This year’s Remembrance Day marks the centenary of the end of the First World War – with so many dead and injured it’s difficult to believe that any good could have come from such a terrible conflict.
It was during the final months of that war that a young American soldier named Bill Wilson happened to be quartered at Morn Hill Camp outside Winchester. With a few days free before crossing the Channel for France he borrowed a motorbike and set out to explore to the city. Understandably he was anxious about what might happen to him in France, and although not religious he decided to visit the cathedral where, sitting quietly by himself, he was surprised and comforted by a sudden and overwhelming feeling that all would go well for him.
Strolling through the churchyard afterwards his eye was caught by the wording on an old gravestone erected in memory of a young grenadier of the Hampshire Militia. Thomas Thetcher had died ‘of a violent fever contracted from drinking small beer when hot… in grateful remembrance of whose universal goodwill towards his Comrades, this stone is placed here at their expence’ explained the inscription. The tale caught Bills fancy – he’d an old drinking buddy back home with a similar name – and for some reason it stayed in his memory.
Bill’s unit went to France to join in the fighting, although a few months later the war ended and he returned to America. But once home he would face another battle which threatened to end his life. Although initially successful, his business career disintegrated as a result of his heavy drinking. It became so bad that he was told that if he continued it would kill him. Bill fought to overcome his drinking, and with handful of fellow sufferers finally found a way in which sobriety could be achieved and maintained. He became one of the founding members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and twenty years later when writing of his many experiences in the hope of inspiring others he chose the story of his visit to the cathedral at Winchester to begin the opening chapter of what would become AA’s famous ‘Big Book’:
We landed in England. I visited Winchester cathedral. Much moved, I wandered outside. My attention was caught by a doggerel on an old tombstone: ‘Here lies a Hampshire Grenadier / Who caught his death / Drinking cold small beer / A good soldier is ne’er forgot / Whether he dieth by musket / Or by pot’.
Alcoholics Anonymous’ ‘Big Book’ has become an all-time best-seller. Thirty million copies have been sold in English alone, and around a million are still sold each year despite it being available free online in English, Spanish and French. In 2011 Time Magazine placed it on its list of 100 best and most influential books written since 1923 – the start of that magazine. And a year later the Library of Congress designated it one of the 88 ‘Books That Shaped America’. Today the ‘Big Book’ is available in seventy languages, so perhaps it’s no surprise that people visit Winchester from all over the world looking for the grave of Thomas Thetcher.
The gravestone which stands in the churchyard at Winchester cathedral today is a careful copy of the one that Bill Wilson saw in 1918. The stone he stood in front of a hundred years ago became weathered and frail, and in 1966 it was taken to the Regimental Museum in Winchester where it is no longer on public view. However Museum curator Colin Bulleid and his staff are frequently visited by members of AA from all over the world who have heard that he has ‘Bill’s Stone’ tucked away behind the offices, and he generously welcomes them in to see it and take a photograph or two. Sometimes visitors leave their sobriety chip, a small coin marking the number of years they have enjoyed sobriety, on the stone – a token of thanks for the millions of lives saved by one soldier whose wartime experience would help to inspire so many of his fellow sufferers.
Alcoholics Anonymous Free National Helpline
0800 9177 650 or 02380 223198