Poperinge would have been well known to very many Allied soldiers who fought in the Ypres Salient during World War One – Ypres was just 12 kilometres away. Poperinge, known as ‘Pop’ to the soldiers who rested there, was a forward base for the Ypres Salient from autumn 1914 onwards. The Germans very briefly captured Poperinge on October 14th 1914 – but it was recaptured the next day. Prior to the war, hop fields had surrounded Poperinge but as the war progressed, land surrounding the town was used to build military hospitals, barracks and training grounds.
The railway station at Poperinge became one of the most important on the Western Front in World War One as it was used both by the military and by refugees in Ypres who fled the constant barrage on the ancient city. Its importance made it a constant target of German artillery gunners. The accuracy of artillery guns in World War One was not good and this would account for why a lot of Poperinge was hit by shells – they were aimed at the rail station but either overshot or fell short. The regularity of the station being targeted led to a rumour developing that the stationmaster had been shot as a German spy. To soldiers going on extended leave, the station for all its danger was a welcome sight. Those who were returning to the Ypres Salient after a spot of leave would have harboured very different thoughts.
The local restaurants in Poperinge did well during the war as the town became a very popular place of rest for soldiers given two or three days leave. Talbot House is in Poperinge – a rest house for soldiers, it was also within range of German artillery, and the garden received a direct hit and what remains of the resultant crater is still there. Despite its proximity to the front line, Talbot House was very popular with British troops seeking some type of peace from trench warfare.
Poperinge, however, harboured another side to warfare. If soldiers held Talbot House in high regard, what was found in today’s Stadhuis (town hall) was not. The town hall in the Grote Markt contains the courtyard where soldiers condemned to death were shot by firing squad. The ‘Shot At Dawn’ memorial is placed next to the execution post. Seventy executions took place within the grounds of the Stadhuis – 50 British soldiers and 20 French. A short distance from the memorial but still within the Stadhuis are the two cells where the condemned were held.
Also in Poperinge was a building known as ‘Skindles’ – a popular officers’ club. It was opened by Madame Beutin and nicknamed ‘Skindles’ after a similar place in Maidenhead – the Skindles Hotel.
The town also contained a hospital that treated civilian casualties from the fighting at Ypres. The Collège Stanislas was an Episcopal establishment used by the Friends’ Ambulance Unit.