By Lyn Funnell

 

Ypres, Menin Gate

Ypres, Menin Gate

We Brits are a forgiving lot. We seem to suffer from collective amnesia. Any tragedies, wars, etc are out of sight, out of mind and we get on with life.

But Flanders is a living monument to what happened to them in World War l. And who can blame them, considering the terrible atrocities that they suffered, through no fault of their own.

Belgium was neutral, but when the Germans tried to use it as a short cut, the Belgians refused to let them through. So the Germans tortured and killed innocent men, women, children, disabled people, pregnant women, and anyone else who they could round up.

That wasn’t warfare. That was mass murder.

I caught the Eurostar from St Pancras Station to Lille.

Although I love flying, I think I prefer the Eurostar. There’s plenty of legroom and views out of the window. And apparently, within 600 kms, the train is quicker than flying. You don’t need to travel to and from an airport, then fly up, along and down again. It goes straight there. And it stops in the centre of the cities.

We travelled from Lille Station the short distance to the town of Poperinge, (pronounced Popperinger) to stay in the Hotel Palace, which was an old cinema.

After checking in and having lunch, we visited Talbot House.

Talbot House

Talbot House

The nearby town of Ypres was completely flattened by bombs in the War. Not a building was left standing.

You could place yourself in the middle of the town and see the neighbouring towns and villages in every direction, probably for the first time in centuries!

But Poperinge was a safe town for some reason. It was a British Garrison Town, and known as Little Paris or Little London. Plans of attack and defence were made there.

At the time, there were 10,000 locals and half a million British soldiers, plus Chinese labourers who built the railroads.

In fact, in 1917 they started driving on the left-hand side of the road!

Brothels, cinemas, bars and clubs opened up and the troops spent a lot of money in them.

And who can blame them? After all, it could be their last days alive. So why not spend their final night in the arms of a sympathetic prostitute?

Talbot House was probably the most respectable place for the men to go.

Started in the War as a club by Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton, it was originally a mansion, built in the 1730s, so it was 100 years older than Belgium!

The rule was that all the men were of the same value and rank. They didn’t need to salute an officer.

Four men were queuing for a cup of tea and an officer came along. They all stepped aside, and the officer said, ‘Not here, boys, not in Talbot House.’

Obviously they still needed to show respect, like no swearing, back-slapping or insults. And as soon as they stepped out of the door, they were expected to salute an officer once again.

There were six pianos in the house, plus billiards, darts and chess. Tea and cake were served, but no alcohol.

And 100 years later, Talbot House is almost exactly the same, complete with tea and cake. It probably even smells the same; you know, that old, musty Great Aunt odour?

The chapel is still up a ladder in the roof, the furnishings are original, and there’s a replica study.

Accommodation can be booked, in bedrooms where the officers used to pay to sleep. The revenue helped to finance the club. Everything else was free for the men.

Now it pays for the upkeep of the museum.

In the evening, we travelled to Ypres. And after dinner, we strolled up the road to the Menin Gate for the Last Post.

All the walls and the ceiling are covered with the names of 58,000 of the troops who died in the War. There’s no room for any more. Over 200,000 men died but only half of them were ever identified. And they didn’t all die at once. Many of them died after the War through their injuries.

Since 1928, every day without fail, The Last Post has been sounded under the Menin Gate in memory of all the troops from the British Empire and allied Forces who were killed.

It’s now played by the local Fire Brigade.

Every single evening, in all weathers, thousands of people of all ages gather to watch this poignant, moving ceremony.

Groups of schoolchildren in high-viz jackets sit cross-legged at the front. None of them fidgeted or spoke. They didn’t need to be told off.

Everyone chants, ‘We will remember,’ in English, and there’s a minute’s silence. Then small groups of people, who have been lined up, three at a time, march over the road to lay poppy wreaths.

It was very moving. Afterwards, everyone slowly dispersed, practically in silence, which is really eerie and awe-inspiring for such a large crowd.

Relevant Websites:
www.visitflanders.co.uk
Talbot House  http://www.toerismepoperinge.be/en/page/3021/sleeping.html
Lijssenhoek Cemetery http://www.lijssenthoek.be/en
Poperinge – Heavy Traffic exhibition http://www.poperinge14-18.be/

 

Museum on the Yser “ Yzer Tower” http://www.aandeijzer.be/

 

Trench of Death  http://www.visitflanders.co.uk/what-to-do/attractions/historic-buildings/dodengang-604075.jsp