The Great War: That rarest of places

PUBLISHED: 13:00 26 August 2014 | UPDATED: 13:17 26 August 2014

World War One British recruiting poster urging men to Enlist Now

World War One British recruiting poster urging men to Enlist Now

© Archive Images / Alamy

Only one place in Hertfordshire saw all the men it sent to the Great War return home, a horrifying statistic that reveals the heavy cost the county, like all those across the British Isles, paid in the conflict. Stephen Roberts visits the Thankful Village of Puttenham

The Church of St MaryThe Church of St Mary

Nearly every community in Britain suffered losses in the First World War and their war memorials became the focus of remembrance every November. What though of the small number of places that have no memorial?

The term ‘Thankful Village’ dates back to the 1930s, when it was coined by journalist and writer Arthur Mee to describe any community that lost no men in the Great War.

Stuart Maconie, in his 2011 book Hope and Glory wrote, ‘Of the estimated 16,000 villages in England, Mee identified 24 that could be called Thankful and guessed that there might be 32. In fact, recent research has identified 52 parishes throughout England and Wales to which all soldiers returned.’

This number has since been adjusted to 53. There are no thankful villages in Scotland or Northern Ireland. There are only 14 ‘Doubly Thankful’ villages in England and Wales, where members of the armed services also survived the Second World War.

The plaque in St Mary's thanking God for the return of the village's soldiersThe plaque in St Mary's thanking God for the return of the village's soldiers

The staggering statistics bring home the scale of loss from both world wars, but especially from the first.


The county’s special place.

Hertfordshire has just one thankful village, Puttenham. This ancient settlement lies close to Tring, surrounded by green fields and meadows; a rural idyll little changed from 1914. A century ago, Puttenham saw 15 men leave for war in Europe, from a population of just 71. All returned home.

The 14th-century Church of St Mary contains a marble plaque that lists the 15. It is noticeable how local names proliferate, four by the name of Saunders, three called Mapley and two named Rodwell. The plaque records: ‘In the Great War of the years 1914-1918, this parish then numbering 71 souls, sent forth and welcomed home the men whose names are inscribed here…for their gallant service and their safe return, thanks be to God.’

For every thankful village, however, there are thousands of others that were not so fortunate. Hertfordshire has nearly 280 settlements, so one Thankful village represents about a third of one percent of the total. 
The county suffered heavily, along with the rest of the country, in a conflict the like of which no one had ever seen before. .

The village and war.

Puttenham was not so fortunate the second time around. Villager Cyril Green was taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans and lost his life when the enemy ship he was on was sunk by Allied bombing. A cross on a window- sill in St Mary’s commemorates his life. Around the base are the words Requiem aeternam dona ei domine (Grant him eternal rest, O Lord).

Co-churchwarden John Barron described the long association of Puttenham men with wartime duty. In 1066, one of King Harold’s brothers was Lord at Puttenham and headed for Hastings to fight the Norman invasion. He was killed alongside his brother in the battle. Although it is not recorded, he no doubt took Puttenham men along to do their feudal duty.

To give thanks for the Thankful Villages in the UK, Medwyn Parry and Dougie Bancroft last summer went on a motorbike trip of 2,500 miles to visit them all and raise money for the Royal British Legion. A slate plaque was presented to each community to commemorate the part it played in the Great War. Puttenham’s plaque, mounted on a four-foot stone plinth outside the old mission hut, which was built in 1903, will be unveiled this month. A new plaque will also be unveiled in the church remembering Cyril Green’s sacrifice.

On November 11, as in thousands of churches remembering the loss of millions in conflict, there will be an evening service of Compline at St Mary’s when candles will be lit. John Barron looked again at the list of men who went to war and said, ‘We can only hope there are no more.’

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