Sunday 16 June 2013

Escape from the trenches: by Sue Purkiss

One rainy autumn night in 1915, a chaplain named Philip Clayton arrived at the badly shelled station of a little town in Belgium named Poperinge. He had just been appointed to a battalion named The Buffs and Bedfords, whose turn it was to have a rest in Pop away from the front line. Clayton, bespectacled, thirty years old, short, blessed with an irrepressibly optimistic nature, and always known as Tubby, decided to leave his luggage at the station, stroll into town and find himself a hotel. It was 2am, and an inky black night. After half an hour, with no town in sight, Tubby began to have doubts. He enquired of two men in front of him - and discovered that he was actually heading away from Pop, and towards Ypres: the once-beautiful mediaeval town which now lay in ruins, as did the fiercely fought-over countryside around it.
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
Tubby saw a gap. The soldiers needed a place where they could escape from the war for a few hours; a place 'to provide happiness for the men', which would also have a chapel. Together with the senior chaplain, Neville Talbot, he set about finding a suitable building, and chose a large house in the Rue de l'Hopital which had suffered some shell damage and whose owner, a wealthy brewer, agreed to let for a low rent provided the army would repair it.

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.

The chapel
The house was open to all ranks. It must have been one of the very few places where you could see a general, a captain, a second lieutenant and a private having a cup of tea and a chat. Tubby had interesting priorities. His motto was, 'Give me the luxuries of life, and I care not who has the necessities.' So a piano was far more important than dish cloths, and they acquired one very early on. There were whist drives, debates, classes, chess tournaments - and there was the chapel, which on Sundays was filled with so many men that the floor swayed. It became known as Toc H, which was the signal terminology for Talbot House: the movement of that name developed from these beginnings after the war.

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


Susan Price said...

Thank you, Sue! I'd never heard of Tubby Clayton, but he was a true hero.

Ness Harbour said...

Fascinating post - thank you

Penny Dolan said...

Tubby Clayton sounds a remarkable mix of eccentricity and sense. Talbot House must have been so welcome in that sorrowful landscape - as it was to you, visiting.

The story of this hopeful refuge makes the TOC H "lighted lamp" symbol more poignant.


Candy Gourlay said...

What a lovely story. Thank you.

Marjorie said...

That's fascinating. I'd heard of the Chaplain, Talbot, but not of Tubby Clayton.
Thank you.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, everyone! He was an inspirational character - if you look him up on Wikipedia, you'll see he went on to do extraordinary things throughout the rest of his long life.

Theresa Breslin said...

I love this post Sue. I too have visited these places and found it a very moving experience. One of the features of Talbot House was the message board where soldiers could leave messages to try to contact each other - especially significant when trying to locate persons posted as 'missing in action'. There are many remarkable stories about this facility and I was inspired to use it in my book about WW1.

Sue Purkiss said...

I must re-read your book, Theresa. Yes - there was one story about a man who arrived at Talbot House and saw from the message board that his brother, whom he hadn't seen since the beginning of the war, had been there the day before. Tubby sent a message to the brother's unit, demanding his presence - so they were able to meet. One of them was killed a couple of weeks later. So many sad stories...

Moodles said...

Sue,what a lovely article about Tubby Clayton and the trip to Ypres.It was such a privilegeto be there and for me,playing the very ancinet harmonium was so special.Thank you.