Talbot House: WWII veteran, 98, goes on VE Day walk to save former soldiers' club

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By Euronews
British World War II RAF veteran George Sutherland, 98, at the Lijssenthoek war cemetery in Belgium, May 8, 2020.
British World War II RAF veteran George Sutherland, 98, at the Lijssenthoek war cemetery in Belgium, May 8, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

A 98-year-old World War II veteran — inspired by the heroics of Captain Tom Moore who has raised millions of pounds for the UK health service amid the COVID-19 pandemic — embarked on a VE Day walk to raise funds for a former soldiers' club in Belgium.

Aircraftsman George Sutherlands walked the four kilometres separating the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetary and to the under-threat Talbot House, in Poperinge, West Flanders.

Talbot House, now a living museum and a guesthouse, is said to be facing permanent closure amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It is trying to raise €100,000 to survive.

Sutherlands, whose Belgian mother and Scottish father met during World War I, grew up in the area but fled to the UK in 1940 where he swiftly joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a mechanic.

The World War II veteran first visited the former soldier's house when he was "12 or 13", he recounted in an video and he and his father both tended to the club's garden before the war started.

Talbot House was founded in 1915 when Poperinge was used as a garrison town for British soldiers. The establishment became an oasis for soldiers returning from the front in which they could relax, read, and wander around the garden.

Apart from an interruption during WWII, it has remained open ever since and is now a guesthouse and a living museum. But like other establishments, it has had to close its doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic and as a consequence is facing a financial shortfall.

"If we don't take action now, Talbot House might not be there next year," it stressed on a GoFundMe page.

Sutherlands who returned to his hometown after the war to get married, became a professional gardener and worked for the War Graves Commission at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetary — where more than 10,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died during the Great War are buried.

He decided to join the fundraising appeal after being inspired by Captain, now Colonel, Tom Moore, who raised about £33 million for the UK health service last month by walking laps around his garden ahead of his 100th birthday.

As he carried out his walk on Friday, accompanied by Pipe Major Ben from the Flanders Memorial Pipe Band, gardeners from the War Graves Commission formed a guard of honour. His son, Alex, also joined him.

"And an hour later, we got to my home from home Talbot House, just in time for a cuppa and a rest," he wrote on Twitter.

"I was very happy to sit in the garden I helped to lay out. I'll have a rest and a whisky now," he added.