Thankful villages and the men who came home but never really left the trenches

IMG_0876Thankful villages are the ones that sent men off to fight in the World Wars and all the men who enlisted survived. To be Doubly Thankful means that the village in question saw the return of all its men in both World War One and World War Two.  Survival is, of course, not the same as returning unscathed.    The first time the phrase was coined was by Arthur Mee in his King’s England series of guidebooks – something which I still use on a regular basis What I’m less sure about is how many there are in total.  Mee was only able to identify 24 for certain and a quick trawl of the net reveals that the Telegraph thinks there are 56 such villages. Even the number of doubly thankful villages is open to question with thirteen being the most common response but occasionally fourteen being mentioned.

For the men who did return life had changed.  Pugh makes the point that the Church had preached war and many vicars had encouraged their congregations to enlist.  Evidence suggests that church attendance began a steep decline from the end of the war onwards because for many people the clergy had become symbolic of the State and had told the lie that it was a great and able thing to die for your country. Faith was shaken and certainties tottered.  From 1917 onwards there was a wave of strikes.  In the years following the Great War concern was not so much for declining church attendance as for an upsurge in Communism and revolution.

For other men there were physical injuries, the effects of gas and the disillusionment of a country that promised much for its returning soldiers but delivered little.  Many of the men remained silent about their experiences but one historian estimates that approximately 20% of returning soldiers suffered from shell shock.  The British Army dealt with 80000 cases during the war but for the majority of men the truth was that they just had to get on with it – the archetypal stiff upper lip was required.  There are interesting interviews from children who recalled their father’s return and the resulting lack of stability or financial security on file in the Imperial War Museum.

There were some socially unacceptable diseases that made their way to Blighty and the far flung reaches of the Commonwealth as well – a good proportion of the soldiery had contracted syphilis.

Roberts makes the point that it is unfair to blame the war for everything – a proportion of the men who returned home, self medicated with alcohol, fought and abused their womenfolk must have been rogues to start off with. Emsley’s article notes that newspapers were keen to promote the idea of violence resulting from character change during the war.  Indeed, Christie – as in the serial killer- claimed to have been one such having suffered from shell shock during the war but exploration of his past reveals that there were issues which pre-dated the war.  Even the Metropolitan Police were wary of men grown callas as a result of the war.

For others who returned there was restlessness that led to being unable to settle not to mention estrangement from family life and their pre-war lives.  Some of these men and their families finally recorded their experiences and these can be accessed in the Imperial War Museum or in private correspondence.  It would be interesting to know what proportion of men were so unable to settle that they eventually led a life of homelessness.

Other men were not able to hide their trauma.  In 1914 500 men were consigned to county lunatic asylums. By 1918 there were nearly 5,000 beds in War Mental Hospitals as it had been agreed that it was unfair to stigmatise citizen soldiers with lunacy as a result of their wartime experiences. These hospitals had been established by the Asylum War Hospital Scheme which ran from 1915 until 1919.  Under the scheme service men were required to be sent home to their families for care or sent to a war hospital rather than a county asylum.   The mental hospitals were known as war hospitals to avoid stigma.

In reality many of these hospitals were county asylums, renamed with their pre-war patients relocated to other asylums – resulting in the civilian population of mental health patients suffering lack of stability and familiar surroundings, overcrowding and an increase in patient mortality.

After the war ex-servicemen who could not return to civilian life due to mental health problems had to be dealt with differently. In some cases they were registered as private patients so spared the title lunatic. However by the 1920s the government was less keen to extend its pension provision to men who had been unable to emerge for the asylum or who had succumbed to the trauma of their experiences after the end of the conflict. It was decided by the State that genuine cases recovered – or bounced back to mental health- whilst malingers and those men who obviously had underlaying mental difficulties which had nothing to do with war continued to need care and thus came under the auspices of the county and the poor law – and could be labelled lunatic.

Not cheery – but I’ve got the information that I need!  Now all that’s required is to write the novel….


Barham, Peter. 2004 Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War. New Haven: Yale University Press

Emsley, Clive (2008). Violent crime in England in 1919: post-war anxieties and press narratives. Continuity and Change, 23(1) pp. 173–195.

Pugh, Martin. We Danced All Night

The Other War Dead: Asylum Patients during the First World War




3 thoughts on “Thankful villages and the men who came home but never really left the trenches

  1. If you have not seen the hell of war you cannot write as one who knows,feels ,sees it daily in his waking moments but has come to see it over and bear that stiff upper lip all the time. You see Britain and France in both wars had no way of bringing a man back down from a trained harden killer. One cannot wear it like a suit to change from war to washing dishes at home ever as easy as that.War changes one the body just meat the people enemy ,you have seen it all and nothing ever will be the same.We get on with it as you say hoping for peace inside you wishing you had joined the ranks of men dead and cannot see why you survived. A sort of guilt for having survived and buried brothers. Know it breath it live it then say you can write a book on war. I am older than i should be but that is the determined man who will not give up .They trained us well but did not know how to bring us back to happiness and warmth of life. I grow roses now like all who know war. Gardens made and making are my only joy .Peace in Gods gardens a sort nearness to the creator. Man he made in his image and likeness but some are Devils who sit sipping drink and betting on the metal price on stock market as we at the cold winter front buried our dead. Gods own children. War is profit for the Government who send us out to die and save on pensions .They own half of England in National Trust as qango government shares All our coast lines my fathers house and lands ours back to Harold. Go write your book now

  2. All fascinating stuff. From what we hear on the news, you do wonder whether we treat our returning servicemen much better now; I’m sure we do, but… I remember reading somewhere that there was a surge in crime after WW2 – the suggested reason was men the army had trained to be violent in war, but had not de-trained for peace.

    • The odd thing is that the crime rates didn’t rise that much after WW1 – I wonder if WW2 is the same? People were definitely afraid that there would be an upsurge in crime and the papers seem to have stoked those fears but historians who have looked at the statistics can’t find a spike. I suppose homelessness after ww1 would be easier to track than after ww2 because there was so much more displacement.

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