Talbot House is a Belgian town house located in the town of Poperinghe in rural Flanders. Here in December 1915 two army chaplains, Rev. P.S.B. ‘Tubby’ Clayton and Rev. Neville Talbot, opened the house in memory of Neville’s brother, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, who had been killed at Hooge in July 1915. The idea was to create a place soldiers could come to, to escape the war. There was a quiet room, a library, a theatre, a place to get tea and in the loft a chapel where men could attend religious services. During the war thousands of British troops knew Talbot House, but in 1919 its former owner claimed it back until the house was acquired for the Talbot House Association in the 1920s. Talbot House was where the Toc H movement was started: Toc H is army signalling phonetic for the initials T.H. = Talbot House.
This image comes from a postcard soldiers could buy at the house during the war to help raise money for the house so that everything could be free for ordinary soldiers. It shows the ‘upper room’ where the services took place. A century after Talbot House first opened this view, and this chapel, is almost unchanged. It is one of the places on the Western Front where you can reach out and almost touch the Great War.
It is often forgotten how many families went to France and Flanders during the inter-war period; by the 1930s Ypres alone was receiving more than a quarter of a million visitors from Britain and the Empire. Most such pilgrimages were subsidised in some way as the cost for the average family was prohibitive, but the desire to make that journey was a strong one.
This image is from a small collection taken during one such pilgrimage in the 1920s. There are no captions on any of the pictures but evidence seems to suggest this is Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe; at that time it was the largest British cemetery on the Western Front with nearly 10,000 graves; Tyne Cot, today the largest, had as yet not been finished.
And when you focus in on this image, among the sea of wooden crosses, there she is – a women looking back at the photographer. Was she a mother, a sister, a wife, a lover, a friend? The half-seen face with the smart dress, arms at her side almost as if at attention by the grave – what must have crossed her mind, and the thousands and thousands of other women like her who visited the Old Front Line to make some sense of loss, some sense of the cost of that war? Looking at the name on the cross would she have echoed the words of Vera Brittain, following her own visit to her brother’s grave?
“At every turn of every future road I shall want to ask him questions, to recall to him memories, and he will not be there… How trivial my life has been since the War ! I thought, as I smoothed the earth over the fern. ‘How mean they are, these little strivings, these petty ambitions of us who are left, now that all of you are gone! How can the future achieve, through us, the somber majesty of the past?’ ” (Testament Of Youth)
The 8th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment was a Pioneer battalion raised in Sussex in 1914. While many Pioneer units were raised in the Midlands and North of England where the male population was often used to hard physical labour and made excellent army Pioneers, those that lived and worked in Britain’s rural communities were found just as suitable. The men who joined this battalion in September 1914 were largely drawn from the rural towns and villages of West Sussex and were older than the average recruit; men in their late 20s and into their 30s. They trained at Colchester and then went to France in July 1915 as Pioneers to the 18th (Eastern) Division.
This photograph was taken in Belgium in the autumn of 1917; it is one of a number I have all with the same farm buildings in the background which were typical of the sort of structures found in the area around Poperinghe. The 8th Royal Sussex spent some time here in 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres and it appears they invited a local photographer to take pictures of the whole battalion platoon by platoon, judging by the different examples I have. Unfortunately these images were not named, so while we know when and where the photo was taken, and what unit it was, we have no idea who these men were: a frustratingly common problem with Great War images.