|Talbot House as it stands today.|
Robin is a journalist currently working in Hong Kong. He has special interest in the Great War and Ypres in particular.
Tubby Clayton and the Story of Toc-HBy Robin Bowman
The first time the Rev. Philip Clayton visited the little Belgian town of Poperinge, one inky night in the autumn of 1914, he turned the wrong way out of the railway station and missed the place altogether. After half an hour's walk he realised his mistake: he was heading along the main road to Ypres along with hundreds of British troops for whom 'Pop' (as they universally called the town) was their main forward base. It was an inauspicious start for the man whose name would become synonymous with Pop's Talbot House where many thousands of Commonwealth troops visited in search of solace, company, and a sense of fun.
For many of these visitors, on their way to the killing fields of Ypres, it would be their last taste of anything like home.
Today, Poperinge is pretty and prosperous and often overshadowed by the great historical significance of Ypres, no more than 10kms down the road. But when Clayton arrived, it had a wholly different look. From the autumn of 1914 onwards - excluding a short hiatus during the first part of October 1914 when the town was captured by the Germans - Poperinge was the assembly point for tens of thousands of mainly British, Canadian, Australian and Indian troops on their way to and from the bloody Ypres salient.
The huge, transient military population was swollen by refugees fleeing Ypres and surrounding villages, and the town's railway station became one of the busiest on the Western Front. In the small square, overlooked by the graceful, Gothic Stadhuis, troops, lorries and mules converged in an unending morass.
In 1915, when Clayton arrived for the second time, he noted 'a canteen in the square' and beyond that nothing "but refugee shops, bright behind their rabbit-wire windows, with their eternal display of 'real Ypres lace', untrustworthy souvenirs, and still more untrustworthy wrist-watches."
Yet beyond that there was a lot more than 'nothing'. Estaminets and simple restaurants sprang up everywhere and provided a good living for many. Wealthier residents had long since left for safer areas of France, but those who stayed were busy running what were often thriving businesses. Troops had money to spend and were desperate for R&R. Clayton describes one 'combined pastry cook and brewery concern' which was 'said to have made 5,000 pounds clear profit during four months' - a veritable fortune in those days!
In 1915 the Rev. Neville Talbot, senior chaplain of the British 6th Division, wanted a house which he could turn into a church club. In that same year, the owner of an old hop house, which had been hit several times by artillery shells in what was then called Rue de l'Hopital, fled the town for a safer destination. The padre persuaded the army to rent the house and in charge was put the Rev. Clayton - a fat, round little man who wore large, black-rimmed glasses; a short, substantial figure, an innocent expression on a kindly face. Captain Leonard Browne, who knew him well, takes up the description: '..a living embodiment of Mr. Chesterton's famous Father Brown. Clothing was always a trial - buttons would persist in coming off, breeches would gape at the knees, shirt cuffs would wear out.'
Clayton was a figure of serious devotion - and serious fun.
Nicknamed 'Tubby' by all who knew him and of him, Clayton arrived from the British HQ of Montreuil and took charge of Talbot House which opened as a sanctuary for all ranks on December 11, 1915. He lost no time in turning it into a pub without booze.
It was a club for Everyman where troops of all ranks could relax and enjoy a brief respite from the horrors of the Front Line. One of the house's most famous features was its tranquil garden. But to Tubby, and the many men who passed through, the most important area was the Upper Room where the chapel resided, in what was said to be the old hop attic. 25,000 men are recorded as having visited it.
The club was named Talbot House in memory of Neville Talbot's brother Lt. Gilbert Talbot who was killed at Hooge on July 30, 1915. His grave is still found in nearby Sanctuary Wood Cemetery.
But to the soldiers of the day, Talbot House was always 'Toc-H' - formed from Talbot House's initials translated into signallers' parlance.
Today the attic chapel is still preserved and is perhaps the most poignant aspect of Toc-H. According to the sketchy records kept by the house, no fewer than five men who later won VCs took Communion there.
The chapel was strangely constructed. Because of a series of warnings that the attic was unsafe for more than a few men at a time, it was designed so that men faced each other with the altar at one end, leaving the centre of the room - the weakest part - free from heavy weight.
An old carpenter's bench found abandoned in the garden became an altar, the appropriateness of which was not lost on Tubby Clayton.
For many men, a simple service in the attic of Toc-H became their way of making peace with whatever God they had perhaps long abandoned. After all, for most, the next appointment was with the hell of the Ypres salient where the life-expectancy of an officer was ten weeks. In such circumstances rank mattered little.
One moving note by an unknown soldier written on the 29th March 1917 and recorded by Tubby in his Tales of Talbot House sums up this sense of reckoning:
'Will you pray very earnestly for me that I may have strength given to me to do that which is right and to make an effort to help others; not so much by what I say, but by my whole life. I have wandered away very far, but I want to put things right; and the prayers of Talbot House will mean much to me.'
For others, the inspiration of Toc-H verged on the miraculous. One doctor-colonel, awarded a bar to his DSO for the incident he describes, wrote in the understated fashion of the day:
'I shall never forget a certain Service in Talbot House. The sequel to it was the successful carrying out of a job of picking up and carrying wounded which lasted some days, and appeared next door to impossible. Incidentally I never expected to see the finish of it personally. Everything went right in the most remarkable way and arrangements that I made when hardly able to think fitted into each other with a perfection that my brain could never have achieved. What I regarded as doomed to failure involving many besides myself turned out a success which amazed me. I saw many strange things during the War, but that has left a mark which I can rely on remaining. I shall never believe again that a duty is impossible. I got a Bar to a DSO over it, but few people would understand if I told them how I got it in Talbot House.'
But Toc-H was also full of the rather innocent humour of the day. Signs were hung throughout the building to bring a smile to the faces of the troops who entered. 'All rank abandon ye who enter here' - a twist to the sign above Hell in Dante's Inferno. And: 'If you are in the habit of spitting on the carpet at home, please spit here.' In the summer of 1916, a few weeks before the start of the Somme campaign, the house became overwhelmed by visitors and the solution as Tubby puts it was to 'bomb the officers out'. Almost as soon as this took place, however, British, as well as Canadian, Australian and Indian troops were sent in their tens of thousands southward to be slaughtered on the Somme. Pop became, for a while at least, part of a quiet sector. But Toc-H soon became busy again as fighting around Ypres resumed. Men sprawled in the garden to sunbathe, diverted their minds in the well-stocked library, played cards and attended raucous musical evenings.
One other name deserves inclusion in the story of Talbot House - that of the hilarious and kind-hearted cockney No 239, Pte. Pettifer, A, 1st The Buffs (Hussars), otherwise known to all and sundry, including the children of Poperinge, as 'The General.' He was the one full-time member of staff at Toc-H.
Pettifer was, to coin a quaint old phrase, a rough diamond with a heart of gold. During his brief spells as a civilian before the war, Pettifer drove a cart around the streets of south Hackney in London. When war came he rejoined his old regiment, The Buffs, leaving, as Clayton puts it, 'his Mrs. with one less dinner to see to and the nibs without their Sunday escort.' Nothing much impressed him during his first year of 'action' except the occasion while on guard duty when he challenged and refused to allow entry to the brigadier.
By November, 1915, Pettifer's regiment had been reduced
to 28 men and a 500 strong draft arrived. As Pettifer describes
it, these men were selected from 900 hopefuls by means of the
'Roman Catholics, one pace to your front.
'Church of England, stand fast.
'Other religions, one pace to the rear.'
'Roman Catholics, one pace to your front.
'Church of England, stand fast.
'Other religions, one pace to the rear.'
Pettifer was a Buff like the 500 selected and, as Tubby Clayton describes them, they may have had no doubts about their religious allegiance officially, but they certainly 'evinced no remarkable churchmanship on their arrival'.
What they lacked in terms of religion, however, they made up for in battle. Tubby goes on to say: 'But they were staunch enough in face of Fritz.' And he retells a conversation between two troops on a 'very bad black evening': "Well, if we're winning this f..... war, God 'elp the losers.'
Pettifer rapidly became the Magpie of Toc-H. Clayton describes how he became scared to mention that an item was needed because Pettifer would be out and about wheeling and dealing, or worse, to get that particular item.
'I was, for instance, overheard to say that a carpet for the chapel was most desirable,' writes Clayton.
'Within an hour a carpet had arrived. Enquiry revealed the painful fact that it had come from next door. "They won't be wanting it, sir; they do say the family are in the sou' of France." '
Clayton stood fast on his principles; he takes up the story: "General, I can't say my prayers kneeling on a stolen carpet." Silence hereafter for a space: then a bright idea. 'Well, sir, if yer won't 'ave it in the church, it'll do lovely for yer sitting-room.' When even this brilliant alternative is dismissed as Jesuitical, and the carpet restored to the place it came from, a few days elapse tranquilly. The General scores heavily one morning:
'Yer remember that carpet, sir?' I admit it. 'Well, the ASC 'ave scrounged it now.'"
Pettifer also displayed that peculiarly British manner of dealing with anything foreign - raising his voice. As Clayton puts it: 'In foreign society he is equally at his ease, largely because he has eschewed all attempts at their methods of speech, and continues, like so many of the best Englishmen, to regard their inability to understand him as a species of chronic deafness, to be overcome by slower articulation, sedulous repetition and a raising of the voice in utterance. It is certainly amazing what excellent results may be thus obtained.'
It was the children of Poperinge who bestowed upon Pettifer the title of 'Le General' for reasons not recorded. Clayton adds: 'And to many of the old folk as well he has been a benefactor in dark days; wheeling their 'sticks' away to safety, or greatly concerned for the more difficult removal of the bed-ridden. Fancy bed-ridden old, in such a town as this has been!'
In 1929 old Talbot House was bought by Lord Wakefield to be preserved. During WW2, before it was occupied by the Germans, the people of Poperinge stripped the house of its contents - including the carpenter's bench and even Tubby Clayton's harmonium - and hid them. By the time Tubby returned for his first post-war visit, everything was back in its place.
The Toc-H tradition did not die following the Great War. In 1919, a movement was founded to help men who struggled to find work in 'the land fit for heroes' - the same men who searched, often in vain, for the brotherhood of the trenches.
Today Toc-H is part of a large charitable organisation with branches in many countries. At their foundation, each branch is presented with a lamp, similar to those used in Biblical times, in remembrance of the lamp which burned in the attic chapel of Toc-H where so may men experienced their last moments of tranquillity.
There is a visitors' centre at Talbot House, number 43 Gasthuisstraat, and overnight visitors are welcome to stay in the rooms on the second floor (English 1st floor), for a modest sum. Much of the original house is as it was and many of the signs still hang.
©1996 Robin Bowman, All rights reserved.