Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Life in a British Internment Camp in Holland

From The Times, 3rd November 1915.


I have just returned from visiting the men of the Royal Naval Brigade interned at Groningen.  They are entering on their second year of confinement with a rigorous and healthy camp life well organised.

All the north-eastern part of Holland is a bleak and rather forbidding country at this time of year, interminably flat, with patches of cultivated land alternating with wide stretches of heather dotted with small pools of dark, peaty water.  The camp, H.M.S. Timbertown, is on the immediate outskirts of the town of Groningen, a cluster of great black-and-white barrack-like wooden huts, easily accessible from the town on one side and no less exposed to the bitter winds which, at this time of year, sweep the open country, on the other.

Abundance of keen, hard air, however, never did healthy men any harm; and 10 miles of good route-marching a day, from 9 a.m. to noon, six days in the week, make excellent medicine.  So the men are extremely fit.  The sick list varies from one-half to three-quarters of 1 per cent., and a large proportion of the cases are the result of injuries on the football field.

Football is, indeed, next to route-marching the chief preoccupation of the camp.  In a competition promoted by the Groninger Dagblad, in which five Dutch teams took part as well as three teams representing the various battalions of the Brigade, the latter had practically to fight it out among themselves, Hawke Battalion (which had already knocked out Collingwood) beating Benbow in the final tie after a thrilling game by a rather lucky 1—0.  The question of international supremacy being thus satisfactorily settled, the Brigade is now engrossed in an inter-company league series of its own.

There are, of course, grumblers and “slackers,” as there must be anywhere in any party of 1,500 men; and these write letters home telling of their miserable plight and of the inadequacy of their food.  These letters sometimes find their way into print and annoy the rest of the camp even more than they do the Dutch authorities.  The food is not inadequate, and the men are more comfortable and on the whole better off — except for the consciousness that they are prisoners — than are our new soldiers on Salisbury Plain.  So far from demanding sympathy, the camp takes pride in its independence and self-sufficingness.  Parcels of “comforts” and other gifts from friends outside to individuals are a private matter and are undoubtedly always welcome; but for the camp itself, as a unit, it has nothing to ask of England.  Old books or newspapers for its library and reading-rooms are acceptable; but, beyond that, its only appeal to people at home is: —“Keep your money and help for the men in the firing line.  We’re all right!”

On every side, indeed, one sees evidence of the robustness of the camp organization.  It is spread before you in the wide strip of flower garden, all the work of “interned talent” which at this season, when the perennials are being taken in under glass for the winter, is still gay and gives Timbertown at first glance rather the appearance of a large summer pleasure camp.  If you open a door at random in one of the long ranges of huts you may come —as I did— on a rehearsal of the “Timbertown Follies,” under stage-manager Signalmen Fred Penley, or (as I also did) on one of Mrs. Oakley’s knitting classes, with a dozen members of the Brigade profoundly immersed, behind barricades of khaki and Navy blue wool, in knitting socks for the men at the front or in the Fleet.  Or you may find yourself in the bootmaker's shop, in the petty officer’s billiard room, in the great recreation room at one end of which is the Church, in the well-equipped gymnasium or in the offices of the Camp News, a daily typewritten, manifolded broadsheet, and Camp Magazine, a monthly illustrated periodical which has now issued its seventh number.
Then there are the Operatic Society, with a Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire; the dramatic club, which has given A Pair of Spectacles elsewhere than at the camp with tumultuous success; the Timbertown Orchestra and the brass and banjo-and-mandoline bands, and there are the wood-working shops, where surprisingly good work is done and the various "firms" (as any four or five work-men who associate themselves together style themselves) are kept profitably busy on orders for the picture frames, jewel boxes, and other knick-knacks which they make, of oak or satinwood, and which will in the future be prized as souvenirs of the days when British soldiers were interned in Holland during the Great War.  Above all, perhaps, there is the canteen—“dry,” of course —which, since it was taken over from the local contractor, has produced the chief part of the funds necessary to run the various organizations which cannot be made self-supporting.

The University of Groningen has generously thrown all its lectures open to members of the Brigade who care to attend.  There are numerous classes at the camp for teaching languages and so forth as well as frequent lectures; and the Royal Society of Arts and London Chamber of Commerce have both made arrangements for examinations to be held at Timbertown, at which successful candidates will be awarded the appropriate certificates.  The Government of Holland has, moreover, permitted men to go from the camp to take regular employment elsewhere, provided that in doing so they do not compete with native labour.  A few men already have regular work in Groningen, and a request, which will probably be granted, has just been received for 100 men to go to Rotterdam.  In these cases a portion of the men's wages is given them weekly while the rest is paid to the Dutch War Office, there to accumulate until their liberation.

From all the foregoing it will be seen how well the camp has found itself.  The contrast with the early days of last winter —days of depression and unorganized monotony in crowded quarters before the present huts were built— is most striking.  For that contrast credit is chiefly due to Commodore Wilfred Henderson, who has the confidence and respect not only of the Camp but, what is no less important, of the Dutch authorities.  That the men’s lives can be other than limited and more or less dull and harassed with regrets and longings is, of course, impossible.  It is at most but making the best of a bad situation.  But that best could not be nearly so good without the most helpful kindness on the part of the authorities and the friendliness of the Dutch population of the neighbourhood.

[Holland was neutral in the First World War, and men of the Royal Naval Brigade who had retreated into the Netherlands were interned there for the duration of the war, along with Belgians and Germans (though different nationalities were in different camps).  I have included this article mainly because of the mention of knitting socks, but also because it is an aspect of the war that seems little known.]    

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