This Autumn I travelled to Belgium alongside fourteen other Anglican and Baptist ministers to spend time at a place called Talbot House (known as Toc H for short). Toc H is in the small town of Poperinge and was set up during World War I as a Christian retreat for soldiers. Poperinge was the train junction where soldiers arrived and returned from the trenches around Ypres, so it was ideally situated to offer a place of rest for those who had endured so much at the front. Those who benefited from the house described it as ‘a haven from hell’.
Talbot House was the idea of the army chaplains Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton and Neville Talbot, who wanted to create an ‘Every Man’s Club’. This would mean setting aside differences of rank and creating a space where anyone was welcome. At the time, this was unthinkable – even in the middle of war, rank was strictly observed in social situations. Officers simply did not relax in the same space as soldiers – but Tubby saw the opportunity for a different kind of space.
Chaplains in the Army held the unusual position of not being strictly bound by the system of rank, allowing them to offer counsel to everyone. Tubby saw an opportunity to extend this ministry to Talbot House itself. His Every Man’s Club was famous for breaking down these barriers; the sign next to the front door still reads ‘All rank abandon ye who enter here’.
As you enter the house, there is a section of wall covered in small typewritten messages. This was known as ‘Friendship Corner’, where men could leave messages for friends or siblings. Brothers left messages for each other, telling them where their regiment was heading next. Next to many notes were handwritten replies, telling the writer whether or not it had been possible to pass on the message. It was a sobering reminder of how difficult it was to communicate due to the vast flow of people around the frontlines.
As we stayed in the house for a few days, we experienced something of the hospitality and spiritual nourishment which had been offered to soldiers in wartime. In the middle of chaos, this building offered solace and refuge. The three levels of the house offered a sort of progressive level of spiritual input many soldiers came to the ground floor for a bite to eat and a chat, some would then go to the first floor for prayer and private conversation with the chaplain, and some would head towards the chapel on the top floor for a communion service.
The chapel had a wonderful sense of peace. The communion table was particularly poignant as it was a real carpenter’s bench, complete with the marks of tools and saws. When Tubby found that many soldiers were asking to be baptised, he also installed his own family baptism font – a handheld font which his family had used when they lived in rural Australia.
In 1917 during the Battle of Messines, nineteen mines were detonated along the front. Just around the corner from Toc H on the edge of a field, a crater remains which is 12m deep and 129m wide. Soon after the war, it filled with water and lilies began to grow in the pool. Tubby purchased the land and named it the Pool of Peace, a lasting reminder of the impact of the war and a place for peaceful reflection. It both held a beauty and an eeriness, a place of silence created by one of the largest explosions in European history.
On our final evening in Belgium we visited Ieper (Ypres), a town which was completely restored after being destroyed by shelling. At the Menin Gate, hundreds of people gather each day for the Last Post ceremony and to see the names of 54,000 British soldiers who died in Flanders and whose graves are undiscovered. The Last Post has been played here every day since 1928, and on this particular day the British Grenadier Guards Band joined the Ieper Fire Brigade to lead the service. The ceremony was hugely moving, and a fitting end to a week of contemplation and reflection on history.
But what I hadn’t expected was to bump into someone from my own history! As the band processed out from under the arch, I saw a familiar face under one of the bearskin hats and recognised a friend who used to play in the same university orchestra as me. We managed to catch up and share our impressions of Belgium, and we were both glad to see a friendly face in a week of serious thought.
This article, written by Rev Roland Slade, featured in the Advent 2019 edition of The Bridge – the magazine for All Saints’ Church in Marlow. Pick up your free copy in church or download it here.