Most people haven’t heard of Doubly Thankful Villages, but they really should have. These communities, scattered throughout England and Wales, enjoyed near-miraculous good fortune during the most devastating wars in world history. But before delving into Doubly Thankful Villages, we need to answer another question...
What are Thankful Villages?
The term ‘Thankful Village’ was coined by a now-obscure author named Arthur Mee, who in the 1930s wrote and edited The King’s England, a wide-ranging series of guides to English counties. While researching these in-depth compendiums of countless villages and parishes, he noticed that some communities in England and Wales had a conspicuous lack of memorials to local men who had fallen in the Great War. Investigating further, he found there was a very simple reason for this: no men had, in fact, fallen.
In other words, all the men who had marched off from these villages and parishes to fight in World War I had returned. Perhaps injured, perhaps traumatised by the ordeal of an unprecedented conflict, but alive. As Arthur Mee noted of one such Thankful Village, Catwick in Yorkshire, ‘Thirty men went from Catwick to the Great War and thirty came back, though one left an arm behind.’
How many Thankful Villages are there?
The precise number isn’t set in stone, due to the difficulty of collating accurate data regarding tens of thousands of communities and precisely where soldiers hailed from. Arthur Mee came up with an original count of 32, though more recent research has bumped the figure up to at least 56. It seems that only communities in England and Wales were so lucky, with no Thankful Villages to be found in Scotland or Ireland as yet.
Why are Thankful Villages so rare?
The industrial slaughter that was World War I claimed the lives of 6% of the British male population, so very few communities didn’t suffer losses. The blow to individual villages and parishes was exacerbated by the creation of so-called ‘Pals Battalions’, which saw groups of friends, colleagues, neighbours, relatives and even sports teams enlist and fight alongside each other.
The system was implemented by the army, in the belief that more men would enlist if they were serving with people they already knew. It was a highly effective recruitment policy, but one with heartbreaking repercussions since whole swathes of men from particular communities across Britain could be erased in one fell swoop.
The most well-known example of this devastation is that of the Accrington Pals, who lost 235 members within 20 minutes on the first day of the Somme. As the brother of one of the soldiers would later recall, ‘I don't think there was a street in Accrington and district that didn't have their blinds drawn and the bell at Christ Church tolled all the day.’
What are Doubly Thankful Villages?
As the name suggests, Doubly Thankful Villages are those which suffered no troop deaths in both World War I and World War II. They make up an even smaller sliver of an already tiny fraction of British communities, with the number of Doubly Thankful Villages thought to be just 14.
One of the most fortunate of the Doubly Thankful Villages is the ironically named Upper Slaughter – an idyllic, picture-postcard community in the Cotswolds. Not only did all the soldiers from Upper Slaughter come home from both world wars, but the village itself survived a potentially devastating air raid in February 1944, when the Luftwaffe dropped thousands of incendiary bombs on the houses. While many buildings were left ablaze, not a single resident was killed, giving Upper Slaughter a reason to feel triply thankful by the time VE Day came around.
Catwick in Yorkshire, so admired by Arthur Mee for being home to the brave soldier who left his arm behind on the battlefield in the Great War, is another of the Doubly Thankful Villages, and in its case, there seemed to have been a good luck charm at work.
During World War I, the local blacksmith, a man named John Hugill, fixed a horseshoe to the entrance of his forge. Alongside this lucky emblem, he nailed 30 coins, including a German and a Swiss coin, to represent each of the men who’d gone off to war. Once all 30 returned alive, Hugill made sure to cut a notch in one of the coins, to represent the lost arm. Hugill undertook the same ritual during World War II with equally impressive results.
Why did Thankful Villages happen?
Magical horseshoes aside, researchers have uncovered no tangible reasons – no particularly favourable military deployments, no significant discrepancy between the numbers of people who went off to war from Thankful and non-Thankful areas – to account for why some communities achieved Thankful and Doubly Thankful status. It seems to have come down to pure chance.
And, when it comes to an incredible run of good luck, a community in France is even more eye-catching than Britain’s Thankful and Doubly Thankful Villages. Thierville in Normandy boasts the distinction of having lost no losses in five major conflicts: the 19th century Franco-Prussian War, World War I, World War II, the First Indochina War, and the Algerian War. This makes it perhaps the only Quintupley Thankful Village in existence.