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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Doubly Thankful

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas November. 11, 2020 265 views

The mass slaughter of 1914-18 robbed the UK of a million lives, leaving no part of the country untouched. But there was a tiny handful of settlements where all those who served returned home. With its rows of ramshackle yellow stone cottages, set amid undulating Cotswold hills, the village of Upper Slaughter belies the violence of its name. In hazy autumn sunlight, this corner of Gloucestershire might well have been rendered in watercolour. All the components of tourist-brochure Britain are here - the red phone box, the winding lanes, the wisteria draped around the windows. But one normally ubiquitous feature is missing. Unlike the overwhelming majority of British settlements, Upper Slaughter has no war memorial.

For it is not only its postcard charm that offers pacific contrast to the name Upper Slaughter. It is that rarest of British locations, a "thankful village" - the term coined in the 1930s by the writer Arthur Mee to describe the handful of communities which suffered no military fatalities in World War I. Mee identified 32 such places, a figure that has been revised upwards in recent years to 52. Of these, just 14 have, like Upper Slaughter, come to be known as doubly thankful - also losing no-one from WWII. In England and Wales, the 52 so far singled out are dwarfed by over 16,000 which paid the highest sacrifice.

For every village like Upper Slaughter there was another like Wadhurst, East Sussex - a place of just over 3,500 people which lost 149 men in WWI. Indeed, according to the WWI historian Dan Snow, it was often small communities, villages and hamlets in which the psychological burden of the carnage's aftermath was most painfully felt.

Largely to blame for this, Snow believes, was the system of Pals Battalions - units of friends, work colleagues and relatives who had been promised they could fight alongside each other when they enlisted amid the patriotic fervour of 1914. Of about 700 "pals" from Accrington, Lancashire who participated in the Somme offensive, some 235 were killed and 350 wounded within just 20 minutes. By the end of the first hour, 1,700 men from Bradford were dead or injured. Some 93 of the approximately 175 Chorley men who went over the top at the same time died.

Tony Collett experienced something very similar. It took decades, he says, for Upper Slaughter's remarkable good fortune to be widely discussed in the village. Only in the past 10 years or so, he reckons, has this semi-superstitious reluctance to give voice to the village's special status fallen away. The generations who grew up after the wars, for whom the memories of the nation's loss are less raw, have proved more willing to discuss the subject. And, as a result, the past decade has witnessed a growth in awareness of thankful villages.

As British forces embarked on their first campaigns of the 21st Century, the village was once again represented. A son of Upper Slaughter, Lt Fred Keeling, completed two tours of Iraq and one of Afghanistan with the Royal Artillery. When he left the Army in 2008 after five years, the community's unbroken record of good fortune remained intact.

My photos of Upper Slaughter were taken in June 2010. The name of the village derives from the Old English term "slough" meaning "wet land". The manor of Upper Slaughter is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086; the Slaughter family acquired it in the late 12th century. The current building, on the site of an ancient building, was constructed over many years, starting in the Tudor era. Its crypt is estimated to be from the 14th century. (wikipedia)

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