Contrary to popular belief, soldiers in the First World War did not spend all of their times fighting or in front line trenches. For the average soldier, he could expect to spend four days in the front line trenches, four days in support/reserve trenches, and four days out of the lines for rest and recuperation. Also, at certain points, soldiers were also granted longer periods of leave back to the UK. How soldiers lived in front line trenches is highlighted in a previous blog post. When soldiers moved into the reserve and support trenches, there was an opportunity to relax slightly, however, if there was an attack and support was required, soldiers would be expected to move in the front line as swiftly as possible. Even during the rest period out of the trenches, soldiers were still expected to undertake various tasks, such as training with weaponry and tactics, or providing work parties, taking supplies to the front. When not engaged in these activities, soldiers had some other options to while away their spare time.
The first one that can be mentioned is the use of YMCA huts. These huts were staffed by volunteers, mostly women, to accommodate the needs of soldiers. Some huts were quite substantial and offered facilities such as libraries, dining areas, washrooms and game areas. They were also places where soldiers could write their letters, catch up on reading or watch a small concert or gathering that may have been organised. As the huts got closer to the front, the facilities began more basic but no less important. These ‘huts’ may actually be anything from bombed out buildings to tents. Regardless of their size however, these huts provided an important escape for the soldiers from the trenches and new human contact.
If a soldier was able, he might have managed to obtain a pass to one of the local towns behind in the lines – of which there are many famous examples – in relative safety from the day to day pressures of war. In this towns, there would be a variety of activities that the soldiers could participate in. There was opportunity to get your uniform, and yourself, properly clean. In the First World War, the importance of cleanliness and hygiene in order to prevent disease was recognised and various measures were taken in order to ensure that soldiers could maintain as good a standard as possible. Large laundry spaces were created for the troops, to have their uniforms washed in large vats, usually done by local women who were employed by the Allies to do this work.
There were also opportunities to wash properly. This was done in warehouses and abandoned breweries which would have had large vats that could be filled with hot, soapy water. However, how hot and how clean the water was depended on what time in the day the soldier got there!
They might choose to visit an estaminet, a premise very similar to a pub or café, run by local civilians. Here, the soldiers could use their wages and choose from a selection from food and drink, including egg and chips, watery beer and cheap wine. There were different establishments for officers to visit, where the quality of the food and drink was of a better standard, most likely because the officers had money to spare on luxuries. Much like the YMCA huts, there were also places where concerts and performances would be held to amuse the troops. Various pantomimes and singalongs were put together, some of them by the soldiers themselves, as light-hearted entertainment.
There was also some more grown up entertainments in the form of brothels. As a method of trying to prevent the spread of venereal disease maison tolerées as they were called, were created by the military authorities in conjunction with French and Belgian civil authorities; in order to ensure basic standards of cleanliness. Even with these measures, there were still large numbers of men requiring treatment for venereal disease; there were five times the number of venereal disease cases as there were for trench foot, which has become symbolic for the First World War.
Possibly the most famous of all the towns that soldiers frequented was the town of Poperinghe. About 7.5 miles to the west of Ypres, this small town famous for its beer became a hub of activity. The population of the town grew from a couple of thousands to a quarter of a million almost overnight. Soldiers slept in tents around the town and would venture in for entertainment. A well known fixture of Poperinghe was the café of La Poupée, popular with officers. One of the owner’s daughters – Elaine but known by the British soldiers as Ginger – was a permanent fixture right from the start and was extremely popular. There is a statue in the main square of Poperinghe, just outside the location of La Poupée to commemorate her.
But what makes Poperinghe so famous is Talbot House. Talbot House was set up by two men called Rev. Tubby Clayton and Neville Talbot. It was aimed to be an alternative to the other places of entertainment in Poperinghe and to promote Christian values. It was named in memory of Gilbert Talbot, the son of the then Bishop of Winchester and Neville’s younger brother who was killed in July 1915 and is buried at Sanctuary Wood Cemetery. Talbot House was designed to be for all men with the inscription above the door “All rank abandon, ye who enter here.” There was an extensive garden that soldiers were encouraged to develop and enjoy. There were musical instruments such as pianos to be used, and used they were, again in concerts and singalongs. There was also an opportunity for soldiers to partake in Christian activity, as there was a chapel built in the loft. After the war, the original owner of the property, a rich local banker, returned to the house and lived in it until 1929, when it was bought and gifted to the Talbot House Association of Poperinghe to maintain and has then been run the way it was in the First World War ever since.
These places of respite, whilst a distraction from the horrors of war, were never too far from these realities. In the town of Poperinghe, you can today visit the Poperinghe Town Hall where there are two cells. These cells were used to hold those who had committed offences and were awaiting trial and/or punishment, including some whose punishment was execution by firing squad. The town hall and cells are right on the main square and would have been a constant presence for soldiers who entered into the town. Military police officers would have been in and around the town to apprehend any unruly soldiers to take to these cells. The reach of the military authorities was never too far away, a topic I shall to discuss in an upcoming blog post.
‘Til next time!