Walk through almost any village in England and you’ll find a war memorial listing the names of the people from the village who were killed during the Great War and the Second World War. The list, especially for the Great War is often long and has the same surnames occurring more than once. The impact of these deaths on the life of the village was profound.
Yet there are a few villages where there is no memorial to the war dead because everyone who left to go to war lived to come home again. In the I936 Arthur Lee christened these villages ‘Thankful Villages’ and identified thirty-two of them. Subsequent research shows that there were fifty-three Thankful Villages.
After the Second World War, seventeen villages became known as Doubly Thankful Villages because, for a second time, everyone who served came home again.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, so it seems appropriate both to recognise that men from almost every village in Britain died during the two great wars in the first half of the Twentieth Century and to marvel at and be thankful for the seventeen villages where everyone made it home.
One of those Doubly Thankful Villages, the first Thankful Village Arthur Mee became aware of, is Woolley in Somerset. Woolley is a tiny village in the hills to the North of Bath, a few miles from where I live. . In the Domesday Book (1086) Woolley is recorded as having fifteen households. In the 2011 census, its population is listed as 320. You can only reach the village via winding single track roads or by Public Footpath.
We walked there last month and visited the church All Saints Church. It’s the largest structure in the village. It dates back to 1761 and was built by John Wood, the Younger, replacing an earlier church on the site. It’s a striking building with an unusual cupola tower. The interior is simple and peaceful and contains two plaques giving thanks for the safe return of the thirteen men from the village who fought in the Great War and the fifteen men and women of the village who fought in the Second World War.
As I stood in the church, taking pleasure in the Autumn sunlight on the ancient stone, the place spoke so strongly of peace that it was hard to imagine leaving it to take part in the carnage of the two wars. I found myself wondering about how the village looked to those who returned. Did they value its peace? Could they leave the war behind? Did they speak to one another about what they’d seen and done or did they keep silent together?
It made me realise that on Remembrance Sunday, it’s right to mourn those who died and it’s also right to honour the memories of those who came home and helped life in their villages continue in peace.