You are here
Uigeachs interned in Holland part II: HMS Timbertown
Uigeachs interned in Holland part II: HMS Timbertown
An account of the internment of Royal Naval Reservists from Uig in Groningen, 1914, by Dave Roberts
In the first part of this story I explained how most of the First Royal Naval Brigade found themselves in neutral Holland on 9 October 1914. They were exhausted and filthy, and had not slept or eaten properly for days. Instead they had marched many miles, some of them without their boots because their feet were so swollen. They had survived extremely fierce bombardment from heavy artillery, with very few casualties. However they could no longer be regarded as a fighting force.
The Uig contingent were: Malcolm and Murdo Buchanan (cousins) Breanish; Angus Morrison Islivig; Angus Macdonald Geshader; Donald Morrison, John William Macleod, Angus Macaulay, and James Morrison Valtos; Donald Maclennan Cliff; Kenneth Nicolson Crowlista and Norman Macritchie Aird. Out of the twenty Uigeachs who were sent to Antwerp only Kenneth Maciver Geshader, Donald Macritchie Aird, and Angus Mackay Valtos avoided capture or internment.
The forlorn remnant of "Winston's Little Army" spent their first night in Holland sleep ing by the roadside, without any food. They were starving, and some resorted to stripping meal from dead cows that they found in the fields, and eating it raw. The next day they were taken under armed guard to Groningen, forty miles to the west. At first the security was very tight. A rule of neutrality was that 'prisoners' who had sought refuge as a way of avoiding capture by the enemy should not be permitted to escape or return to active duty. In order to protect its neutral status and avoid occupation itself, the Dutch Government was determined to give no favours to the refugees, so the treatment was generally harsh at first.
To begin with, they were housed in the Rabenhaupt Barracks in Groningen, which were temporarily vacant. After three months, the men were moved into huts especially erected for them next to the State Prison. This new accommodation was soon to become known by the inmates as "HMS Timbertown". The nickname was derived from the wooden huts, and the fact that they housed sailors, not "infantrymen". Each hut was fairly large and had a number of stoves, but internees complained that in the winter, especially at night, they got very cold. In the summer the ventilation was not adequate and the huts became hot and stuffy. The new camp was on the old parade ground with the barracks perimeter fence on one side, and the Sterrobos woods on the other. The Rev Lamont, writing in The Stornoway Gazette of 25th January 1918, observed "imprisonment behind barbed wire, in the flat and featureless countryside must have been very hard for Lewismen so used to the hills and the sea".
The food was meagre but just about adequate. Some of the men complained that the only meat they got was horsemeat. It had very little fat on it but most of the inmates eventually grew accustomed to it. Others complained that the meals provided were too fatty! Each man received half a loaf of bread a day. It tasted as though it was made from potato peelings and grain husks! Later oatmeal appeared, and porridge was taken daily. Eventually it was agreed with the authorities that the internees could do their own catering, as long as they stayed within the permitted budget. Tea was a rare treat, and letters home begged for supplies. However things were tight in Uig too, and tea was just as scarce here - so unfortunately for the internees there was none to spare.
As time went on, negotiations between the Dutch and British Governments led to a slackening of the strict security, and somewhat better conditions. Inmates were allowed 'shore leave' for a few hours, which meant that they could go into the town of Groningen. Some of the men had already struck up friendships with local girls through the fence, so now they could go on dates to the local cinema with them.
On Sunday afternoons, the "Englische Kamp" had become a sightseeing attraction, and townsfolk came to gawp through the fence at the sailors. The inmates were a novelty, and at first many of them felt like monkeys in a zoo. The camp itself was soon to open for two hours on Sunday afternoons, so that townspeople could visit. They came to watch football matches, to attend concerts, and to provide entertainment themselves. Local musicians, choirs and opera groups performed in the camp. The internees also gave concerts in the town for local people to enjoy.
Astonishingly, by 1916 home leave was being permitted. Ostensibly this was only granted on compassionate or medical grounds. A letter from home to the effect that a brother had been killed, and the family needed help on the croft, was considered enough. The family doctor generally wrote the letters. One request was granted because it was harvest time and the interned sailor's mother was a widow. Angus Macdonald had at least two periods of leave during the four years, each of one-month duration. He dutifully returned each time, so that others could have the same privilege in their turn. The rule was that if anyone failed to return from leave, then the privilege would be withdrawn from everyone. Needless to say the feeling of companionship and trust among the men meant that no one broke the rule.
It is thought that Malcolm Buchanan of No 11 Breanish also came home on leave. No one else is known to have done so, but possibly this is because the event has been forgotten or was just not talked about. However there were occasions when internees did not return from leave. In these cases the circumstances were out of their control. Some were killed when the ship taking them across the North Sea was sunk by enemy u-boats, and some became prisoners of war when their transport was intercepted by enemy surface craft.
Dave Roberts Islivig with help from Guido Blokland and Menno Weilinga, Groningen; Iain Macdonald and Iain Buchanan of Islivig; Calum Buchanan of Breanish, Murdina Maclennan of Cliff; and Seonag Maclean of Timsgarry.