This entry isn’t about reading or books at all really, except that in a way it fits in with much of my non-fiction reading over the last twelve months,which has kept coming back to the World Wars of the twentieth century.

Humans are famously unable to comprehend large numbers. We deal much better with dozens, maybe even hundreds, but thousands? What does a crowd of thousand people look like? Or ten thousand? We understand the concept, but it stays at that level – we have nothing meaningful to equate it with in our day-to-day lives. This inability to envisage large numbers lies, I think, at the heart of people’s problems with probability, whereby they mistake everyday coincidences with the supernatural.

A million British troops died in the First World War. More died in the Second, as well as significant numbers of civilians. I acknowledge of course that other countries suffered far higher rates of casualties. But what does that number mean? What do a million dead people look like? What is the impact of a million deaths on a country the size of the UK?
Essentially it means that every family lost someone, or knew someone who died in the war. That is where (finally) the concept of the Thankful Villages comes in. There are over four thousand village parishes in this country. But in only a very small number of parishes – it is hard to be exact, because the records are inevitably not 100% accurate, and you can always argue about definitions – did all the servicemen who set off to war return home alive. The best estimates are that there are about between 30 and 50 such villages in England and Wales, and not one in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Those figures really brought home to me the scale of the devastation, how all encompassing it was. Incidentally I have read elsewhere that France has only one such village.

For anyone living in a town or city, the important thing to realise is how tiny some of these villages are. Ten men lost from a hamlet of (say) sixty people would have devastated many communities. The names of the Thankful Villages are part of the special impact of the idea – the English have a particular brilliance in naming their villages, and some of the Thankful few epitomise that flair – Herodsfoot, Ousby, Langton Herring, and Colwinston to name a few.

For me the concept of the Thankful Villages brings home with greater impact than simple numbers the scale of the cost of the Great War. Very few people escaped without losing a family member or friend. The war could not be escaped wherever you lived, whatever you did, no matter how remote or obscure. And of course the cost of the war, in lives lost, books not written, weddings not celebrated and children not born, cannot be quantified, which is why a symbolic representation of this loss has such an impact and is so valuable.

You can read a lot more about the enduring fascination of the Thankful Villages here: