How war changes a man
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
The 4 August 2014 will mark the centenary of the United Kindgom’s entry into the First World War. In order to introduce students to key themes and issues surrounding this event and the centenaries that will be marked over the following four years, we are providing a series of assembly scripts. These are not in a chronological sequence so can be used in any order.
To encourage students to strengthen their beliefs in testing times (SEAL theme: Managing feelings).
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and two readers.
- Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy’s poems are available online. Many are rather long, but a good choice for inclusion in Step 3 of the assembly would be ‘To Stretcher Bearers’(optional).
- Have available the song ‘Masters of War’ by Bob Dylan and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
- Leader Woodbine Willie was the kind of vicar the British Army generals approved of. At the outbreak of the First World War, the Reverend Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy – his real name – immediately volunteered for action on the battlefield. While he waited for his bishop to grant permission, he was forthright in his advice to the young men of his parish.
Reader 1 I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere. There ought to be no shirking of that duty.
- Leader He was first posted to Rouen, with the task of sending off new recruits to the front line. At the railway station, he would speak encouraging words and hand out Bibles and cigarettes. That’s how he got his nickname, ‘Woodbine Willie’.
On another occasion, he was posted to a bayonet training unit. He was part of a morale-boosting act, boxing and wrestling with members of the unit before delivering a speech about the usefulness of the bayonet in combat.
Reader 2 In one of his short books, written from the trenches, he even argued that Britain would win the war because Tommy (the British soldier) was morally superior to the Hun (the German soldier) because of the British sporting tradition. British soldiers knew how to win, German soldiers didn’t!
- LeaderThe soldiers loved him – he spoke everyday language, cracked jokes, added the odd swear word and was utterly devoted to their cause. Books of his poetry, based on his experiences, became bestsellers.
Read one of his poems at this point, if using.
Reader 1 Woodbine Willie was also brave. He served at the front line for three tours and was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Messines Ridge, where he ran into ‘no man’s land’ to help the wounded, both British and German.
- LeaderThis man was everything the authorities looked for in a padre – a military chaplain – yet, by the end of the war Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy had become a pacifist, a Christian socialist and fierce opponent of the government. What had changed him?
Before the war, Studdert Kennedy had enjoyed a life without great challenge. His was a conventional Christian faith, his national pride the same as that of his contemporaries. The First World War brought him into contact with the reality of evil. He saw what one person could do to another. He saw the misery of life in the cold and the mud. He watched as generals behind the lines sent thousands of men to their deaths with no regret.
In all of this he was forced to look for God. What he discovered was a rather different set of beliefs from those with which he’d grown up. Woodbine Willie read and reread the story of Jesus and came to a number of conclusions.
Reader 2 He concluded that Jesus was against war, against the use of arms to settle any kind of dispute.
Reader 1 He concluded that Jesus preached about economic justice, a fair share of wealth for all groups.
Reader 2 He concluded that all people are equal, there are no privileged classes and everyone has the right to a say in their future.
Leader He described the words of Jesus as a dangerous message that people wanted to keep bottled up in church. For the rest of his short life, his mission was to set that message free.
Time for reflection
Sometimes life hits us hard. It may be a loss or a regret, a defeat or a disappointment. What effect does that have on us? Do we cave in with self-pity? Do we come to doubt all we’ve ever believed? Do we put our heads in the sand and ignore it or try to bury it deep?
Woodbine Willie faced it head on and went back to basics. For him, it was the words of Jesus. For you, it might be some other faith or set of principles. Hopefully, you too will come out of it with renewed purpose.
Thank you for days when life’s easy and straightforward.
When it’s not, when it’s turned upside down, help me to discover what’s real and lasting.
‘Masters of War’ by Bob Dylan