Marple Remembers - 2003
The Ypres Salient
By Ian Rice

Day 2 p2 Day 3 p2

WEDNESDAY 17th APRIL 2003 (Day 3, part 1)


Vlamertinge Military Cemetery was started by the French troops in 1914. The cemetery was used by fighting troops and Field Ambulances of the British Army from late 1914. It was carefully tended by them until June 1917 when further extension was forbidden and burials practically ceased as the adjoining land was claimed for a military railway. A very high proportion of the graves are for Territorial units and in particular for nearly 250 Lancashire Territorial units. During the early months of 1917 the 55th (West Lancs) Division, whenever it was possible, brought their dead from the front for burial here. The cemetery now contains 1175 graves including four Second World War burials dating from the Allied retreat to Dunkirk in 1940.

The extremely full day started with a visit to Vlamertinge Cemetery. The first grave we visited was that of Private S. Colclough of the Cheshire Regiment who died on 26th July 1917. He was the great-uncle of one of our group, Alan C. Private Colclough had enlisted in the Wirral but later served with a Stockport company. At the time of his death he was attached to the Royal Engineers to help dig trenches and saps for the forthcoming offensive. Alan's research leads him to believe that his great-uncle was working somewhere near Hammond's Corner in the area around Essex Farm. It is his belief that his great-uncle was wounded and evacuated from the front but that he succumbed to his wounds here at Vlamertinge, which was a casualty clearing station for the Artillery at the time.

If Private Colclough represents the ordinary soldiers, the ones who lived as normal a life as the war permitted before dying a sad and painful death devoid of any glory, the occupant of the next grave we visited was his complete opposite. Acting Company Sergeant-Major John Skinner VC, DSO - 'Jock' to his friends - was a real Boys' Own hero. Jock served with the King's Own Scottish Borderers and had joined the army as a professional soldier to fight against the Boers in South Africa at the beginning of the century. By the time he arrived in the Salient he had already seen action at Mons, Gallipoli and on the Somme. His sleeve bore five wound stripes. In an action near Passchendaele he had won the Victoria Cross. The citation for this action reads:

On 18 August 1917 at Wijdendrift, Belgium, when his company was held up by machine-gun fire, Company Sergeant-Major Skinner, although wounded in the head, collected six men and with great courage and determination worked round the left flank of three blockhouses from which the machine-gun fire was coming, and succeeded in bombing and taking the first blockhouse single-handed. Then leading his six men towards the other two blockhouses he cleared them, taking 60 prisoners, three machine-guns and two trench mortars.

As a local hero Jock was returned home and assigned to a training battalion. Not surprisingly this type of posting did not suit him and, against orders and despite being intercepted en route and sent back to Edinburgh, he made his way back to his battalion at the front.

A few weeks after his surprise return, on 17th March 1918, on the Bellevue Spur near Vlamertinge, Jock crawled out into no-man's-land to recover the bodies of dead comrades despite standing orders prohibiting this type of action. He continued to return to no-man's-land to bring back wounded soldiers but was killed along with accompanying stretcher-bearers. Jock's body was carried the seventeen miles from the front line to this cemetery where it was borne to its final resting-place by six other winners of the Victoria Cross.

[While researching after our return home I discovered that we missed another VC-winner at Vlamertinge cemetery. Captain Francis Grenfell of the 9th Lancers must have been the first VC of the Great War. His citation reads:

On 24 August 1914 at Audregnies, Belgium, Captain Grenfell rode with the regiment in a charge against a large body of unbroken German infantry. The casualties were very heavy and the captain was left as the senior officer. He was rallying part of the regiment behind a railway embankment when he was twice hit and severely wounded. In spite of his injuries, however, when asked to help in saving the guns, by the commander of 119th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, he and some volunteers, under a hail of bullets, helped to manhandle and push the guns out of range of enemy fire.

Captain Grenfell recovered from his wounds but was killed in action at Hooge on 24th May 1915.]


During the war this small town, known to the Tommies as Pops, was a relatively safe haven behind the lines. It was an important rail centre and was used for the distribution of supplies, for billeting troops, for casualty clearing stations and for troops at rest from duties. From March 1915 until the end of the war it was part of the British Sector. By 1917 around a quarter of a million British troops were billeted in and around the town and so much traffic was passing through it that the world's first one-way system had to be introduced. In every way it was a real soldier's town.

Our first stop in Poperinge was a solemn one. In a small yard some short way from the road we gathered before a wall in front of which, shielded in a plastic sleeve, was a wooden post. It was to this post that soldiers condemned to be shot at dawn were tied. The wall still bears the pockmarks of bullets that missed their target, either intentionally or through surprisingly poor marksmanship considering how close the firing squad must have been to their target. It was here, during the course of the war, that sixteen British soldiers faced the firing squad for a variety of crimes. Nearby are the cells where the condemned men had passed their last hours, out of sight of the wall but not out of earshot. The walls of the cells bore photographs that reminded us that it was not only the British Army that made use of the death penalty. All the nations involved in the war (with the single exception of the Australian Army) had recourse to it.

Across the square and a little way down the road is 43 Gasthuisstraat, Talbot House. It is an old house, dating back to 1790 but it entered history when, on 11th December 1915, Army Chaplain the Reverend Philip 'Tubby' Clayton rented it from its owner, Monsieur Coevoet Camerlynck for the then exorbitant sum of 150 francs a month. Reverend Clayton's intention was to use the house as a soldiers' club. There already existed clubs in the town for officers, including the notorious 'La Poupée' where a dinner cost four shillings and a large choice of wines was also available. These prices put such clubs well out of the pocket of the ordinary soldiers who were forced to spend their brief periods away from the front line in the many grubby bars and brothels that proliferated behind the lines.

We were welcomed to the house by its curator, Jacques Ryckebosch, who told us the fascinating story of the place.

Initially it was proposed that the house should be called Church House. According to Padre Neville Talbot, "the staff of our division saw a scarecrow in the name and smelt tracts". And so the house was named Talbot House in memory of Lieutenant Gilbert W L Talbot, aged 23, who was the brother of Padre Neville Talbot. Gilbert was serving with the 7th battalion The Rifle Brigade when he was killed at Hooge in the Ypres Salient on 30th July 1915. He was the youngest son of the Lord Bishop Talbot of Winchester. The name Talbot House soon became known to the soldiers of the Salient as "Toc H", Toc being the army signaller's code for T.

From the beginning Tubby had certain unbreakable rules for the users of his house. Firstly it was to be a home for any soldier who chose to enter it and as in any home there was to be no room for formality. A notice was hung by the door bearing the message - All rank abandon ye who enter here. All who did enter, from private soldier to general, used only their first name. All were welcome with one exception; another sign at the door informed that pessimists were unwelcome. Tubby saw himself as a sort of Robin Hood, judiciously redistributing wealth as and when necessary, so his expectations of equality among his guests did not stretch to payment. While the ordinary Tommy could avail himself of the facilities free of charge, officers were charged as much as Tubby thought they could afford.

The house had been rented without any furniture and therefore needed to be refurnished as a matter of urgency. In an attempt to make the house more homely soldiers quickly acquired all sorts of pieces of furniture including a piano. Tables, chairs and even two harmoniums all appeared and most are still here. The loft, which was previously used for drying hops, was converted into a chapel and became known as the Upper Room. On the initiative of the soldiers, the chapel was furnished with an altar made from a carpenter's bench found in the garden shed. Candlesticks for the altar were made from bedposts; a portable organ, known as a groan-box, was used for musical accompaniment. Wooden benches were made or acquired from damaged churches. From the early days of its creation the chapel in the Upper Room offered a peaceful haven for hundreds of soldiers taking a brief respite from the trenches.

During the Second World War, Poperinge was occupied by the German Army. Fearing that the historically valuable items inside Talbot House might be at risk, a team of local people secretly emptied the complete contents of the house and split the collection throughout the town, finding a hiding place for each painting, book or piece of furniture; everything disappeared overnight. The German town commander who had commandeered the house was puzzled that the place was so empty but used it as his headquarters and officers' mess until the liberation, when all the furnishings made an equally miraculous return. Unbeknown to the German officers living in the house, a tunnel under the garden was being used to help allied aircrew escape through Belgium.

During its service between 1915 and 1918 Toc H was the home out of the trenches for any soldier who turned up at its door. No one was turned away. Sometimes it was so full that movement within its walls was a problem. Tubby once boasted that in one day 4,000 cups of tea were served - from 20 broken teacups. In his Upper Room Tubby administered communion to more than 10,000 soldiers. A service might attract up to 120 men and it was often observed that with so many men crammed into such a small space at the top of the house the chapel could actually be felt to sway.

As if this was not enough, Tubby often went slumming as he called it. He would pack one of his groan-boxes into the sidecar of his motorcycle and head off to the front line to take a little comfort to the troops who were not able to get to Toc H.

After the war, in 1921, the Toc H Association was formed and the house still welcomes the survivors of the war and anyone else who shares Tubby's aspirations.

In the small shop at Toc H I bought a toy soldier for my collection. It is not a particularly good example and it is impossible to tell what regiment it is intended to represent. Its interest to me lies in the fact that it is made from the lead of bullets found on the battlefields of the Salient.

We ate outside a café in the square from where we could see the old officers' club, 'La Poupée'. Once it had been all abustle as officers on brief leave from the trenches, or soon to return to them, passed in and out of its door. It had the nickname of Ginger's for one of its young hostesses who was very popular among the patrons. Now it is an empty shell; most recently a tea-room, now awaiting whatever new role fate has in store for it. As I sat and enjoyed my plate of fresh marinated salmon I gazed at the town square, in many ways unchanged since the days of its infamy and yet so very different.


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