Thursday, 8 December 2005

Internment in Holland - WW1

The English Camp at Groningen, Holland
It is little known that during the First World War, just over a hundred islanders were interned in The Netherlands. They were men of the First Royal Naval Brigade, who had been drafted in to assist in the defence of Antwerp, in October 1914. When the order came to retreat, they literally missed the train. To avoid detention in a German PoW camp, the 1,500 men were ordered to march into Holland, only a few miles away. As The Netherlands were neutral in that conflict, they were taken into internment, for the duration of the conflict.
Amongst them were about 105 people from Lewis. Click on this link for a list of names. This webpage has a link to the full story of the Lewismen in Holland, and about the camp itself.

Not many stories appear to have been handed down. It would seem that quite a few men found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that they had had a relatively 'cushy' life in the camp, whilst their friends and family were dying at the Western Front. Life in the camp was not cushy. There were severe food shortages in Holland during that war, and at times people were reduced to eating horsemeat or rats. Although several men undertook training courses (one person obtained a second mate's ticket, and another became a minister), the general picture was one of excruciating boredom. By 1916, arrangements were made for some people from Lewis to be allowed home for harvest leave. Although the temptation was great to abscond, the men always came back. Absconding would mean that everybody else would be denied leave. A few men died at the camp, through ill health. When the Armistice came in November 1918, everybody was released and sent home.
In Calum Ferguson's book "Children of the Blackhouse", reference is made to "men who had just returned from internment in Holland ... celebrating noisily", just before Christmas 1918.

Celebrations for the end of the war and the homecoming of the men were abandoned in Lewis on New Year's Day 1919. Early that morning, HMY Iolaire ran aground on the Beasts of Holm, just outside Stornoway Harbour, and sank. 205 men drowned, 75 survived. All were survivors of the Great War, only to die within sight of home. None of the internees were thought to have been on the Iolaire. The story is well-documented, but hardly known outside the Hebrides. Check out this account on CultureHebrides

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