Feature Articles - The English Camp

The 'English Camp' at Groningen

Internment of British Soldiers at Groningen during the First World War

The 'English Camp' is well known in the city of Groningen: for years after the Second World War up until the 1960's young men from the provinces Groningen and Drenthe were examined there for military service.  It is less well known that the camp was an internment camp for British militaries during the First World War.

Currently Menno Wielinga is extensively researching this English Camp during the period 1914-1918.  This research is to become a soon-to-be-published book.  His interest dates back to his childhood when he was told the story of the English Camp during the then customary Sunday afternoon walk.  Stationed there between 1914 and 1918 were the 'English soldiers' who had fought in the First World War and had ended up in The Netherlands.  There was not a lot of specific information.

Those 'English soldiers' turned out to be men from the First Royal Naval Brigade, originally marine men, who were interned in Groningen 'for the duration of the hostilities'.  They were accommodated in the wooden barracks of the English Camp, which they themselves called Timbertown.

Group photograph taken at the English CampObviously this raises questions: "How did these Brits end up in The Netherlands, why were they there and how was their stay in the English Camp in Groningen during the First World War?"  The answers turn out to be an interesting history on the connection between the English Camp, the British First Royal Naval Brigade, the city of Groningen and the First World War.

These British militaries were men of the Collingwood-, Benbow- and Hawke Battalion of the First Royal Naval Brigade.  This Brigade was part of the Royal Naval Division that was composed of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Royal Naval Brigade that was under the command of Winston Churchill, First Sea Lord of the then English government.  They were mainly reservists and volunteers of the British Navy who had been conscripted on 2 August 1914 due to the threat of war.

In the training camp they heard that they were to e retrained as infantrymen.  At Winston Churchill's command they were, hardly prepared and badly equipped, put to defend the fortified city of Antwerp.  Together with the Belgian army they had to defend the city against the German Army.  The Germans threatened to surround the Franco-British army in order to march unhindered in to northern France.  To gain time was therefore the most important aim with the defence of Antwerp.

When it became obvious on 8 October 1914 that the fortified city of Antwerp could not be defended any longer against the German cannons, the Belgian and British troops decided to retreat by way of the river Schelde.

The English Camp in 1916Due to a number of mistakes and miscommunications the battalions did not receive the order to retreat in time.

Therefore they did not arrive in time at the place agreed upon and consequently missed the train out.  But they could not turn back either as the Germans were advancing on them.

This is why commodore Henderson, commander of the 1st Brigade, had no other option than to proceed to the neutral Netherlands.  Here the British troops were interned according to the international rule of law.  In the end the British, over 1,500 men, were 'for the duration of the hostilities' interned in Groningen.

They were accommodated in wooden barracks in the so-called English Camp situated behind the prison at that time (currently the Mesdag Clinic) at the Hereweg.  They called it 'Timbertown' themselves.

Soon it became obvious that something had to be done to prevent demoralisation of the British troops.  A daily routine was meticulously clung to: exercise, march and practice.  Furthermore present qualities were utilised as much as possible.

Therefore numerous clubs were erected in which music, drama, crafts and especially sports were practiced.  The cabaret company 'Timbertown Follies' was very well known.  There was rehearsal space within the camp and workshops for the carpenters, furniture makers, tailors and electricians.  Furthermore there were classrooms, a small church, a post office and a large recreation room.

Not all British servicemen wanted to stay at the camp for as long as the war was to go on.  Despite security there were several successful attempted escapes in 1915.  A few Groningen inhabitants were even imprisoned on account of aiding such attempts.

Later the escapes were stopped because the Dutch and British government came to an agreement.  The British received the right to regularly 'go on leave' to the centre of Groningen - sometimes the inhabitants complained of their alcohol abuse.  Even later they received visitation rights allowing them, by word of honour and under certain conditions, to go to England for four weeks (often prolonged to eight weeks).

Wooden huts at the English CampAlso more and more contacts with the people of Groningen were established.  A lot of Tommies became regular family friends of families from Groningen and there were courtships and marriages with Dutch girls.

Already at an early stage the interned were asked to become involved in the daily labour process, on a voluntary basis and as much as possible in the area of their original civilian profession.  Next to getting out of the rut of military existence, this offered possibilities for more social activities and more pay.

For hiring these interned the Dutch government gave out special permits to prevent them from taking up Dutch jobs.  In 1915 the British were put to work at, among others, machine factories and ship building yards in the province of Groningen.

In the city of Groningen the interned had jobs in several small businesses.  Next to this during the harvest season many farms, bothered by a dire shortage of staff due to the mobilisation, received help from the British interned.

On 11 November 1918 the truce was signed and as soon as 15 November 900 British left for England via Rotterdam.  There were already 300 men on leave in England and the British working outside the camp were to leave later.  Commodore Henderson and 50 of his men remained to settle camp business.  The English Camp was officially terminated per 1 January 1919.

From archive material (the British camp archive is partly untraceable), magazines and newspapers there is a lot of information to be found on the English Camp.

Yet the story is not complete without additional information from non-official, private sources.  For a to-be-published book on the English Camp at Groningen 1914-1918 I am looking for documents, notes, photos, postcards, news paper clippings, brochures, attributes, memories, anecdotes, etc.  Please send any information to m.p.wielinga@pl.hanze.nl.

Article contributed by Menno Wielinga, website.

A "blimp" was a word applied to an observation balloon.

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