Bertin Deneire, Poperinge

From the second half of 1915 Poperinge served as a kind of garrison town to the British troops. Thousands upon thousands of troops poured into this small West Flanders town, ready to advance on Ieper where the front line lay. As Britain was one of the richest countries at that time her ‘Tommies’ were the highest paid soldiers in the Salient. Moreover, many men were big spenders, given the uncertainty of their immediate future.

Needless to say that the locals did a roaring trade and, shops, clubs and restaurants mushroomed all over the town centre. No wonder Poperinge got nicknamed 'Belgium's Piccadilly Circus'.

There was Cyrill's, Skindles, Take Five, The Savoy Restaurant, What 'opes?, The Four Crowns... and many more smaller establishments that catered for the troops. They sold fish & chips, scrambled egg, tea & biscuits, coffee & cake, and the occasional tot of rum. There were several theatres in town and even cinemas, then state-of-the-art entertainment, which featured silent B&W films starring silly Charlie Chaplain or sexy Theda Bara.

There were even parts of the area known as 'Petit Paris' where obviously more 'carnal' needs were catered for. The girls there were not local but from refugee families that had fled from other parts of Belgium down to this area behind the front line. They had to be free of any VD (in the 'In Flanders Fields Museum' one can still see a medical certificate issued by a doctor that these prostitutes were 'clean' ). While prostitution was allowed, gambling certainly wasn't and quite often the Military Police, supervised by the Provost Marshal, would raid a place where -they suspected- 'Crown and Anchor' was being played.

At the other end of the scale were the more 'spiritual' clubs like the YMCA, the Church Army clubs and, of course, Tubby Clayton's famous Talbot House (the so-called 'Every Man's Club'). Also numerous little souvenir shops sprang up in town. They sold (fake) lace, cheap wrist watches, lighters, crucifixes, rosaries, brooches, lockets, decorative pins... along with the usual stationary items like writing paper, silk and picture postcards, the English dailies and of course tobacco products like snuff, shag and the universal 'Woodbine' fags containing little cards, highly sought after by local youngsters.

Some of the clubs were 'Officers Only' and so were out of bounds for the common soldier like the private and the NCO. They catered for more refined tastes and bottles of champagne or vintage burgundy was readily available to those who could afford it (actually it was rumoured that in some of these establishments the popping of corks was heard more often than shells explosions)

One such famous club was 'A la Poupée' (The Doll) in Market Square where the Cossey family lived. What was to become the prime attraction of the Western Front had started as a simple shop. Father Elie Cossey was a shoemaker by trade while his wife kept a lingerie and haberdashery shop at the same address. However, Cossey was a resourceful businessman and so he quickly saw great potential in the arrival of the troops. He rebuilt his shop into a café and bought himself an automated honky-tonk piano. The cheeky Cossey rubbed shoulders with both the high military and the local council and was thus able to sell a limited number of spirits, a beverage that was almost unavailable at the time. Still, to make it a decent place and to keep the riffraff out he hung up an 'OFFICERS ONLY' signboard.

However, his greatest asset was his three daughters Martha, Marie-Louise and Eliane (his boys had been evacuated to a safer place in France) . At the outbreak of the war the girls were respectively 19, 16 and 12 years of age. The latter was a slender most attractive red-haired girl, a feature that quickly gave her the nickname of 'Ginger'. Such was her fame that officers of all nationalities came from miles around to see this stunning continental beauty and, her father's establishment soon became known as 'Ginger's', instead of its previous French name. Judging by the well-preserved Visitors' Books the girl must have had a sort of magical influence on the men, for countless are the entries of praise and adoration for the youngest of the comely Cosseys.

A Canadian officer of the Medical Corps on leave in Abele wrote that he went: "to the famous Ginger's pub, where a splendid time is guaranteed for all, and where the 'patron' is known to put a trick upon a person." Also the famous Willie Redmond MP wrote in his diary: "A cheery spot it is, bedecked with the flags of the Allied nations. All the appointments of the place ara good: clean cloths upon the little tea-tables, little bunches of flowers here and there, and altogether an air of brightness and comfort about. Very grateful indeed to eyes weary of the drab dismalness of trench and hut. In the hours of the afternoon the tea-room is crowded with officers from various units, and it is of interest to observe that they represent very often branches of the army in the field from almost every corner of the Empire."

Edwin Campion Vaughan, another British officer, wrote in his diary: "The two rooms were full of diners but we found a table in the glass-roofed garden. A sweet little sixteen-year-old girl came to serve us. I fell a victim at once to her long red hair and flashing smile. When I asked her name, she replied "Gingair" in such a glib way that we both gave a burst of laughter. We had a splendid diner with several bottles of bubbly, and Ginger hovered delightfully about us."

However, the ultimate 'tour de force' was to be asked for a dance by Eliane or be given an autographed picture of the girl. These seen became highly sought-after treasures. Fortunately, the war ended in 1918 and it looked as if Ginger's would return to its original state again. However, in the meantime a new kind of British visitor had appeared and so the one-time café now became a hotel for battlefield 'pilgrims'. Elie organised taxi trips to the old 'hot spots' and had commemorative picture postcard books printed. And so, once again, 'A la Poupée' became the venue for many who visited the Salient and the hotel proved its fame of quality and hospitality until the mid 1930s.

Eliane, alias 'Ginger' had become something of a celebrity for on 8th December 1928 she was invited -together with the Mayor of Poperinge- as a representative of the Poperinge population to the Royal Albert Hall in London for the Birthday Festival of Toc H. In the meantime Eliane had left the parental house and the premises had become a shop again. But the British bond must have been strong for, after marrying a businessman from Brugge, she emigrated to the UK and lived in Londen where she died in 1942, aged a mere 40. Also her older sister Marie-Louse had married a British officer whom she had met at her father's café. The ceremony was held in Poperinge and, when the newlywed appeared in the church gate, his fellow officers crossed swords to form a guard of honour. In keeping with a typical British tradition the bridegroom’s English relatives threw rice, an arguably wasteful practise never witnessed in Poperinge before. Later, after having lived in Oostende for a while, the couple moved to England where Marie-Louise -like her sister before her- died in 1966. In the meantime Ginger's memory seemed to have vanished for yet a new war had descended upon the country and put the Great War in the shade. However, some half a century later Ginger's fame was to re-emerge in letters and diaries that historical researchers from all over the Commonwealth have come to unearth.

Today the original 'A la Poupée' is no more, but is a flourishing baker's and confectioner's shop called 'De Ranke' (The Hop Bine). Ironically, when the new proprietor reopened the house in 1955 he was the first in town to name his business a 'Tea-Room'. Today only a diamond shaped text panel on next-door's facade reminds us of the important role the house and its famous occupant has played in the social life of the Great War.

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