Soften your tread. Methinks the Earth’s surface is but bodies of the dead, Walk slowly in the air, so you do not trample on the remains of God’s servants.
Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri
It has a romantic ring to it: Flanders Fields. The Fields make up a beautiful, peaceful, patch-worked landscape. There are long lines of trees, church steeples pointing upwards from every town and village. I had never planned to go there. The First World War was never anything I felt an affinity with. And I certainly was never expecting to be affected by the place.
The trip to Flanders was a work one, to meet one of our partners Talbot House in Poperinge. We put together an exhibition based on Philip “Tubby” Clayton who ran the Everyman’s Club in Talbot House during the First World War. We arrived, looked at the town, were entertained and talked business. The next day Gertjan gave us a brilliant tour of the house. He was knowledgeable, intelligent, and passionate about European 20th century history. GJ talked about how the Every Man’s Club worked and how Tubby helped the soldiers who visited. Suddenly, I was hooked.
My way into this story wasn’t though the politics, the battles, conditions of the trenches or the horror. I knew about that in a generic sense, a left over from O levels (I failed history). My way in was through Talbot House, “an oasis of calm and compassion”, and through the life of the generous, big-hearted Tubby Clayton. He was an army chaplain and a prolific writer, which is one reason we can get close to him. He worked tirelessly for the soldiers in the Everyman’s Club. The individual stories he told of men looking for their brothers and friends, the musical shows and the lost souls. He was a man of his time and when you read his work you’ll see he was pro-war, but in that he gave meaning and reason to the soldiers’ lives and their cause.
In Poperinge, the First World War came alive for me. Beyond the walls of Talbot House, I could see the town filled with military personnel, equipment, trucks, trains, the Chinese construction workers, the locals, their children and of course lines of troops making their way to Ypres. We set off to follow that route to Ypres and the “Front”.
The landscape has the First World War all over it. It’s not blatantly visible. There are no trenches, craters or decimated buildings, but look beyond the farms and lines of trees and you’ll see it. As we sped through the landscape along the fast post war dual-carriage way, I saw a single track road following the same line, adjacent to the railway line. It was the road built by the British to supply Ypres and the front. It was straight, utilitarian. The railway too was built by the British. I had never considered the enormity of the task to supply a front line and maintain a war. Along the sides of the roads, the fields, farmers leave the unexploded bombs they come upon whilst ploughing their fields. These are picked up by the authorities.
The hills to the east are always present wherever you are in the landscape. This is where the German army held their lines. Occasionally in the fields you will see a war cemetery, with the regimented white head stones contrasting to the landscape. These are just the remnants of the war and must represent a small percent of what was there.
All these separate elements of the jigsaw started fitting together, building a picture of the war and the anticipation of the actual battlefield. We were heading towards Tyne Cote, one of the larger cemeteries and a marker of the frontlines. We pulled up, parked, went through the museum and into the cemetery itself. There was a bunker in-situ made of a knarled, crude concrete. It suddenly struck me: We were on the frontline.
I’m an archaeologist. That’s my background and that is what I default to when faced with problems. At that moment, I didn’t see the ghosts or hear their echoes. I saw the land and the soil. From my archaeological studies, I know what soil is. I was standing on the remains of the war – the men. Bones survive, guns and bullets survive in the soil, as can uniforms and wood. But, the soft body parts, they decompose quickly, into soil. Millions of men, and boys, were beneath my feet. Those very men who left the shores of Britain, passed through Poperinge, stopped in the Everyman’s Club for a cup of tea, a sing-song, the chance to write a letter home. Those men whose last words were spoken on these fields. As I looked I saw the crops, the hops, wheat, vegetables, all growing from this soil and feeding Europe.
The scale of the disaster dawned on me. In our modern eyes, it seems a far cry from where we are now, although 100 years is a blink of an eye. How did we get there? I don’t question the politics, or the simplicity of the chain of events that was fed to us at school, but the mind-set I do not understand. How did we find ourselves producing this hell that was the war and then repeated 20 years later?
The European Union that came out of these conflicts has been a success. If it existed then, it would never have stopped the First or Second World Wars. But it has brought the European countries closer to each other. I couldn’t imagine putting on a tin hat now and travelling to Belgium to kill Germans. Today being anti-war is a right and not a privilege. Then, there was no choice.
Clayton, P. B., MC, FSA, 1919, Tales of Talbot House, Everyman’s Club in Poperinghe & Ypres 1915-1918, by, Chatto & Windus, London.
Talbot House still exists in Poperinge and is a hotel and museum. It’s worth a visit. http://www.talbothouse.be/en/museum/home
Whilst there visit the Meningate in Ypres. It lists soldiers killed in action and includes men from around the British Empire, for example, the 9th Bhopal Infantry, Burma Military Police, the 36th and 47th Sikhs, the 45th Rattray’s Sikhs and the Assam Military Police.
Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri was a philosopher, poet, and writer, born in modern-day Maarrat al-Nuʿman, Syria, around 973. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35745962
Talbot House in 2020
Talbot House is presently closed, due to Covid-19. Like many small museums it is going through tough times, but they are fundraising. Donate what you can – http://gofundme/f/save-talbot-house