How One Soldier’s Battle Brought Peace to Millions


2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, and also of the visit of a certain Bill Wilson to Winchester Cathedral. A young artillery officer sent from America to fight in France, Bill survived the war and went on to write one of the world’s best-selling books – the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. And on its first page he recounted the story of his wartime visit to the cathedral.

Today AA remains untouched by the modern concerns for profit, waiting lists, referrals and data collection. AA meetings are free and readily available, in most cities there’s a meeting every day of the week. No details are kept of those attending – and there are no referrals or waiting lists. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Some people have already stopped when they walk through the door, others are still drinking. As the name implies, it’s anonymous so people can feel safe attending meetings.

AA is about living a happy and fulfilling life sober – not just stopping drinking so support is there no matter how long people have been sober. The whole thing, including the free 24 hour helplines, is run with small amounts of money collected at meetings. There’s no charge for admission, even the tea and coffee is free.

So how did Winchester in the UK find itself on page one of AA’s “Big Book”? During the final months of World War One Bill Wilson was with a US army unit en route for France and was temporarily quartered in an army camp at Morn Hill outside the city. Not in any way a religious man, he had nevertheless been profoundly moved during his visit to the cathedral when, seated quietly contemplating the future, he had a sense that some benign form of ‘higher power’ was watching over him – and that despite his fears everything would turn out well.

Walking through the churchyard afterwards, he saw old gravestone dating form 1764 it commemorated a young grenadier of the Hampshire Militia who 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.

By an odd coincidence the soldier’s name, Thetcher, was similar to that of his great friend back home Ebby Thatcher, and he and Ebby had certainly put away more than a few small beers together …

Bill returned to America only to find his life in jeopardy again – this time through his drinking. His successful career disintegrated, and he was told that he would either have to be permanently locked up or would die as a result of his alcoholism.
A meeting with his friend Ebby changed all that, Ebby had found a way to stop drinking with the help of The Oxford Group, a Christian Organisation. Bill was initially discouraged by this – he wanted nothing to do with God. But after trial and error he and another alcoholic, Dr Bob Smith, began to develop a programme which enabled them and other alcoholics to stay sober – no special faith or belief was required, though being opened minded to the concept of a higher power was encouraged. Together they founded what became Alcoholics Anonymous.

As AA grew they decided to make a written record of the process, and Bill set to work on a book that would become AA’s handbook – he chose to start with the story of that wartime day in Winchester.

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’.

The book became an all-time best-seller. The 25 millionth copy rolled off the presses back in 2005, and around a million are still printed and sold each year, despite the text 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 and a year later the Library of Congress designated it as one of the 88 ‘Books That Shaped America’.

It’s available in seventy languages and there are very few people in AA who don’t have their own copy.

Thomas Thetcher’s gravestone still stands in the churchyard at Winchester, although it’s a copy of the one that Bill Wilson saw on that hot August day in 1918. That stone was becoming weathered, and in 1966 was taken to the Regimental Museum where it can be seen today.

People from across the world make the trip to Winchester, visit the grave and reflect on the stories of two young soldiers – Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Thomas Thetcher, the Hampshire Grenadier.

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