten bit o’ground, mate,
Lift up ’igher – up again,
Wish ’e’d stop ’is blarsted shellin’,
Makes it rotten for the lad.
When a feller’s been and got it,
It affec’s ’im twice as bad,

’Ow’s it goin’ now then, sonny?
’Ere’s that narrow bit o’ trench,
Careful, mate, there’s some dead Jerries.
Gawd Almighty, what a stench!
’Ere we are now, stretcher-case, boys,
Bring him aht a cup o’ tea!

Inasmuch as ye have done it 
Ye have done it unto Me.

A Song of the Desert

On the Hindenburg Line, 1918

I’ve sung my songs of battlefields,
Of sacrifice and pain,
When all my soul was fain to sing
Of sunshine and of rain.

Of dewdrops glist’ning on a rose,
Cloud castles in blue skies,
Of glory as God’s summer grows,
And splendour as it dies.

Of blossom snowed upon the trees,
And fresh green woods that ring
With music of the mating birds,
Love’s miracle of spring.

Of summer night in velvet robes,
Bedecked with silver stars,
The captive beauty of the dawn
That breaks her prison bars.

The rustling sigh of fallen leaves
That sing beneath my feet
The swan-song of the autumn days,
So short, so sad, so sweet.

An exile in a weary land,
My soul sighs for release,
It wanders in war’s wilderness,
And cries for Peace – for Peace.


Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,
Waste of Youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, waste of God, –

The Comrade God

Thou who dost dwell in depths of timeless being,
Watching the years as moments passing by,
Seeing the things that lie beyond our seeing,
Constant, unchanged, as æons dawn and die;

Thou who canst count the stars upon their courses,
Holding them all in the hollow of Thy hand,
Lord of the world with its myriad of forces
Seeing the hills as single grains of sand;

Art Thou so great that this our bitter crying
Sounds in Thine ears like sorrow of a child?
Hast Thou looked down on centuries of sighing,
And, like a heartless mother, only smiled?

Since in Thy sight to-day is as to-morrow,
And while we strive Thy victory is won,
Hast Thou no tears to shed upon our sorrow?
Art Thou a staring splendour like the sun?

Dost Thou not heed the helpless sparrow’s falling?
Canst Thou not see the tears that women weep?
Canst Thou not hear Thy little children calling?
Dost Thou not watch above them as they sleep?

Then, O my God, Thou art too great to love me,
Since Thou dost reign beyond the reach of tears,
Calm and serene as the cruel stars above me,
High and remote from human hopes and fears.

Only in Him can I find home to hide me,
Who on the Cross was slain to rise again;
Only with Him, my Comrade God, beside me,
Can I go forth to war with sin and pain.

Marching Song

I can hear the steady tramping of a thousand thousand feet,
Making music in the city and the crowded village street,
I can see a million mothers with their hands outstretched to greet,
For the army’s marching home.

I can see a million visions that are dancing overhead
Of the glory that is dawning where the sky is burning red,
Of the Britain to be builded for the honour of the dead,
For the army’s marching home.

I can see the broken women choking back their scalding tears,
Oh! The barren, empty greyness of their lonely, loveless years!
But their duty’s to the living and they’ll only give them cheers,
As the army marches home.

I can see a crowd of children on the crest of yonder hill,
I can hear their little voices cheering, cheering loud and shrill,
’Tis that they may grow to beauty that our flag is floating still,
As the army marches home.

There’s a crowd of wooden crosses in the wounded heart of France,
Where the cornfields used to glisten and the blood-red poppies dance.
Can’t you hear the crosses calling us to give the Christ a chance.
Now the army’s marching home?

O! We’ll build a mighty temple for the lowly Prince of Peace,
And the splendour of its beauty shall compel all wars to cease.
There the weak shall find a comrade and the captive find release,
When the army marches home.

Of men’s hearts it shall be builded, and of spirits tried and true,
And its courts shall know no bound’ries save the bound’ries of the blue,
And it’s there we shall remember those who died for me and you,
When the army has marched home.

Woodbine Willie – musical reflections

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, MC, born 27 June 1883 and died 8 March 1929, was an Anglican priest and poet.

A selection of Woodbine Willie poems has been set to music by Richard. He has already conducted a Day of Reflection at Edenham Regional House, South Lincolnshire, and an evening Concert on Armistice Day 2015 at South Witham Church. Richard is available to conduct further day or evening sessions on the same subject as requested. This is particularly suitable for Remembrance time in November.

‘Woodbine Willie’
Musical reflections

The Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was an Anglican Priest who served as a Chaplain in World War One, winning the Military Cross for bravery.  His nickname was ‘Woodbine Willie’, because he kept soldiers supplied with cigarettes which helped to calm their nerves in the face of battle.  He wrote many poems, including a number that depict life on the Western Front, poems about the human cost of war, and theological reflection about it.

Our reflection includes musical settings of some of these poems as well as a short biography of an outstanding pastor and preacher. 

Contact details: Revd Richard Rice-Oxley.  Email: richardriceoxley@gmail.com