After a rousing breakfast surrounded by sonorous Flemish voices, I cycled my increasingly heavy bike through the Brouwershuis’ verdant gate. In one day I’d added the weight of a dozen beer bottles, and it was starting to take a toll on the handling of the bike. Fortunately I hadn’t much farther to go, and quickly I came to the city of Poperinge.
At Sint-Bernardus, the British couple had told me of some cells in the town hall of Poperinge where young British soldiers serving in WWI had been imprisoned for drunkenness or insubordination or in some rare cases, cowardice and desertion. I found the cell just around back from the tourist information center. It was a small square room with a lavatory bucket and white plaster walls hosting etchings and pencil drawings. Soldiers carved their name or drew the insignias of their companies or even small scenes of ships at war. At least four men spent their last night in that room, marching out to the square in front of the town hall where they were executed by firing squad. During the war, Britain executed over 300 soldiers.
But Poperinge was also a town holding great comfort for Britain’s troops abroad. Early in the war, a chaplain nicknamed “Tubby” was posted to Poperinge, just a few miles from the front at Ieper. He opened up an “Everyman’s Club” known as the Talbot House in the vacated home of a local hop merchant, which housed a chapel in the attic for those soldier seeking worship and spiritual restoration. But most of the grounds and house were simply dedicated to helping servicemen relax and reconnect with each other as people. Decorated with vases of flowers, plaques bearing cheery quips, and furnished with comfortable chairs and hot tea, comradeship probably came easy in the space. It was even more actively encouraged by an extensive guestbook where visitors were to document their passage through the house for the benefit of friends who may be searching for them on the front. The men could let books from a small library in exchange for their service cap as collateral, and they held debates, concerts, and comedy acts in the former hop stores.
In addition to the renovated house and gardens, Talbot House hosts exhibitions of artwork drawing on the region’s history in the war and a permanent exhibition dedicated to life in Poperinge and Ieper during the war. In contrast to the sterile experiences I encountered in Brugge, the Talbot House had an abundance of human narrative. The permanent exhibit moved through various themes of life in and behind the trenches, and prominently featured excerpts from diaries and letters alongside pieces of kit and photographs. Sometimes several excerpts would be used from the same individual in a given section, or even throughout the exhibit. With a meticulous reconstruction of Tubby’s lodgings in the house (complete with an old Underwood typewriter like that one my mother found languishing in a garage sale) and smart signage, it was impossible to tell what was original and what was facsimile or clever invention, but the experience was so immersive that I didn’t really care one way or another. I was just glad to be in that space and share that energy.
The atmosphere was very uplifting. Even the letters and diary entries mentioning conditions on the front made it seem like a soldier’s cares melted away easily once he could slip out of the mud and into a pool for a bath or share a game of football with his mates. I couldn’t help but wonder how Tubby would have felt, in the midst of cultivating so much good will and rejuvenation, to hear the sharp crack of guns at dawn when one of his countrymen was executed. Perhaps he had administered their rites.
Cycling on past Ieper, I came to Hill 62, part of the network of British trenches on the Western Front. The Hill 62 Museum has an amazing collection of stereoscopic photographs, reconstructing the hills, training grounds, trenches, explosions, and the dead in startling realism before my eyes. But even meeting the intense eyes of commanders peering out from the frame cannot match the trenches preserved at the site (even through WWII – the Germans were told that the British had stolen all the artifacts). It had rained the previous two days, and the bottom of the trenches were muddied and water pooled in spots. Around the trenches the ground is pitted with craters left by shells. After walking over and around the trenches via the corrugated iron “bridges” or hopping from one side to another, I entered the mud and narrow walls. The ground was treacherous, and the chilly mud would’ve quickly soaked through anything that was not waterproof. I stumbled ducking through a tunnel that only stretched a hundred feet or so from one trench to another, and to keep myself upright in the dark it took me several minutes to navigate. If I had tried to tramp through double-time I would’ve eaten a faceful of concrete and mud.
During my visit an enormous cohort of British schoolchildren, aged 13 to 15 years by my guess, ran through the museum and trenches. After totally ignoring the exhibits to better spend their time harassing the resident cat who was relaxed on a display case (and then complaining bitterly when the cat defended itself with tooth and claw), they raced out to the trenches. Screams of terror and delight rent the air as they spelunked and played at war games. One boy picked up a bone and tossed it like a baton. “Is that a bone?” asked his companion. “Human bones,” replied the boy. Judging by the size of the joints and the presence of what appeared to be antlers nearby, my guess is that they came from an animal, but still the disrespect was disappointing.
After a half hour they exited, herded by their chaperones. Another younger group was just arriving and two chaperones from the two groups seemed to recognize each other and strike up a conversation. The man who was on his way back onto the tour bus with his group of adolescents remarked that they managed to arrange for a trip to Belgium starting at 5 a.m. and heading back to England at the same time the next day. This way they did not have to pay for overnight accommodation for hundreds of children, but “they still get a nice feel for the land and the history.” Is that so? I was impressed by what one can miss by looking only at one’s watch and pocketbook.
And so my time in Flanders came to an end. I boarded a train for Kortrijk to return my beautiful rented bicycle, but I was looking forward equally much to exploring my next destination: Brussels and Senne valley, famous for its lambic brewers and gueuzeries.