Stad Poperinge, Belgium.


Poperinge is a town in southwestern Belgium close both to the French border and to the Strait of Dover. The town is usually thought to have been the property of a certain Pupurn, a late-antique Frankish settler at the point where the old Roman road running from the coast through the French towns of Boulogne and Cassel crosses the river Fleterna (Vleterbeek). The city fathers, however, now admit the possibility of a Celtic derivation for the name Pupurn. In any event, the ancestor of the modern town appears as "Pupurninga Villa" in a record going back to AD 850.

Poperinge has by turns been an important producer of cloth and hops, the latter rising to prominence after the nearby town of Ieper grew to dominate local cloth production in the 14th century. Poperinge suffered as all towns did during the religious wars in the low countries in the reformation era, but emerged as one of the larger towns in the 'Westhoek', or western part of the Belgian province of West Flanders. If you have ever heard of Poperinge, however, it is surely because of its association with the Great War.

World War I.

The town of Ieper, which had unsportingly seized the cloth trade from Poperinge, is more commonly known by its French name Ypres, the very symbol of futile trench warfare. As the Germans swept into western Europe in 1914, they were stopped in Belgium by allied resistance centered at Ypres. At Ypres (as along a vast line running through Belgium and France), the German advance crystallized into a stable front. Despite attempts to break it by both sides, the Flanders front centered on Ypres held from 1914 to 1918.

Ypres itself was in a salient, or a bit of territory extending behind nominal enemy lines creating an unstable area in a front. The Germans wanted to eliminate it, while the allies wished to push through it. Despite German chlorine gas attacks, frightful mining operations (i.e., digging under the enemy's trenches and exploding huge bombs to disrupt defenses and organization), and a major allied counteroffensive at Passchendaele, only a few miles of terrain changed hands (repeatedly) over four years. Hundreds of thousands of people (no few of them civilians) died in the battles for the salient.

Make a fist with your left hand, and grab that fist with your right hand. Your fist is the Ypres salient, the allied hardpoint blocking the German advance (the Germans are your right hand, coming from the East). At the center of the fist is Ypres itself, while Poperinge, about 8 miles west (nestled among your wrist bones), was the chief allied center behind the lines. Poperinge (called POP by Commonwealth troops) was the temporary refuge for soldiers on leave from the front. It was also a first stop in flight from the horrors of the front: 17 Commonwealth deserters who were caught and "shot at dawn" are buried in one of Poperinge's numerous war cemeteries.

Talbot House.

In 1915, a British army chaplain named Philip "Tubby" Clayton arrived and soon established a relief/recreation center in Poperinge called Talbot House. Talbot House, named for an early victim of the war, also called (from its military code designation) TOC H by the troops, developed a great reputation for providing counseling and a sense of homeliness, taking in other ranks without discrimination. After the war, under Clayton's direction, it grew into a Commonwealth-wide charitable organization with activities spread throughout the world ( TOC H even has an auxiliary movement in the USA, called Winant's Volunteers, which began student-exchange programs in 1947 (my father-in-law participated and knew Clayton.)

Poperinge now sells itself as a quaint village destination and center for touring the battlefields visiting the memorials of the Ypres salient. One of Belgium's many great beers, Sixtus, is brewed on the outskirts of Poperinge, and in addition, the town has the distinction of being the home of Belgium's first astronaut, Dirk Frimout.

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