Countdown to the Great War
The Flemish Region is putting much time, effort and funding into First World War monuments right now, in the lead up to 100 jaar Grote Oorlog in de Westhoek (Centenary of the Great War in the Westhoek), the 100th anniversary of the First World War. This will be commemorated across the country with special events during the period 1914 to 1918.
While the Flemish Region is busy with improvements to memorials in the lead-up to the centenary of the First World War, we visit Poperinge, home to two of the most evocative sites
For almost the entire duration of the First World War, Poperinge, near Ypres, remained one of the few unoccupied towns in Flanders. Located 10 kilometres behind the front line and with a good railway connection to Ypres, it was a natural destination for soldiers looking to find some relaxation.
Occasionally it was shelled by a long-range German missile but, for the most part, Poperinge was untouched. It therefore soon became a bustling town full of shops, cafés and restaurants catering to the needs of war-weary troops. “Shall we pop into Pop?” became a popular catchphrase amongst British soldiers.
The importance of “Pop” soon became apparent to two British Army chaplains serving with the 6th Division: Philip “Tubby” Clayton and Neville Talbot. They decided to open up a soldiers’ club and began looking for a suitable site.
Coincidentally, a property owned by local hop merchant Maurice Coevoet became available. After his house was damaged by a stray German shell, he decided to move out of Poperinge with his wife and children. Negotiations began between him and the British Army, and a monthly rent of 150 Belgian Francs was agreed for the duration of the war.
After some modifications, the house opened its doors to British soldiers for the first time on 11 December, 1915. It was named Talbot House in remembrance of Neville’s brother Gilbert, who had recently been killed at Hooge. Right from the start, Talbot House was a different kind of soldier’s club: warm, cosy and inviting. The sign – “Every Man’s Club” – still hangs outside, indicating that Talbot House was for the normal soldier, not just an officers’ club.
“It was just an ordinary house where ordinary soldiers could feel at home for a day or two,” explains Dries Chaerle, Talbot House’s curator. “They could buy postcards or soap in the small shop or write a letter home. They could read a book in the library or sit and smoke with their mates in the garden. They could even sleep here overnight.”
The first floor of the neighbouring hop store was converted into a concert hall for debates, movies and live shows. Talbot House grew to become one of the most important institutions of the British Army.
The longest surviving First World War veteran, Harry Patch, who died just last year at age 111, was also fond of Talbot House: “A lot of us used to call it ‘the haven’ because that’s exactly what this place was to the men – a place of peace where you could relax, and the only time you could forget the strains of war for a couple of hours.” At the end of the war in 1918, the original owners returned, and Talbot House reverted to a family home. But for thousands of former soldiers, Talbot House remained in their memory. In 1931, it was purchased by Lord Wakefield of Hythe who donated it to the newly-formed Talbot House Association, which still owns it today.
House in hiding
During the Second World War, Poperinge was occupied by the German army. Fearing for the safety of the historically-valuable items inside Talbot House, a team of local people secretly emptied it. They split the collection throughout the town and found a hiding place for every painting, book and piece of furniture.
Indeed, the house became a German officers’ mess. But with the liberation of Poperinge in 1944, every single item was brought back to the house. The authentic interior of the house has been excellently preserved, and the unique spirit of the place can perhaps be best experienced in the loft. Previously used for drying hops, it was converted into a chapel and became known as the “Upper Room”. On the initiative of the soldiers, the chapel was furnished with an altar made from a carpenter’s bench found in the garden shed. Candlesticks were made from bedposts. A portable organ was brought in, and wooden benches made or acquired from damaged churches.
Talbot House is open to the public, including for overnight stays. For me, two perfectly preserved mementos brought home the stark reality that, although Talbot House was a wonderful place of recreation after the rigours of war, it could only ever be a temporary shelter – a brief respite before the trudge back to the trenches of Ypres or Passchendaele.
At the wooden stools in the Upper Room, numerous young soldiers would have prayed their final prayers before returning to battle. And in the hall, the visitors’ book displays their shaky signatures. For many, it would have been the last time they signed their name.
In the spring of 1915, the hamlet of Lijssenthoek, just south of Poperinge, became involved in the war effort. The large farm owned by Remi Quaghebeur, a few kilometres behind the front and next to the Poperinge-Ypres railway line, became home to four field hospitals with 4,000 hospital beds.
These field hospitals took in wounded men evacuated from vast swathes of the front. Those who did not survive were buried in the military cemetery nearby. Lijssenthoek (pictured here and on our cover) thus provides a witness to more than four years of daily warfare in the Ypres Salient. It contains 9,901 Commonwealth burials of the First World War and 883 war graves of other nationalities, mostly French and German. It is the second largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world (after Tyne Cot in Ypres).
Last summer, a research project began at Lijssenthoek to use the cemetery as a mirror, producing “Daily Reflections of the Great War”.
“The Lijssenthoek field hospitals were busy throughout the war; every day at least one soldier died there,” says Annemie Morisse, who is leading the project. “You can therefore find every single date of the year on a headstone in the cemetery – even February 29. This sombre fact reflects the unceasing daily nature of the Great War. It wasn’t just about major battles; it was four years of continuous, daily combat and death.”
“Daily Reflections” will also try to deconstruct the history of the war through the nearly 11,000 known, historical graves – and as many personal stories. As much information is therefore needed. If you knew someone who is buried at Lijssenthoek, you are invited to go the website, complete the information form and participate in the project.
It may not be for four years, but preparations to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War are already in full swing. Flemish minister of tourism Geert Bourgeois is working closely with the West Flanders Tourist organisation Westtoer on the initiative 100 jaar Grote Oorlog in de Westhoek (Centenary of the Great War in the Westhoek). Five projects have top priority:
• An expansion of the In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres
• A new visitor centre at Lijssenthoek Cemetery
• A garden at the Passchendaele 1917 Memorial Museum in Zonnebeke
• A new museum in the Ijzertoren (Yser Tower) memorial in Diksmuide
• A new visitor centre at Ganzenpoort, home to the King Albert 1 monument, in Nieuwpoort
“We confidently expect at least two million people to visit the Westhoek in that period,” says Bourgeois. 100 jaar Grote Oorlog will last five years and include special exhibitions, concerts, ceremonies and walking and cycling routes.