Little Paris, Poperinge during the First World War

At the beginning of the First World War, the Belgian army leadership was already aware that Germany would violate Belgian neutrality. The German plan was to make a sickle move through Belgium and the Netherlands and attack France from the rear. To stop the Germans, the Fort Belt around Liège was reinforced and Antwerp was designated as a supply post. However, both Liège and Antwerp were quickly overpowered by the German artillery. At the height of the Yser and in its extension, the Belgian and French armies set up a defensive position. In a last attempt to stop the German army, King Albert ordered the floodgates to be opened, flooding the Yser plain. The age-old tactic turned out to work and the Germans made no more progress. They therefore soon started a new offensive near Ypres. There, however, the British army and its allies held out. The front became stuck. What was supposed to be a “Blitzkrieg” became in reality a “Sitzkrieg”. Both sides dug in and trench warfare was a fact.

For the British and their allies near Ypres, Poperinge was the closest "safe" town. This made the city the nerve center for military operations. Soldiers, supplies, workers, information,... Everything heading towards the Ypres Salient passed through this city. For the soldiers, Poperinge was a place where they came on leave. Although they usually slept in tent camps just outside the city (for example in Krombeke, Proven and Reningelst), their nightlife took place on the streets of Poperinge. Poperinge, which then had about 10,000 inhabitants, quickly received a quarter of a million English-speaking soldiers. Naturally, "Pop" changed its appearance considerably. The soldiers sometimes called it "little Paris", given the abundance of (improvised or otherwise) cafés, brothels, cinemas, concert halls, clubs and other places of entertainment. It is within that context that we must situate Talbot House.

The history of the House

Talbot House itself was built in the mid-18th century by the notable Lebbe hop merchant family. In 1911, brewer Maurice Coevoet bought the House. After a bomb attack in 1915, which caused no injuries but did cause some damage to the House, he decided to flee with his family to safer places. The House was rented to the 6th Division of the British Army for 150 francs per month. Chaplain Philip "Tubby" Clayton opened a soldiers' club there with the aim of offering an alternative to the often rather dubious nightlife in the rest of the city. Initially the club was called "Church House" but at the suggestion of Colonel Reginald May, and despite the protests of Chief Army Chaplain Neville Talbot, the House was named "Talbot House". This name commemorates Gilbert Talbot, Neville's younger brother, who was killed in action on July 30, 1915.

Gilbert became the symbol of the sacrifice of a "golden generation" of young men. Tubby was put in charge of the clubhouse and created a very homely atmosphere where the strict ranking of the British army did not apply. On the door of his office, the Chaplains Room, there is still a placard that reads: "All rank abandon ye who enter here."

That sentence became one of the pillars of the House. Whoever entered, entered as a human being. Not as a soldier or officer. Orders were also forbidden in Talbot House. Tubby insisted that the House should be a place where people could forget about the war for a while. The sign next to the door that reads "To pessimists, way out!" speaks volumes in that regard. The House is full of such signs, which in many cases eliminate the need to give orders. They are short jokes that subtly make something clear. Running a soldiers' house without discipline may seem impossible, but Tubby has succeeded in this way.

Pool of peace, the peace after the war

The Spanbroekmolen (Kruisstraat - Wijtschate) of the Deconinck family towers high above the ridge of Wijtschate and Mesen. When German troops set fire to the mill in October 1914, August and his brother fled to France. The strategic high position was hotly contested and in January 1916 British tunnellers began to undermine the old mill site. On June 7, 1917 the time had come. At 3:10 am, 19 British mines exploded under the 'Messines Ridge'. At the Spanbroekmolen the explosion may have taken place a few seconds too late due to enemy sabotage, while the stampede was already underway. In the nearby cemetery you can find the graves of the overly industrious Northern Irish boys. Silent witnesses of the largest explosion ever in Belgium.

In 1929, Tubby Clayton organized his umpteenth pilgrimage to the Ypres Salient. After enjoying the view of the Kemmelberg, a limited group walks back to Ypres via Sint-Elooi. It was then at the setting sun that Tubby came up with the idea to buy the crater of Sint-Eloi. He immediately launched an appeal in the Times with the headline “A Pool of Peace: the last crater at St. Eloi”. In his plea to make it a pool of peace for posterity, Tubby refers to “a pool of peace, where the wrath of man could be exalted to the glory of God.”

Back in the UK, the secretary of a wealthy oil baron, Paul Slessor, reads the call and calls in his boss. That is Lord Wakefield of Hyth, the then owner of Castrol Oil. Wakefield wants to buy the crater and sends Slessor to Ypres to settle the matter. When Slessor gathers information on site on behalf of Wakefield, the advice of the British war graves service, the Imperial War Graves Commission, is also requested. However, they soon propose the Spanbroekmolen as a better alternative. After long and difficult negotiations, Wakefield purchases plots of land on which the crater is located from 6 different owners. On April 1, 1933, he sold the crater for a symbolic franc to the non-profit organization Talbot House, the current owner.

The crater, known from the beginning as the Pool of Peace, was declared a monument on June 2, 1992. Soldiers who fought here may never have guessed that years after the catastrophic explosion, the area would become an oasis of peace and tranquility. Nature has managed to heal the scar of war in a beautiful way.

WWI - Digital Guest Book

Browse Talbot House's digital guestbook and uncover your link with the past. In this online database you will discover who the visitors to the House were, what their rank was and to which unit they belonged.

The register is based on the Visitors' Books and Communicants' Rolls used since the opening of Talbot House on 11 December 1915, with new names being added continuously.

This project is part of LANDSCAPES | Feel Flanders Fields in collaboration with Westtoer.

History Links

Find out more Talbot House history at these sites: