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.
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 (http://www.toch.org.uk/toc_h_information.htm). 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.