intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
The International «Upper Room» of high ranking officials and writers during the first World War, La Peylouse is a focal point for history. To recount some of these events, your host Didier Rousseau, editor and humanist, passionate about this building embued with a thousand whispers and its sumptuous setting in a very beautiful park. A gardener at heart, he will introduce you to the many rich pages of this place of national remembrance, in an erudite manner born of natural curiosity, the creativity of a great patron, the delectation of a fine gourmet and in the words of a born storyteller. Every room he shows has its own unique cachet, a combination of refined comfort, objects with their own stories to tell and subtle intimations of the past. La vie est belle at La Peylouse, and you will appreciate its peaceful and inspirational atmosphere all the more, seen in sharp contrast to all the furore and noise which once raged around it …
An appointment with history peppered with the unspoken word, its heart torn between tragedy and poetry, which following reconciliation is once again at peace. © Crea-Flandres
At first glance, La Peylouse looks just like many other manors built at the end of the 19th century. Sober and discreet in the Flemish style, it is difficult to imagine the great refinement of its interior decor. The house was designed as a genuinely relaxing home from home during the Belle Epoque (1877). Its delicate mouldings, de luxe faux-marbres, light fittings and vast mirrors, wood panelling and Art Nouveau ornaments with their wonderful patina, are all still there. To embellish the period display of this setting rich memories, Didier Rousseau and his family have selected some items of 20th century designer furniture. Because to stay alive, an old house must keep pace with changing tastes.
Of all the rooms in the manor, the salon reflects the greatest freedom of style, with its designer creations and flamboyant artworks. It is as if there has been a concerted effort to force the walls to abandon their reserve and stop history being the only source of its memories… © La Peylouse © Crea-Flandres
Although the house encapsulates 150 years of history, the park surrounding La Peylouse goes back much further than that. Like the medieval village of Saint-Venant, a place of pilgrimage since its patron saint miraculously cured Charlemagne’s sister. It is a frontier town too since the river Lys, which divides the property in two, was the demarcation line separating Flanders from Artois for a great many years. These two territories were not always allies, as at the time of Louis XIV when he declared war on Spain which then governed the Low Countries. Marshall of France Vauban then fortified it with double ramparts, integrating it into the ‘Pré carré’, Northern France’s defensive network (1669). The main bastion of these fortifications, although razed today, still outlines the pointed contour of the manor park, surrounded by water.
The Saint-Venant stronghold, designed by Vauban, surrounded by the Prince of Orange’s troops in 1710.
It was probably during the First World War that the pace of life at La Peylouse was at its most intense. The memories evoked from this period are also the most unsettling. These are stories about the unlikely of meetings between superior officers and writers of different nationalities, profoundly affected by the proximity of the fighting. Personal encounters reflecting military bravado, indescribable suffering and deep-seated humanity.
In 1914, the Germans advance rapidly but France, Belgium and England put up resistance: the front is stabilised 12 kilometres from Saint-Venant. The soldiers dig themselves into trenches and their officers requisition the houses in the environs in order to manage troop manœuvres. A first English detachment sojourns in the manor as the town turns into an important logistics and medical centre. Field Marshall Douglas Haig will stay here on several occasions.
Soldiers from the British Indian army near Saint-Venant.
The staff of the British Indian Army occupies the the site the following year. 100,000 Indian soldiers, separated according to cast, are scattered all over the town, which is traumatised by this mud-ridden, freezing cold and static war. They will give way to the Military Academy in 1916, following the terrifying evolution in destruction techniques. The manor becomes Field Marshall Haig’s «School of Mortars».
Then it is the turn of the valiant Portuguese Expeditionary Force to set up its headquarters at La Peylouse, when it joins the combat zone the following year. Its men put up courageous and fierce resistance to the German offensive along the Lys in 1918, which struck at the heart of Saint-Venant. By nothing short of a miracle, the house survives and finds itself for a while in no man’s land.
The Portuguese army remains at the front for over six months without ever being relieved…
During the first years of the conflict the house is just far enough away from the front for the soldiers to feel safe there. It is like living in an English country house. Almost a home from home, but in reality a refuge from the war and its atrocities. Because human beings cling to life just as the trees grow taller, the flowers in the garden blossom and the boats continue to navigate up and down the Lys river. There was even time to invite Heads of State to La Peylouse and organise hunting parties in the vast Nieppe forest (which supplied the British Expeditionary Force with wooden props for the trenches).
Daniel Halevy, by Edgard Degas.
Among the officers who met up at Saint-Venant was a French intellectual, Daniel Halévy, who was seconded to the English as an interpreter. Embued with a strong artistic culture, who counted Proust, Degas, Séguy and Dreyfus as his friends, he would later make frequent mention of his sojourn at La Peylouse and Saint-Venant in his writings. Later he would become the Head of Publishing at Grasset, where he discovered such talented writers as Cocteau, Malraux, Mauriac ou Montherlant.
Siegfried Sassoon, nicknamed «Mad Jack» for his bravado in combat.
Two years later, it was the valiant British captain Siegfried Sassoon, whose anthologies of poems on the Great War have moved millions of readers, who came to Saint-Venant when it was under direct threat from the Germans. He was particularly affected by the beauty of the grounds around the house, an oasis of life in the midst of Hell. At that time he was frequently in contact with other war writers, who tried to put into words – in such a poignant way – this absurd nightmare in which they were living, night and day with its share of revulsion, nausea and desperately held hopes …
1940 and Europe is once again at war – a lightning war. The Engish fusilliers in position in Saint-Venant are brutually confronted by several German divisions who are attempting to encircle Dunkirk. Fighting takes place in the park and the salons of La Peylouse itself. Victorious, the attackers convert the manor into a Kommandantur. Once again the library is full of men in uniform.
Exhibition at La Peylouse of arms and military material dating back to the fighting in Saint-Venant in the 1940s. © Webmatters
Rather surprisingly, the house is also home to several officers of the Russian Liberation Army (called the Vlassov Army) at this time. They are determined to combat the Soviet regime on the German side. This body of volunteers, comprising white Russians having fled the 1917 revolution together with prisoners of war won over to their cause, has nothing to do in the region. However, the Fuhrer regards their patriotism with suspicion and wants to keep them well away from the Eastern front …
Hospitality remains one of the mainstays of La Peylouse, wonderfully looked after by Didier Rousseau and his family. Its message of peace has survived so many periods of hostility that it is now a source of inspiration to a whole host of authors and artists. Also on offer at the manor in the citadel’s old powder tower is a community residence enabling creative talents to expound with pen or paintbrush on this area, which has undergone such violation at the hands of belligerent mankind.
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