A PLAQUE to honour a courageous First World War chaplain and poet called Woodbine Willie has been unveiled.

The Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy became one of the best known figures on the Western Front for giving Woodbine cigarettes, a copy of the New Testament and spiritual aid to soldiers before battle as well as their injured and dying comrades.

The cleric, who trained at Ripon Clergy College, won the Military Cross for running into no man’s land at Messines Ridge, Flanders, to help the wounded during an attack on the German frontline.

Civic leaders joined the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer yesterday to dedicate and bless a Ripon Civic Society plaque at the former college site, where Rev Kennedy trained to become an Anglican priest in 1908.

Six years after completing his training at the Princess Road college, which closed in 1915, the Rev Kennedy, volunteered as an Army chaplain aged 31, and became attached to a bayonet-training service.

While touring the Western Front with boxers and wrestlers, he gave morale-boosting speeches about the usefulness of the bayonet and became known for his heavy smoking, despite suffering asthma having been exposed to mustard gas.

He often became embroiled in battles and soldiers told how the Rev Kennedy once crawled to a working party putting up wire in front of their trench.

When a nervous soldier asked him who he was, he replied "The church." And when the soldier asked what the church was doing there, he replied "Its job".

Soldiers said they liked the chaplain for his irreverent preaching style and salty language, while he described his chaplain's ministry as taking “a box of fags in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart”.

After the war, he became the country’s most famous religious author, writing poems about his experiences which appeared in the books including Rough Rhymes of a Padre and he toured the country giving Christian socialist and pacifist movement lectures.

After he died while on tour in Liverpool in 1929, a crowd of more than 2,000 turned out for his funeral procession, and tossed packets of Woodbines onto the passing cortege.

The plaque has been funded by donations from the bishop, the former Archdeacon of Richmond, Janet Henderson, who is to become the Dean of Llandaff, and from Ripon College Cuddesdon, the successor to Ripon Clergy College.

The society has previously honoured First World War poet Wilfred Owen, who trained at a camp in the city, with a plaque on Borrage Lane.

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