|The ruins of Ypres|
Nothing daunted, Tubby turned round and walked back again. When he reached Pop, he looked round with interest. It was a small place, with a large central square from which radiated a warren of narrow streets. It was just within range of the big guns, so it had suffered some shell damage, but relative to the desolation of the Ypres Salient a few miles away, it was a haven of safety and it was the place where soldiers came for a break from the front line. There weren't enough billets for them all in the town, so most of them had to sleep in a tented camp, but there were cafes to visit and the 'Fancies' to go and see. This was a show ornamented by two Belgian ladies charmingly known as Lanoline and Vaseline, who, according to Tubby, 'could neither sing nor dance, but at least added a touch of femininity'!
|Talbot House from the garden|
This was done, and Tubby soon had the place looking cosy. He had a chapel created in the loft, accessible only by a reasonably sturdy ladder. Below were bedrooms, a library, a billiard room, a writing room, a games room, and in the basement, a place for concerts and entertainments. It was called Talbot House after the senior chaplain's brother, who had been killed not long before and was buried in the ironically named Sanctuary Wood.
You can still go to see Talbot House, as I did recently - you can even stay there in one of those small simple rooms that gave so many exhausted soldiers a respite from hell during the war. The personality of Tubby pervades the place: there's a warmth and a humour and a complete lack of any whiff of officialdom or stuffiness - witness the signs that say things like No swearing aloud hear, or: If you are in the habit of spitting on the carpet at home, please spit here.
When you go to Flanders and visit the battlefields and the museums, there are not many of the things you see that give a lift to the heart, but Talbot House stands out as one.
On the other side of Poperinge, there is a sight which is quite the reverse. Dominating the town square is a rather elegant cream building, the Hotel de Ville, or town hall. Inside is a cell. In a quiet interior courtyard, there stands a post. It is an execution post, and seventeen men, who had spent their last night in that cell, were shot here: fifteen British and two Canadian soldiers. Behind the post a poem by Erwin Mortier is inscribed, containing these lines:
Do not aim at me lads.
Aim at the white cloth
On my chest.
3080 soldiers were sentenced to death in the First World War, though 'only' 346 executions were carried out. 77% of these were sentenced for desertion. Michael Morpurgo marvellously tells the story of one such in Private Peaceful.
So much needless carnage: so many millions of wasted lives. There are 87 cemeteries of war dead in the Ypres area alone. 346 is a tiny number by comparison, but it seems such a bitter thing that with all that slaughter going on, men whose only crime was to crack under unbearable strain were shot by their own side.
So I'm glad that the spirit of the remarkable Tubby Clayton is still alive in Poperinge. It's a beacon: a reminder that amid all the horror, there was - and is - hope, too, and kindness.
|Tubby Clayton, at Talbot House|