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Life Behind the Lines

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Poperinghe, today it is Poperinge, is located within 50 miles of the channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk and only a short distance from the border between France and Belgium. It was popularly referred to as the ‘Capital’ of the Salient and affectionately named ‘Pop’ by the troops. It was occupied on 4 October 1914 by the German 3rd Cavalry Brigade, a reconnaissance unit of the German 36th Division (Uhlans). After eleven days they left Poperinghe as the French 87th and 89th Territorial Divisions were approaching the town. By the end of November 1914, Poperinghe had become a French Army garrison town. On the 1st February 1915, the town was handed over by the French to the British when V Corps, 6th Division, under General Herbert Plumer moved in and was officially declared part of the British sector. It became not only a strategically important hub in the British line of communication in which countless British divisions passed through on their way up the line, but also a place where the troops billeted in the many camps in the countryside around the town could enjoy their spare time.

Private Allan Tobson, 39th Divisional Field Ambulance, recalls in his book, via Ypres: ‘If Ypres was the key of the Salient, Poperinghe was the key of Ypres, for the one main road that passed through its centre was the one and only way by which troops and transports could pass along to their destination, either line or Restwards. Strategically, of course it was of enormous importance, for here was the rail-head and here the centre of all this much fought-for portion of the Front.’

The image below is courtesy of Jeremy Gordon Smith and is a blend of Poperinghe today and as it was during the First World War. The original image is from the Ivan Bawtree collection to which Jeremy holds the copyright. You can see more in his excellent book 'Photographing the Fallen. A War Graves Photographer on the Western Front 1915-1919'

I met Jeremy while he was on a visit to Talbot House and took him to many of the locations in the book.

In the early stages of the war the junctions of the numerous roads leading to and from the front became congested with the vast numbers of army transports moving in and out of Poperinghe. All transports from the Channel Ports arrived in Poperinghe from the direction of Calais and Dunkirk via Roesbrugge- Proven-Westvleteren and International Corner, and from Boulogne and Le Harve via St. Omer-Steenvoorde-Abeele. They passed through the towns narrow winding streets via Casselstraat and Gasthuisstraat to cross the market square into Iperstraat. The noise from the traffic would have been deafening. Captain A.O. Pollard, V.C., M.C., D.C.M, Honorable Artillery Company, in his book Fireater recalls his experience of Poperinghe in June 1915: ‘The Poperinghe-Ypres road was as usual, crowded with traffic; troops in large and small parties some in full equipment, some in light fatigue dress; limbers drawn by mules; endless ammunition columns; siege guns and howitzers; strings of lorries; motor cycle dispatch riders; every conceivable branch of the Service was represented going about its business in orderly confusion.’

In December 1916, Lieutenant Edmund Blunden, Royal Sussex Regiment, who was billeted in ‘M’ Camp at St Jan-ter-Bizen and remembers: ‘Poperinghe was a great town then - one of the seven wonders of the world. Poperinghe streets are narrow, and there were thousands of soldiers there, coming and going; yet the town disappointed none, except when the enemy spoiled an afternoon with gas or long-range guns.’

A host of munitions dumps and supply depots were located in the Poperinghe area and these contained the materials of war required by the army. Large field kitchens were continuously turning out thousands of meals for the troops in the nearby camps. Workshops had been established throughout the area for the repair of guns and vehicles. In 1915, the Royal Engineers constructed a Switch Road an effective by pass to ease the congestion. By 1917, they had added other by passes, a one way system and other traffic management systems, although they did little to help with the worst of the congestion in mid-summer 1917, when over 500,000 soldiers and their equipment passed through the town on their way to the front for Third Ypres.

In 1917, Lieutenant Edwin Campion Vaughan, 8th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who was encamped at St Jan-ter-Bizen recalled that when walking with a friend to Poperinghe that: ‘We reached Pop at about 4pm and found it a very busy little town. An incessant stream of motor-lorries, horses, limbers, guns and troops pours through its square, moving up and down the line. Nearly all the houses are empty but one or two shops are still open and do a great trade with the liberal Tommy. It is well within range of Jerry’s guns and the station and square receive frequent reminders of the fact. The old town hall on the corner where the road swings round to Ypres is now the APM’s (Assistant Provost Marshal who was in charge of the Military Police) office and bears a huge black notice board which indicates whether the wind is ‘SAFE’ or ‘DANGEROUS

The Town Hall today. Authors image

Despite all of the noise and confusion, Poperinghe was better known for its shops, estaminets, bars, restaurants, and concert parties. Bombing and shelling apart, its reputation was spread far and wide amongst the divisions yet to pass though it. Poperinghe became a place to visit with warm anticipation and pleasure. Edwin Campion Vaughan after observing the gas sign at the APM’s office went into a shop near by: ‘.. we went into a shop near the APM’s office called Ypriana. We were surprised to find a large stock of English books and gramophone records, ‘Swan’ pens and all kinds of English goods in addition to a splendid range of stationary and souvenirs. Five girls took turns serving in the shop, the oldest about 25. Two of them were twins and told me their parents had been killed by a shell some time before.'

Edmund Blunden also visited Ypriana: ‘Ypriana also boasted some beautiful young persons who condescendingly sold gramophones, postcards of Ypres and fountain pens.’

Writing in his book, The Great War as I saw it, Canon Scott, said of Poperinghe: As one looks back to that period of our experience, all sorts of pictures, bright and sombre, crowd the mind - the Square at Poperinghe in the evening, the Guards’ fife and drum bands playing tattoo in the old town with hundreds of men looking on, the dark station of Poperinghe in the evening, and battalions being sent up to the front in railway trucks.

Although many infantry camps were sited in the Poperinghe area, leave for off-duty infantry was restricted however, they still made their way into Poperinghe to join the other military personnel from Corps, transport, medical personnel from the Casualty Clearing Stations, and those from the gun lines around Poperinghe. Once out of the trenches every soldier had a hot meal as top of their list and meals in camp were not what they had in mind. Poperinghe had many estaminets and restaurants to choose from. While the officers dined on chicken, steaks and oysters, drinking fine wines and champagne the other ranks enjoyed omelette and chips and washed down with beer or cheap wine. The market square was full of establishments and each was visited by its own regular NCO’s and other ranks: A La Fontaine, (today Du Tram), A St Laurent ( now De Hopbeurs), Au Casino, (now Juwelen Rubrecht) and La Fabrique, which has retained the Flemish version of the name today, ‘t Fabriekje, and also has retained its original façade. L’Esperance, or ‘Hope’ being the literal translation, was nicknamed by the troops as ‘What Hopes?’. It retains its original frontage. Next door is La Poupee. At No.16 Gasthuisstraat, was a large hotel for officers’ only,

A La Fontaine, A St Laurent & Au Casino. Authors image
Picture of Skindles Hotel today. Authors image

A la Bourse du Houblon known to the troops as Skindles. It was run by a widow, Madame Emma Bentin-Derycke, and helped by her three daughters. It is said that it was named by an officer of the Rifle Brigade who was eating egg and chips in the hotel in 1916, and he likened it to Skindles a riverside hotel in Maidenhead owned by his parents. Emma went on to open a second Skindles at 57 Gasthuisstraat and it became known as the ‘official’ Officers’ Club. Today, nothing remains of the original Skindles at No.16 however, No.57 has reopened as Skindles Guest House.

The soldier’s referred to La Poupee as ‘Ginger’s’ the front was an estaminet/bar with the rear serving as a dining room. It was designated by the owner as an officer’s only establishment. ‘Ginger’s’ was named after the owners youngest daughter 13 year old ‘Eliane’ who was said to be wise beyond her years and men of all nationalities came from miles around to see this continental beauty. Rev. Tubby Clayton wrote about ‘Ginger’ and La Poupee: '…. A la Grande Poupee behind a shop in the square, where the thirteen year old school girl ‘Ginger’ had already established her fame.'

Statue of Ginger. Authors image

Captain J C Dunn, in his classic ‘The War the Infantry Knew’ recalls a meal in ‘La Poupee’ in 1917: ‘I left for Poperinghe, via Calais, at 10 o’clock and arrived at 6. Dining at ‘La Poupee.’ I contrasted the abundance of food in this part of ‘poor Belgium’ with the meagreness and makeshift at home. Dinner cost 4s.: a good soup, whiting, roast chicken and potato, cauliflower au gratin, coffee; bread, butter, sugar without limit - no margarine, saccharine or other substitutes as at home. London can’t offer anything like it. There was also a large choice of good wines at quite moderate prices. There are tempting shops full of Ypres lace.’

Ginger’s also boasted a well stocked bar, the spirits being not only illegal but also impossible to obtain. The wine cellar was one of the best stocked in the Ypres Salient a tale being that the sound of champagne corks drowned out the sound of the guns in the Salient. This tale was given credence when during a renovation in later years thousands of champagne corks were found in the roof joists.

Concert & Cabaret

In addition to the many estaminets, shops, restaurants, and cafes catering for both officers and men alike, there were concert halls, cinemas, plus a theatre, in what is today the National Hop Museum on Gasthuisstraat. There was the Palace Cinema (today the Hotel Palace), which frequently showed westerns and Charlie Chaplin films. On the market square The Coliseum (today the Hotel Belfort) the silent films were accompanied by Yvonne Battheau on piano.

Palace Cinema. Today, Hotel Palace. Authors image

National Hop Store Museum. the site of a theatre. Authors image

Almost every division had its own Concert Party mainly composed of men who, when they enlisted, had been professional performers and household names and were known to the troops. One of the privileges of being in a concert party was that you were allotted extra leave in order to visit the music halls and theatres in Britain to obtain new material.

Every Concert Party performed in Poperinghe at some point during the war and they each had a name associated with the division or regiments within the division. The Balmorals - 51st (Highland) Division, The Red Roses - 55th (West Lancashire) Division, The Jocks of the 15th - 15th (Scottish) Division, The Bow Bells - 56th Division, The Shrapnels - 33rd Division, the Chinese Labour Corps had The Tsjings and the nurses of l’Hopital Elizabeth had The VA Dears. The Follies - 4th Division had ‘Vaseline and Lanoline’ one was a refugees from Lille and the other was the daughter of an estaminet owner in Armentieres. The Fancies - 6th Division who incorporated ‘Vaseline and Lanoline’ into their act but their places were taken by female impersonators.

Writing in his diary Major Billy Congreve recalled a visit to the ‘Fancies’ performance in Poperinghe with his father (Lt General Congreve, commanding the 6th Division) and his younger brother John, aged 12, who was spending his school holidays in France, helping his mother who was a nurse at the Anglo-American Hospital at Ris-Orangis near Paris: 'Tonight, Dads and John called for me here and we went to the ‘Fancies’ in Poperinghe. It was a very good show. One man sang awful well - in the Queen’s Westminsters he was. After it was over I had to say goodbye to John, for he returns to Paris via Boulogne tomorrow.' There is no doubt that the Concert Parties helped in maintaining the morale of the troops.

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