Toc H – Part 1

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Over the weekend I booked my first trip of 2019 to the Western Front. I couldn’t wait any longer than January! It’s just an over night visit, but it’ll be enough time to visit some special places and we’re staying at Talbot House in Poperinghe.

Staying at Talbot House is something I’ve wanted to do for a long while, because of it’s important connection to the Great War. The house, at 43 Gasthuisstraat, was owned by a local businessman – Monsieur Maurice Coevoet-Camerlynck. After the house was damaged by a German shell in 1915, it was clear that the risk of staying in residence was becoming too great, so Monsieur Coevoet-Camerlynck and his family left for safer pastures and offered the house to the British Army for rent.

During the war, the town of Poperinghe or ‘Pops’ as it became known to the soldiers, sat in relative safety behind the front lines at Ypres. It rapidly became a key location for the British Army to reconvene and an area in which the men could decompress from the strains of war. The town was always busy, with its main square linking 5 key roads together and railway lines converging on the town, Pops was a vital distribution hub for all manner of supplies for troops at the front. Due to these strong transport links the town was heavily populated with military personnel and civilians alike. Add to this the casualty clearing stations processing the ceaseless chain of wounded men, and troops billeted awaiting their move to the front or indeed on rest from the front and it is easy to understand why Poperinghe saw 100’s of men arrive and depart daily. As a result, there were many drinking establishments and no shortage of men keen to let off some steam and enjoy some semblance of normal life.

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The main square at Poperinghe, 1914

In the winter of 1915 British Army Chaplain Neville Talbot saw the need for a place of rest for the troops in Poperinghe and instructed one of his recruits, the Reverend Philip Thomas ‘Tubby’ Clayton, to see to it that something was set up. Tubby wanted to provide a place of comfort and relaxation that could be used by any man, regardless of rank, rather than somewhere where patronage was subject to restrictions. 43 Gasthuisstraat was the property chosen to realise this vision and was promptly refurbished with as many home comforts as could be sought, some of which were donated by people back home in England. With soft furnishings, books and even a piano, the atmosphere of a ‘home from home’ for the troops came into being. It was decided, that it would be named ‘Talbot House’ not after Neville Talbot, but his Brother, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot. Gilbert served with the 7th Battalion Rifle Brigade and was killed during action at Hooge on 30th July 1915 following a British counter attack after the Germans first use of the flame thrower. At 23, his death came to symbolise the sacrifice of many young men and it seemed fitting that the refuge in Poperinghe be named in his honour.

Talbot House quickly became a popular retreat, with many 1000’s of men visiting the cosy clubhouse during their time out of the line, drawn by one of it’s founding principles as noted on the door to Tubby’s office:

‘All rank abandon ye who enter here’

Orders in the house were prohibited and all men treated as equals once they had crossed the threshold. This offered men escapism from the shackles of war and Talbot House became a small oasis in the desert of despair that stretched across the Ypres Salient. Squaddies being squaddies of course couldn’t manage to say ‘Talbot House’ for too long, so it was quickly given the nickname Toc H.

It’s popularity grew and grew, and the doors of Toc H remained open until the end of the war. I simply cannot wait to stay in the same walls that have provided shelter and happiness to the men I spend much of my time trying to honour. To share that space with the echoes of the past is something truly unique. Part 2 will follow with more about Toc H and our stay in January…

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