My friend Phil, a British Army padre, recently sent me a postcard bearing the photo of a chap I didn’t recognize.
At first I thought it was a picture of Conrad Kinch. Actually I have no idea who he is, and the back of the card didn’t say. What it did say was intriguingly cryptic: a reference to a Belgian address, Gasthuisstraat 43 B-8970 Poperinge, and a website for something called Talbot House. That website led to a delightful story about military chaplaincy in the Great War that was quite new and wonderful to me.
Briefly, Talbot House, or “TocH” (in Great War signaller’s shorthand) as it came to be known was a place of refuge for soldiers of all ranks passing through Poperinge, or “Pop” as the troops called it, a supply and transport hub for Allied armies in Flanders. TocH was the creation of several British army chaplains who wanted to establish a refuge where soldiers could leave rank at the door and remind themselves that they were human beings. The spiritual heart of TocH was a chapel on the upper floor, and its soul came from the lively characters, especiallyTubby Clayton and Arthur Petifer, who ran it. A brief account of these men and their work can be found here. Several hundred thousands of Allied troops passed through TocH during the War.
The attic chapel at TocH, a reminder to thousands of soldiers that God had not abandoned them.
After the Armistice a TocH movement grew up as a fraternal organization for ex-soldiers struggling with the aftermath of the war and with post-war unemployment. There is a TocH house in London, and the one in “Pop” is still open to visitors looking for a place of retreat. My friend Padre Phil emailed me to say that he’d enjoyed four days there recently, and worshipped in the attic chapel each day. TocH will definitely be a stop on any Flanders pilgrimage I might make in future.
Clayton wrote an account of TocH just after the war. It and some other references can be found here.
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