But in a few weeks, a plaque presented to each Doubly Thankful village will be officially unveiled to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Only now are they coming together to celebrate.
Tony Collett, 83, the son of Sgt Major Collett, who has lived in Upper Slaughter his entire life, remembers painting the names of those who had returned on a roll of honour with his father in 1945. It is still hanging in the village hall, alongside one from the First World War. “I didn’t really appreciate the magnitude of what it all meant,” he says. “That’s only really come about in recent years. My father served in Mesopotamia [Iraq] and never really spoke about the First World War. On Remembrance Day we would always go to the memorial in Lower Slaughter (it lost 15 men in the Great War). Even though our village never lost anybody, it has always been important to remember those who did.”
There are some 16,000 villages across England and Wales and each gave their sons to the Great War. The formation of Pals’ Battalions, to supplement Lord Kitchener’s volunteer army, meant whole villages signed up to serve together. As a result, a generation from a single place could be laid to waste in a burst of machine gun fire.
But at the end of the war, when news came in censored bulletins and communication was limited, the extent of sacrifice among individual, often deeply rural, communities was not clear. It was only in the Thirties, when the author and staunch patriot Arthur Mee travelled the country to compile his King’s England Volumes, that he identified what he called the “thankful villages”, 32 places where everybody came home from the Great War, a figure that has now been upgraded to 51. Of these, according to the Royal British Legion and historians Norman Thorpe, Rod Morris and Tom Morgan who have conducted extensive research, just 13 were also spared any losses in the Second World War.
Some, such as Herodsfoot in Cornwall, have a memorial honouring the dozen or so names of those who served and returned, including Private Herbert Medland, whose daughter Vera Sandercock still lives in the village. But the evidence is not always set in stone. In Catwick in East Yorkshire, 30 men left to fight in the First World War but, before departing, each nailed a coin on to the wall inside the blacksmith’s forge, near a lucky horseshoe. During the Second World War another 30 coins were nailed on. None ever needed to be taken down and the mementos have stayed in the village ever since.
With interest piqued by centenary celebrations, more communities without war memorials are coming forward and the number of Doubly Thankful villages could end up being higher.
One recent claim comes from Holywell Lake in Somerset, a county that boasts two doubly thankful villages, despite the Somerset Light Infantry losing 4,756 soldiers in the Great War. “In Somerset we’ve always been very proud of king and country and when the war broke out we wanted to go and fight,” says Roger Duddridge, county chairman of the Royal British Legion. “On some memorials I’ve seen the names of whole families that were killed: three or four brothers at a time. It’s only recently that these villages where everybody survived have started to come to attention and it’s so gratifying when you find one. This is something that has taken 100 years to piece together.”
The hamlet of Woolley, near Bath, reached by narrow hedgerow-flanked roads and sheltered by Solsbury Hill, contributed 13 young men to the First World War and 13 to the Second. Here too, the magnitude of everybody surviving both never truly sunk in. “When I was growing up we just didn’t appreciate the significance of it,” says Margaret Foster, 71, who still lives in the house where she was born.
Five of her cousins – all brothers – fought in the Second World War. One, Dennis Kurle, is still alive, aged 92. “This village is so small that you didn’t really appreciate the rarity that everybody returned alive. Families knew their own had come back from the war and so were a bit removed from the true scale of it all.”
Some of the survivors of the trenches bore hidden scars; many more suffered all too visible wounds. Of those who returned, 1.75 million had suffered some disability and half were permanently disabled.
Mrs Foster says the residents of Woolley tried to help its sons to forget their experience of the horror – apart from a plaque put up in All Saints’ Church, there was no mention of war. “All the soldiers who returned were marked by what they had seen,” she says, “especially the First World War veterans. When war broke out and they signed up, they just thought they were tough boys, but they had no idea what they were going to face.”
The village, which has never hosted a Remembrance Day, will join the centenary commemorations in the first week of August with a small ceremony alongside the other Doubly Thankful villages to honour their good fortune. But for the grace of God, they too would have had a stone cross to bear of their own.
THE FORTUNATE FEW VILLAGES
Gloucestershire: Upper Slaughter
Lancashire: Nether Kellet
Lincolnshire: High Toynton
Suffolk South: Elmham St Michael
East Yorkshire: Catwick
Cardiganshire: Llanfihangel y Creuddyn