Sunday, 26 April 2009

Local history file: HMS Timbertown

In January 2005, I obtained a copy of the book “Lewis: A History of the Island” by Donald Macdonald. It mentions the fact that during the First World War, a number of people from the island were interned at Groningen, a city in the northeast of Holland. Being from that country myself, I was intrigued at this unexpected link between Lewis and the Netherlands. I was to find out later that an even more surprising connection exists, going back to the 17th century.
After publishing a letter in the Stornoway Gazette, I received a handful of reactions from local people, whose ancestors had been interned at Groningen. With the help of several of the island’s historical societies, I managed to compile a list of more than one hundred names, as well as the story of HMS Timbertown (as the internment camp was known amongst its inmates). Groningen historian Menno Wielinga, from his side of the North Sea, added to that in no small measure.

In October 1914, the British Expeditionary Force, sent to Belgium to hold the tide of advancing German forces, found itself at Antwerp. The onslaught from the Germans could not be stopped, so the British withdrew west. Trains were supposed to take them to the Channel ports at Zeebrugge and Ostend, but our group missed their train. The officer in charge commanded them to head north, into the Zeeuws Vlaanderen area of southwestern Holland. On crossing the border, they handed themselves in. They ended up in Groningen for the duration of the war, more than four years. Their story is told on the English Camp website.

One poignant detail concerns the return of the internees to Lewis after the Armistice of November 1918, and particularly in the aftermath of the Iolaire Disaster, of which more in the next paragraph. Upon learning of the hardships suffered by survivors of the trenches and the Atlantic crossings, not to mention the deaths of so many fellow islanders (relatives, friends and acquaintances), the former internees felt ashamed. They had had a (relatively) easy time in a camp, whilst others had died, suffered injury or been witness to unspeakable horrors in combat. So, many lived out their lives and took their stories into the grave.

Website English Camp

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