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Talbot House: a refuge in the darkness of WW1 Flanders Fields

By Gery de Pierpont

Heritage and literature dialogue: Paul Chapman

There are some texts which describe atmospheres and historical settings so realistically that they can almost bring old stones back to life. When words, musical cadences and poetry bring scenes alive, describing personalities, passionate encounters and tragedies, we are inescapably drawn back in time. Particularly if these are read in the actual settings they describe …

The “Heritage and literature dialogues” will give you a little flavour of this timeless alchemy, a sample of imaginary delights to be discovered when you stay in history, after a quick trip to your local bookshop! 

Talbot_House_Poperinge

Each day, hundreds of WW1 soldiers passed through Talbot House in Poperinge when going to and returning from the front. “An oasis of serenity in a world gone mad”, is probably the best way to describe the old house… © Talbot House

Because humanity is stronger than the atrocities of the Front Line

A Haven in Hell_Paul_ChapmanA Haven in Hell, Ypres sector 1915-1918“, by Paul Chapman, Cameos of the Western Front (2000)
In this book, Paul Chapman provides a fantastic portrait of Talbot House in Poperinghe (Ypres – Belgium), with the events that have marked its existence since 1915 and all the men who have influenced its destiny. This account which focuses on witness statements of the period, is lively, realistic and sprinkled with British humour. Its settings, plentiful anecdotes and extracts from letters bring the old house back to life. With a little imagination, you can hear the soldiers laughing among themselves, catch a whiff of their sweaty uniforms, hear footsteps on the stairs or hum to the music on the gramophone … this is just the book to read to bring you back to life after a day spent visiting the battlefields of the First World War, with its military museums, cemeteries and other memorials.

Excerpt: the unique « Everyman’s Club » in Poperinge

“Lieutenant-Colonel F.R. Barry who visited in 1917 recorded:
… in the white house next to the Officer’s Club was the most remarkable thing in the BEF [British Expeditionary Force]… I can only say what ‘Everyman’s Club’ felt like to one among many thousand other pilgrims who found reason for undying gratitude to the House, and all it did for him. For its record is a radiant history of light and fellowship and joy and laughter breaking into the darkness of the Salient. For countless men, to pass inside that door has been to enter into a new world – the world of all the things that are really true – and to know that all without was a long nightmare. Toil as we might, the various recreation rooms which we tried to organise for troops were still conspicuously lacking in something not too easy to define. They were far too much like Institutions, their horrible six-foot tables and long forms shouting at you, shrink from it as you would, that they had kindly been arranged by someone to amuse (or pacify) our heroes. They were perfectly good Institutes. This was different: it was a home. That was the distinctive thing about it. All round the cinemas and concerts said to men, ‘Come inside and forget’. Talbot House had the audacity to invite us all to enter – and remember. It recalled to us forgotten things. It brought us face to face with ourselves again, revived in us again the men we were before our personalities were merged in the impersonal drive of the machine. We too were men, with immortal longings in us. We too had each of us our history, our hopes and fears and pains and aspirations; and here we could renew ourselves again. So it was that the House lives in the memory of a tale of men that will never be fully told, as the place where they recovered faith and hope, and first began to dare to believe in love.

Imagine what it meant to the British soldier! To be able to lie back in a real armchair, and sleep, or read, or talk as he felt inclined, not to be ‘pushed about’ by anybody, to know he was expected to do as he would. To have the run of a really first rate library and take up old-time intellectual interests. To be surrounded by a refined comfort which took him and his goodwill for granted, forcing nothing and obtruding nothing, but treating him with that confident respect that is the one indestructible ‘right of man’. Such things impressed even the unimpressionable, and the first taste of them was not soon forgotten. These things were to be found in the antechambers; but the genius of the House was something bigger, and it was found by all who were seeking for it. It was the gift of spiritual fellowship. The frequenters of the Club were more than Clubmen. They were an ever-widening Brotherhood.”

 

Exerpt from “A Haven in Hell”, by Paul Chapman (2000), edited by Ted Smith for the “Cameos of the Western Front” serie, chapter 3.

intoHistory TipLearn more about the Talbot House in Poperinghe (Ypres – Belgium) and its moving guest rooms.

Comments

Visited Talbot House with school groups many times.
Suddenly all the laughs from the jokers stopped for the rest of the day.

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