Suffolk communities where villagers give thanks for the safe return of their veterans
- Credit: Margaret Gornall
As we reflect on last month’s First World War Armistice centenary, Tony Wenham gives thanks with villagers in two small Suffolk communities for their servicemen and women who came home safe.
Their loved ones counted them out, and their loved ones counted them all back... today, it is not known how many men marched out of the tiny hamlet of Culpho between 1914-18 – all we know is that they all came back.
Culpho, situated roughly halfway between Ipswich and Woodbridge, is one of just a few dozen so-called “Thankful Villages” in Britain, communities which lost no men in the First World War. About 30 miles north, near Bungay, lies Elmham St Michael, another rural Suffolk outpost and a doubly thankful village, having lost no residents in either world war.
In 1914, there were 73 Culpho residents, believed to be the same number recorded as in 1732, according to parishioners Margaret Gornall and Lynette Chapman.
Now a community of only 17 properties with 47 adult residents, Culpho raised £1,600 for the Royal British Legion in 2013 when two intrepid Welsh motorcyclists set off to visit 51 Thankful Villages – a phrase coined in the 1920s by Arthur Mee, author of the Children’s Encyclopedias – in a nine-day round trip of some 2,500 miles.
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Margaret recalls: “The bikers, Medwyn Parry and Dougie Bancroft, thanked the Culpho community and described us as ‘residents fighting above our weight’ to raise so much money.”
Medwyn and Dougie left a small plaque at St Botolph’s church commemorating their visit and complementing Culpho’s long-standing memorial to the First World War, composed of glass tiles by Powel of London and dedicated in 1920.
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Most of Culpho’s current residents moved into the village in more recent times and much of the century-old minutiae of community life has been lost.
Above the Waveney valley, however, memories go back further.
Brother and sister Dorothy “Dolly” Bloomfield and Herbert Page still live in and around Elmham St Michael where every day there is a reminder of their father John “Jack” Page, one of 11 men who came back from the war in 1918-19 and who are commemorated in St Michael’s church.
Other relatives are also remembered in the church’s Second World War roll of honour: George and William Taylor, and their sister Elsie in the Women’s Royal Air Force, and Harry Aldous. Dolly’s late husband Eric was a serviceman and so was her son, seeing service in Iraq, Northern Ireland and the Falklands.
Now she recalls her dad, variously known as Jack or “Shiner”, a horseman all his working life on Elmham farms, urging his beloved Suffolk Punches across north Suffolk’s fertile acres.
“I remember him putting me up on the backs of those Suffolks,” she says. “I perched up there and hung on for dear life. They were so big and broad, but such lovely animals.”
Jack, born in 1895, enlisted in the 1st battalion Suffolk Regiment and found himself in Salonika in a little-known campaign against the Bulgarians.
Conditions were appalling, according to the Suffolk Record Office. In summer, the river plain was covered with stagnant pools and in winter the surrounding hills were bitterly cold. “As many, if not more, soldiers died of disease as in battle – mostly malaria, but inevitably dysentery and other disease-related outcomes of poor sanitary arrangements,” says the record office.
Jack, who brought his equine skills to the company mule team, would contract both chronic malaria (Dolly recalls him taking to his bed regularly with flu-like symptoms – “and there was no sick pay for him”) as well as dysentery, and he was eventually invalided home via Malta in a troop ship.
“Dad never talked much about the war except on Armistice Day,” says Dolly, now 87. “He did tell us about his favourite mule, though, also called Jack. Sadly, dad never knew what happened to the poor thing after he fell ill and left.”
After the war, Jack resumed farm work and became quite a local character, entertaining villagers with amateur singing and melodeon playing, while appearing in books and early TV documentaries.
A schoolfriend of Dolly, Monica Watling, is commemorated on the seven-strong Second World War roll of honour in the church. She died in 2002, but her brother Keith, born and bred in Elmham St Michael, explains that his late sister worked for the Royal Air Force. “I couldn’t tell you what she was doing,” he says. “I think it must have been secret.”
Asked if there was a big party when the war was over and Monica was back home, in the best traditions of close-knit rural communities, he replies: “No, there was nothing like that.” Other villages and towns, of course, had not been so fortunate.
Now, 100 years, two world wars and almost 1.5 million British deaths later, we can join two quiet Suffolk villages in giving thanks for the handful of men and women who came back home to their loved ones.
There were many anomalies as the list of Thankful Villages was painstakingly compiled over many years, with between 32 and 51 villages listed by various sources.
At first Gisleham, near Lowestoft, was believed to be one of the villages. However, it emerged that one soldier from the village had been killed in the war, but his home address had been incorrectly compiled.
Private CH Crane was listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as “the son of David and Caroline Crane, White House Lodge, Chisleham, Lowestoft”.
But researchers could find no village listed as Chisleham in the UK and it was decided it was a transcription error, and that Pte Crane was residing with his parents in his place of birth, Gisleham.
1919: ‘Peace Year’
Few families were left untouched by the Great War and, in Bungay on the Norfolk-Suffolk border where 101 residents had been lost in the conflict, the town’s leaders expressed local relief and respect in a novel initiative to mark the end of hostilities.
In 1919, Bungay commissioned new street signs in honour of the peace and as an act of remembrance for the men who died, whose names were later inscribed on the war memorial in the centre of town.
At least 32 signs were cast locally by Harry Rumsby’s Ironworks and Foundry and many are still in place today, although a few
signs have been lost,
for example, when Gas House Lane was renamed Rose Lane. The signs are virtually identical – white with black lettering and 1919 in the bottom right-hand corner. A handful also bear the legend “Peace Year”.