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The Rest Camps

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Suburbia of Camps around Poperinghe

Poperinghe could not cope with billeting the vast numbers of troops in the town. There developed a suburbia of camps around Poperinghe and the surrounding villages. These were either tented or had wooden huts to accommodate the troops. Both the tents and the huts leaked and were draughty. The names of the camps tended to reflect the nationality of the units that had originally established them. Between April 1915 and June 1916, the Canadian 1st and 3rd Divisions established camps named Ontario, Quebec and Ottawa. The Australian and New Zealand divisions established camps named Peerless, North and South Atlantic, Zealand, Waratah, Moonta, and Mud Farm. These camps were located around the Busseboom and the Reninghelst Road.

(Linesman Map showing Camps)


Recollections of billets

In early April 1915, agreement was reached between the Allies and the Belgian government whereby the local population would be paid for the premises used by the army. With the troops billeted in farms this usually was of mutual benefit with the local farmer gaining the assistance of the troops to help in the harvest. Writing in his diary local clergyman Father Achiel van Walleghem recorded that: ’ … farmers who accepted British soldiers were by far the better off. Although the job was only half done, it was at least half done.’ In ‘The War the Infantry Knew', Captain J C Dunn R.A.M.C. wrote of his farm billet: ‘The cottages are gaily painted in vivid blues, greens, red and yellow, within and without: doors, window frames and cornice are generally white. There is nothing of the scented air and of the unsightliness of the French midden, but, in a very porous soil with a high ground-water level, the nearness of the open cottage well to the cottage privy is gruesome. The flea and gnat outnumber the louse in the billets here.

Canon Frederick Scott, Senior Chaplain to the Canadian 1st Division, remembers his accommodation in a farm house in Romarin, a village near Ploegsteert, and recorded his thoughts in his memoirs ‘The Great War As I Saw It’: ‘I made my home in a very dirty little French farmhouse. The Roman Catholic chaplain and I had each a heep of straw in an outhouse which was a kind of general workroom. At one end stood a large churn, which was operated, when necessary, by a trained dog, which was kept at other times in a cage. The churn was the breeding place of innumerable blue-bottles, who in spite of its savoury attractions annoyed us very much by alighting on our food and on our faces.


In his diary, which was later published under the title ‘The War Diaries of the Master of Belhaven,’ Lt Col. The Hon. R G A Hamilton was not overly delighted to be back in Belgium: ‘Today I have been quite busy as I had to go round the ten farms occupied by the squadron and pay the weekly bills for forage, etc. … They are not really French but Flemish, though most of them speak French fairly well. I am depressed beyond words at being back in this vile country: I hate the Belgians and Belgium. We are billeted in a filthy farm, full of squealing children, and dirty beyond words, It is like all the farms in Flanders, only a little worse... the usual depressing Belgian weather: mud and dirt everywhere. The people of the farm are, of course, pro-German. I have no doubt they would betray us if they got half a chance .I have warned everyone that they are now in hostile country.'


Arthur A Martin, a Surgeon Specialist, wrote in his book ‘A Surgeon in Khaki’ about his billet in Ouderdom: ‘Our Ambulance headquarters was about the most God-forsaken place that one could possibly imagine. The first impression one received was a dirty pond, full of fetid water and surrounded by heaped-up straw manure. Closely abutting this putrefactive manure was the cottage itself, with one front room, a kitchen a rickety stair led up to a windy loft full of corn and hops and bags of potatoes. Twelve medical officers, two chaplains, and a quartermaster lived in the tiny little room, or crowded round a table in it. Six or seven officers slept on the floor of this den at night. The O.C. and Chaplain slept in the box off our only room and the rest of us slept in the loft amidst the wheat and hops and the bitter cold draughts.’ As with Rorie and Hamilton, Martin also found the Flemish not very welcoming describing those he met around Ypres, Ouderdom and Dickebusch as ‘..sullen, dour and suspicious..


Irrespective of the opinions of the accommodation and the local populace the Army was dependent on them for billets. The Army also removed or recycled farmers tools, fences, gates, sheds, and hop-poles. they were used in dugouts, corduroy roads, trench supports, firewood etc. Captain J C Dunn R.A.M.C. recording: 'Keen frost and bitter wind, The men have been burning gates, farm utensils, latrine seats, any combustible for a little warmth. Hop-poles were especially favoured, some were more like telegraph poles, to pinch and get away with them was an art.'

At Christmas 1917, Dunn and his battalion of Royal Welch Fusiliers were billeted in the Benedictine Convent in Poperinghe: ‘The whole Battalion is in a convent with a blown gable, off Rue de Cassel, but Pop makes any employment tolerable and any billet acceptable. The billet is just accepted. Its spaciousness, shoddiness, and the bareness of the rooms aggravate the effects of chilling currents from large broken windows and ill fitting or ever-open doors, of tiny fireplaces and, at first, lamentably little fuel: thanks to the diversion of a wagon of coal we no longer perish.

Benedictine Convent in Poperinge today. Authors image

More Camps added

From 1915 the area around Dickebusch had a large concentration of troops, transport lines and horse lines. One of these, Dickebusch Huts was popular with the troops, although as time went on the huts of this camp became damp, rate infested and run down. The 9th (Scottish) Division found them: ‘… dismal and repellent shelters; they were swept by draughts and through their leaky roofs the rain dripped down on the disconsolate inmates. The area around them was one vast sea of mud, where it was impossible for a unit to carry out any training worth the name.’ The Camp was eventually converted into an ammunition dump and was destroyed in May 1917. Other camps in the area were Albemarle, Burgomaster Farm, Smyth Pioneer, Dickebusch West, New Dickebusch, Walker, Canal Reserve.


(Linesman map)


Further camps between Reninghelst and Vlamertinghe were added in 1917, they included Toronto, St Lawrence, Erie, Winnipeg, Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver and Moose Jaw. The British also had their camps, Scottish Camp, Downshire, Red Horse Shoe, Dirty Bucket Camp and the like. These camps accommodated over 150,000 troops. In 'A Medico's Luck in the Great War' Colonel David Rorie described his billet at Gwalia Farm CCS:

Our mess was in the tile-floored kitchen of a little farmhouse whose owners lived in the back premises – father, mother, grandmother, two young children and three adult male relatives, one of whom was killed during our stay by a shell which landed in a field on the other side of the road. The kitchen had a wide and high fireplace recess in which was fixed a stove. This kitchen was the dining and sitting room accommodation for the officers of the three Field Ambulances supplying personnel for the Corps Main Dressing Station: our sleeping quarters being Armstrong huts – none too weather proof – and tentage in the neighbouring field.


Like the Master of Belhaven, Rorie also thought that Flanders was a land full of spies. One of the methods he said that was used to signal the enemy was to use smoke from house chimneys burning wet straw at intervals to signal in code. He thought that the tanks camouflaged in the woods at Dirty Bucket Siding had been given away to the enemy using this signalling method and that the spy was ‘…caught later in flagrante delicto, was obliterated in the mud by an appropriate and lucky tank accident..


On either side of the Elverdinge Road were Oakhanger, Ryde, Browne 1, 2 and 3, (were situated around Gwalia Farm and were hospital camps). Between Brandhoek and the Elverdinghe Road were Dirty Bucket camp, Hospital Farm, O Camp, Border camp, and the Casualty Clearing Stations at Brandhoek. There were also gun batteries, ammunition depots, storage depots, and horse-lines. These were all linked by a series of light railways which ran from Poperinghe via Oosthoek, Peselhoek via Dromore Corner, and joining together on the western edge of Elverdinghe. A.30 Central, which was the map reference, for the camp and a particular estimanet gave the name to Dirty Bucket Corner and Camp. This was the location for a divisional or a brigade HQ and the area was frequently shelled and bombed by the Germans.


(Linesman Map)


Edwin Campion Vaughan described Dirty Bucket Camp in his ‘Some Desperate Glory’: ’After about a mile we turned off towards Dirty Bucket corner and shortly halted outside a wood wherein our camp lay. It was a nondescript camp consisting of bivouacs, tents, huts and tarpaulin shelters into which we stowed the troops as best we could. For our combined mess and bedroom we had a small hut with a table and a couple of forms. It was a baleful place for the shell-holes and shattered trees bore testimony to the attention of German gunners and the name of the camp was Slaughter Wood.’ Which also had a variety of other names such as Brake Wood, Tank Wood and Border Wood.


Model of German trench positions

Near Dirty Bucket camp in the weeks preceding the Third Ypres offensive on 31 July 1917, the British built a model of the front line for company commanders and the troops to familiarize themselves with the ground. The model was in the fields between Dirty Bucket Camp and the hospitals at Brandhoek. Writing in his masterpiece ‘Undertones of War,’ Edmund Blunden recalled his visit to the model: 'At the corner were one swaggering new highway left the wood eastwards, an enormous model of the German systems now considered due to Britain was open for inspection whether from the ground or from step ladders raised beside, and this was popular, though whether from its charm as a model or value as a military aid is uncertain'.


Edwin Campion Vaughan wrote of his attempt to find the model: ‘After lunch Samuel came across and asked me if I would like to take a trip with him up towards the line. A large scale model of the front had been fashioned somewhere near Pop, and he wanted to find it so that he could take parties of officers to examine it. We went up on push-bikes, but foolishly did not ascertain where Divisional HQ was. We left our bikes in Pop at the APM’s office and wandered about the open fields near Vlamertinghe until we arrived at Dirty Bucket Corner without having found the HQ or the model.’ He found the model the next day located near Slaughter Wood.


Segregation Camp for British West Indies Regiment

Not far from Winnipeg and Montreal Camps was De Drie Groens Farm. It was here that a segregation camp was built to house the labour battalions of the British West Indies Regiment.

(Linesman Map showing the site of De Drie Groens Farm)


In his diary Achiel van Walleghem records his meeting with them, and his language is both racist and patronising to today’s reader: 'At Drie Groens niggers arrived from Jamaica, in the West Indies, to work hereabouts. Dressed like all British soldiers, they are both civilised and softly spoken. Generally, they are not very popular because they have long fingers and civilians, in particular, would much rather see them leave than arrive... I came across a letter to one of these black people from his mother, what Christian and motherly feelings she expressed, not one of our mothers express herself better. Extremely frightened by the shelling these black people stare afraid when they hear a shell approaching and, when it hits the ground nearby, they dash off as of possessed.'


Experience of Shelling

Following the bombing of the British West Indian camp the wounded were taken to the CCS at Gwalia Farm and Colonel David Rorie in his 'A Medico's Luck in the Great War' recorded the scene, again the language is both racist and offensive to today’s reader:

'..the place was suddenly filled up with wounded niggers. Naturally emotional, and, equally, scared to death, besides - in many cases - being badly injured, the black men made the dressing-room an inferno of shrieks, groans and cries which were impossible to still... as one gazed around the dim-lit hall of suffering at the gleaming teeth and rolling white eye-balls of the recumbent blacks on the operating tables and stretchers, the scene and din, inside and outside, suggested an impromptu revival meeting in nether regions.'


Edwin Campion Vaughan wrote of his experience in his diary ‘Some Desperate Glory’ of a German shelling of Dirty Bucket camp on 13 August 1917. He had been unable to sleep following a return to the camp from an evening at La Poupee and had gone for a walk:

'… I felt my head was bursting, so in my pyjamas and slippers I went out again into the wood. A gentle rain was falling and the mud cam over my bare ankles. I had walked about 30 yards from the hut when without warning another salvo fell around us, chunks whizzed past my head and I heard the splintering of wood and a clatter as if the table had gone over. Then I heard a voice screaming faintly from the bushes. Jamming on my tin hat I ran up the track and stumbled over a body. I stopped to raise the head, but my hand sank into the open skull and I recoiled in horror. The cries continued and I ran on up the track to find the water cart had been blown over on to two men. One was crushed and dead, the other pinned by the waist and legs. Other men ran up and we heaved the water cart up and had the injured man carried to the aid post. I took the papers and effects from the dead men and had the bodies moved into the bushes until morning. Then soaked with rain and covered in mud I returned to the hut there was a blinding flash and a shell burst close beside me. Staggering back I hurried to the hut as three more crashed down among the trees. Kneeling on the steps I groped along the floor for my tin hat; at the same moment.' He had had a lucky escape as shrapnel had gone through his valise and three pieces missed his head and embedded themselves in the wall above his head.


The three casualties that he referred to are buried in Hospital Farm Cemetery.

200313 Private P Rands, attached to the 143rd Trench Mortar Battery, 1/5th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Grave E.14

265314 Sergeant R F Worgan, 1/6th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, Grave E.15

85695 L/Cpl William James Edward Burns, 143rd Company Machine Gun Corps, the son of James and Harriet Burns, of Bootle, Lancashire. Grave E.13.

(Authors image)


A visit to the bath house

The 24 August 1917, found the 11th Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders resting and refitting after their efforts at Beck House and Borry Farm on 22 August. Whilst in the camps resting and refitting the men used their spare time for baths and cleaning their clothes, latrine digging, bayonet practice, tactical practice, route marches, and providing working parties. Writing in his diary Private James Beatson remembers a visit to the baths in May 1915: 'We have just returned from an incident of the first importance - our bath - a clean skin has never been more appreciated. The bathtubs are in a quondam (former) school in Poperinghe. The water had seen previous service but it was hot and soapy.'


La Lovie Chateau

The village of Proven, located on the Poperinghe to Roesbrugge road, was used by the French as a billet until Second Ypres when the British took over the village and was used by a billet by the Army Service Corps, Chinese Labour Corps, Divisional and Corps troops. It was a busy railhead with many branch lines converging here and it was also considered safe from enemy shelling and was surrounded by camps, dumps and horse lines.


( La Lovie Chateau today. Authors image)


Airfields were also built in the area. On the road from Proven to Couthove was Droglandt Airfield which was used by No’s 7 and 9 Squadrons. On the road between Proven and Krombeke was La Lovie Airfield used by No’s 19 and 71 Squadrons. This airfield was built to protect the La Lovie Chateau.


Some two miles north of Poperinghe on the same road to Proven is the La Lovie Chateau (now the De Lovie) which is now a private school and hospital. It once housed the headquarters of various British Corps from May 1915. British Corps HQ's located here were:


· May 1915 to February 1916: VI Corps

· February 1916 to July 1916: XIV Corps

· July 1916 to June 1917: VIII Corps

· June to November 1917: 5th Army

· November 1917 to April 1918: II Corps

· April to August 1918: 34th, 41st & 49th (West Riding) Divisions

· August to November 1918: II Corps


In February 1916 after visiting the Corps HQ of Lord Cavan based at the Chateau General Ponsonby wrote: ‘.. A magnificent Chateau with Ball Room etc. It is now occupied by a Belgian Count who bought it last year from the trustees of Madame Vaughn, who inherited it from Leopold… during dinner Madame la Countess played the piano next door.’ During the Third Battle of Ypres it was the HQ of General Sir Hubert Gough commanding 5th Army. He described it as: ‘A large, pretentious, ugly square building, with a lake in front of it, which must have made it an easy mark for hostile aeroplanes or long range guns. A Belgian Count and his family were still in residence. He was a soft-looking, unfit little gentleman, and his wife was a gentle and kind lady.’ He speculated on why the Chateau had not been targeted by the Germans and as with Hamilton, Rorie and Martin’s opinion of the Flemish found it suspicious and suspected secret influence: ‘There were sinister stories of their secret influence with the Germans, which was supposed to account for the chateau having been spared from all bombardments when every building in it vicinity had been pretty well knocked about; I do not believe there was a word of truth in these stories, though it remained a mystery to me why and how the chateau escaped destruction.


The grounds of the chateau also became the base of the 1st Tank Brigade due to their intended camp at Oosthoek Wood being persistently shelled by the Germans. The Wood being targeted, it was alleged, because information had been supplied by a captured British soldier, a Sergeant Phillips. The Brigade personnel moved to La Lovie and the tanks remained in the Wood. Second Lieutenant D G Browne, ‘G’ Battalion, 1st Tank Brigade wrote: ‘We reached our destination at Oosthoek Wood, beyond Poperinghe, about 3 o’clock of a blazing July afternoon…’ The Wood was north of the Poperinghe to Vlamertinghe road and approximate 4 miles from the front line at Boesinghe. He went on:

It was bisected by a timbered military road (a splendid piece of work, capable of taking three lorries abreast) which ran from the direction of Lovie Chateau across… to Vlamertinghe. Beside this road a double line of rails had been laid from Peselhoek railhead to a new and very conspicuous detraining camp built at the entrance of the wood for the use of our brigade. Half a mile further north a second camp served the 3rd Brigade.’


In July 1917 King George V stayed at the chateau and in September the Prime Minister David Lloyd George and General Charteris made an unannounced inspection visit of Gough’s HQ. A visit in which Gough was blamed for the high losses and deliberately snubbed by Lloyd George for his failure in the offensive.


Toc-H

Following the German spring offensive in 1918 and the front line now being close to Poperinghe the town was evacuated and this also included Talbot House. On the 20 May 1918, Toc-H was moved to a temporary camp in a field, they erected four Armstrong huts, behind a deserted airfield at La Lovie. Tubby Clayton named this ‘Dingley Dell’ after the manor of Mr Wardle in Dickens ‘The Pickwick Papers’ Here they continued the work of Toc-H in the words of Tubby Clayton they: ‘try to carry on the Talbot House tradition of love and joy and peace.’

The hut used by Tubby Clayton at 'Dingly Dell' Toc-H Museum.

When at La Lovie Tubby conducted services and visited his parish which now included a number of observation balloon units. He tried to open a new Talbot House in Proven but this was rejected by the authorities. He ran a mobile House in a box car which travelled up and down the tracks of the back area. On the 27 September he reoccupied Talbot House and the House reopened for business on 30 September.

(IWM Q 10303 British troops in the Market Square at Poperinghe, 10 May 1918. Note the YMCA hostel on the right. McLellan, David (Second Lieutenant) (Photographer)


The New Beginning

After the Armistice the Camps were emptying and were being dismantled with labour gangs moving in to begin the clear up. Ammunition and supply dumps were being replaced by salvage dumps on the Ypres to Vlamertinghe road. The civilian population began to return to reclaim their farms and homes and gradually the battle fields began to disappear under the reconstruction work. Today, touring parties, descendants of those buried or commemorated in the Salient or students of the First World War visit the former sites of the camps and billets.






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