By Steve Smith
Having recently acquired a copy of one of the few books missing from my Toc H collection, namely In Flanders Fields (qv), I thought I’d put together a short, mostly visual blog about Toc H and the early pilgrimages to the battlefields and cemeteries of the Salient, and of course, to Talbot House.
The pilgrimages began before the war had even officially ended. Travel restrictions were lifted in July 1919 and civilians – mostly women – wanted to see where their loved ones had fallen and were buried. On the 1st and 2nd of November 1919 – still 10 days before Armistice – on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, thousands of French families travelled on special trains to the battlefields to visit the graves of their loved ones and commemorate all the dead. A trickle became and stream and the stream became a river.
At first most of the tours were organised privately, often by motor car. They did give employment to some former soldiers. Before long they were commercially attractive enough for companies such as Thomas Cook to get involved. But as these tours were often out of reach of the working class, charitable organisations also began to arrange pilgrimages. The Canadian Red Cross brought several Canadian widows and bereaved mothers to London in January 1920 before taking them on to France and Belgium; the Salvation Army took over their first party in April 1920; and St Barnabas, began opening hostels on the Continent and would soon begin their own trips, the earliest of which were arranged with the full support of Toc H before they began their own independent pilgrimages with their members.
And to accompany these tours, a number of guide books began to appear. The earliest are probably the The Illustrated Michelin Guide to the Battlefields series which began publication in September 1919 with Marne, Amiens, Soissons, and Lille, and were followed in January 1920 with Ypres and Rheims.
A Short Guide to the Battlefields by the Revd. J. O. Coop, D.S.O., T.D. Senior Chaplain of the 55th Division was published in April 1920 and then in July, Toc H got in on the act with The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Ypres Salient
Officially the follow-up to Tales of Talbot House, The Pilgrim’s Guide was clearly launched to both promote and raise funds for the fledgling Toc H. It was printed by Herbert Reiach Limited of Covent Garden, and an editorial note says that it was put together entirely by ex-servicemen. The names of the contributors include Charles John Magrath, a YMCA colleague of Barclay Baron who joined forces with Tubby at Talbot House (and Dingley Dell) in 1918; Captain Hugh Pollard, the firearms specialist later credited with starting the Spanish Civil War; Boyd Cable, the pen name of wartime propagandist Ernest Andrew Ewart (who also wrote Front Lines and several other titles about life in the trenches); and several others. Illustrated with sketches and maps, it is a lovely work and was often overlooked until reprinted by Talbot House. You can buy a copy of the reprint from their website. The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Salient (2019 reprint)
Other early guides include Lieutenant-Colonel T.A. Lowe’s The Western Battlefields. A Guide to the British Line. Short Account of the Fighting, the Trenches and Positions and the Ministerie des Chemins de Fer’s Aux Champs de Gloire Le Front Belge de L’Yser.
The market was soon flooded so the rest of this blog will focus purely on those tomes connected closely to Toc H. It is worth mentioning the mentions in Henry Williamson’s Wet Flanders Plain, the relevant extract was published here previously.
The next pertinent book was originally published as a supplement to the December 1930 Journal. The Old House was described as a Handbook for Pilgrims to Talbot House at Poperinghe. Remember, it was around this time that, finally exasperated by the constant knocking on the door, M. Coevoet Camerlynck succumbed to Lord Wakefield’s offer and sold Talbot House to Toc H (through the specially formed Talbot House Association).
The guide, which is available either as a thin hard cover book if you can find it (as pictured in the group picture) or the paper cover supplement, is a lovely descriptive record of the House and area with many photos, sketches and maps as well as extracts from notices and a list of all the books once held in the Talbot House library.
The acquisition of the Old House led to renewed vigour in the pilgrimages though now smaller groups went and stayed in the House itself. This prompted two new publications. Firstly, Tubby and the Rev. Geoffrey Harold Woolley issued the sparse booklet The Salient Facts under the Bangwent Series (Other titles included the thumbnail sketch of Pettifer and Tubby’s Fishers of Men). Woolley was an officer of the Queen Victoria Rifles who served in the Salient and was ordained after the war and joined Toc H. Little more than a pamphlet – Tubby describes the 16 page booklet as a ‘miracle of compression’ – it adds little to the reader’s knowledge but should be part of any serious collector’s library.
In 1935, Toc H republished The Old House in a condensed booklet called Over There – A Little Guide for Pilgrims.
The final booklet in our round-up was Barclay Baron’s In Flanders Fields, published by Toc H in 1954. Another small offering subtitled A little companion for the visitor to Poperinghe and Ypres, it is precisely that and perfect for popping in one’s pocket. Which is the perfect place for us to pop off and finish this short blog.