By Michael Williams
It’s hell out there on the Ypres frontline. Crowds file off tourist buses marked Passchendaele and Tyne Cot, shops are touting maps, medals and memorabilia and the Flanders Fields museum is handing out digital history packages on plastic Fitbit-style wristbands. Only halfway though four years of centenary commemorations, the World War One industry is still in overdrive.
No wonder many who come to the battlefields of Belgium and northern France to meditate on the fallen find it hard, amid the noise and the melee, to get to the heart of what of this greatest of conflicts meant to the millions of folk whose lives were lost or shattered.
Yet as a misty November sun shines through the last of the autumn roses in the garden of an anonymous lodging house, down a quiet street in the little hop town of Poperinge – not far from where the tourist guides bark grisly stories of how deserters were shot at dawn – I’m beginning to think I’ve found it.
I’ve stepped with my suitcase inside the rusting iron front doors of one of the most extraordinary B&Bs anywhere. A faded sign outside reads: “TALBOT HOUSE 1915 -? EVERY MAN”S CLUB”. No obvious reason why the tourists trudging along Gasthuisstraat past the whitewashed façade would bother to give it a second look unless they knew what was inside. Yet this secret place is a time capsule that offers a magical and unique insight into the hopes and fears of ordinary soldiers in the Great War that no digital or virtual reality kit, no matter how sophisticated, could recreate.
Talbot House, as it is known, was founded by an eccentric army chaplain known as “Tubby” Clayton, as an alternative to the drinking, gambling and whoring unleashed locally as stressed soldiers came off duty to carouse in the place known as “Little Paris”. Back then Poperinge was the first town in the British sector behind the lines, to which hundreds of thousands of men returned to after being thrown into a sea of mud in a desperate attempt to drive back the enemy.
For these traumatised men “Pop” was both a haven and a hotbed of hedonism. Everything was on sale – Cadbury’s chocolate, Coopers marmalade, or a Swan pen – but, especially, hard spirits, gambling and sex. Soldiers drank their way through town, and the cells were full nightly with men charged with drunkenness, fighting, theft and resisting arrest.
Enter the Rev Philip Clayton – a meek-looking bespectacled army chaplain who cleverly saw that the shattered men might be seeking a more nourishing and homely alternative. Renting a large house along a side street, the Rev “Tubby” furnished it with carpets, curtains, comfy armchairs and flowers in vases and named it after Neville Talbot, a young lieutenant killed in the trenches.
And the “Every Man’s Club” painted on the sign over the door meant exactly what it said. As well as the succour on offer inside the front door, it was the only place on the entire front where men and officers could meet socially. No wonder half a million men were only too happy to pass through the doors from 1914-18 to experience its eccentric welcome.
One hundred years on, Talbot House still going strong. As it celebrates its centenary [December 11 2015], its slightly shabby Edwardian charms remain frozen in time. Entering by a side door, I’m greeted by a life-size model of the Rev Tubby himself, blinking at me through Bunterish wire glasses. “Here I am,” he writes in a note dated December 1915, “A chaplain to the Forces. I am a comic kind of creature in officer’s kit. My job here is of the kind I more or less understand, i.e., being friendly to all comers, without any of the regimental business to bother me.” Just as was the custom in 1915, the “wardens” Derek and Ira offer me a cup of tea – the “house brew” – as I cross the threshold.
The spirit of the place is still everywhere – ancient armchairs to relax in, with the framed homilies of Tubby around the walls. A sign pointing to the back door reads: “Pessimists, Way Out”. Other notices capture the same surreal humour: “If you are in the habit of spitting on the carpet at home, please spit here”. Eccentric figure he may have been, yet for the many thousands of men he helped, Clayton’s charisma was electric – making everyone feel, as mny soldiers put it, that you were the only person in the world who mattered.
The creaking old piano is still installed in the canteen, near “Friendship Corner” and, tea and cakes are still served to residents and visitors, though the songs and contagious laughter are mostly from visiting Belgian schoolchildren rather than weary soldiers. It is easy to see how stepping in from the street – and out of the war’s madness – into this friendly welcoming environment was pure bliss.
On the door of Tubby’s study – arranged as though he had just popped out, with Brown Betty teapot teapot perched on top of an old paraffin heater – is a sign deliberately misquoting Dante: “All rank abandon ye, who enter here”. Here generals and squaddies rubbed shoulders, the most unlikely friendships were forged. What a pity, it was often reckoned, that the top brass of the great powers didn’t drop round for a cuppa with Tubby. The war would have been over rather quicker.”=
Tonight I’m staying in the “General’s Room”, which may seem austere, with its single iron bed and bare floorboards and a notice on the door announcing that there is only one pair of sheets and that they are washed alternately. Yet in its day, majors, colonels and brigadiers competed for the room, since it was only one that wasn’t communal. The rents earned were used to maintain the welcome for the soldiers.
But before settling down, I creep up the steep stairs to the makeshift chapel in the loft, with altar made from a carpenter’s bench to sit in the darkness among the ghosts of the men who had their last converations with their maker here before dying on the battlefield. As I doze off under the single light bulb hanging over my bed, I can almost hear the distant sound of gunfire.
As Talbot House enters its second century it has become a place of pilgrimage for a growing number of visitors, many of them as young as those who sought its refuge in the Great War. Most come to view it it as a museum, or to pay homage to Toc H, the worldwide friendship organisation founded by Clayton. But booking an overnight room is to enter a wonderfully atmospheric time capsule of wartime 1915.
Although the facilities have been subtly modernised (and yes, both my sheets were freshly washed), the spirit and ethos of the place is unchanged . As someone described it a century ago: “Somewhere to find peace and quiet, company and conversation, somewhere for silent relection and contemplation or for lively and noisy gaiety, somewhere for spiritual renewal or for physical refreshment.”
As for me, heading back to the Eurostar at Lille station after my own evocative night in the General’s room, I am filled with an extraordinary feeling of something genuinely good having emerged from the the most terrible bloodshed the world has known.
Michael Williams travelled to Talbot House courtesy of Great Rail Journeys (0800 044 8844). A visit to the house is included in their Battlefields of Flanders tour
Further information about Talbot House and Poperinge can be obtained from Visit Flanders www.visitflanders.com
Talbot House is at Gasthuisstraat 43, 8970 Poperinge, Belgium
Tel: +32 57 33 32 28
Michael Williams’s book’ Steaming to Victory: How Britain’s railways won the war’ is published by Arrow Books, price £9.99