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Uigeachs interned in Holland I: Disaster at Antwerp
Uigeachs interned in Holland I: Disaster at Antwerp
An account of the internment of Royal Naval Reservists from Uig in Groningen, 1914, by Dave Roberts
Some years ago John Macdonald, Islivig, told me an intriguing story about when his father was held 'prisoner' in Holland during the First World War, and how he had come home on leave, at least twice. Even more amazing was that he returned dutifully to Holland each time, resisting the temptation to stay at home!
I duly noted the story, but forgot about it until early in 2005 when I saw a letter in the Stornoway Gazette asking for information about Lewismen interned at Groningen, Holland from 1914-1918. John told me that he had responded to the letter. I decided to do some research myself about other Uigeachs who had been interned.
There turned out to be twenty men involved in the events that occurred in the early months of the First World War. Twelve of them were interned, another five were taken prisoner and three escaped altogether. However it was very difficult to get any details about what actually happened. None of those I asked could give me much information. The men had apparently spoken very little about their time in Holland. In contrast, the information from Holland was very good. Residents of Groningen had taken a great interest in the sailors who were shut up in what they called the Engelse Kamp and what the internees called HMS Timbertown.
Apparently in about 1909, a Committee decided that some money needed to be injected into the Uig economy. Until then there was so little actual money around that the residents were unable to pay their dues for the nursing service in the district. It was proposed that men in the remoter areas would be allowed to join the Royal Naval Reserve. For this they would receive a retainer fee, which could incidentally be used to pay the subscription for the nurse! The Government would then have a readily available fighting force that could be mobilised at any time.
Many Uig men over the age of eighteen willingly joined up, and received their initial training in Portsmouth. Then from time to time they would have further training sometimes aboard ships, and at other times at the Ross Battery in Stornoway. Angus Macdonald, Geshader, joking the RNR about 1910. He worked at the smelter at Kinlochleven for a time, and then moved to a job at Buchanan Street goods station in Glasgow.
On 5 August 1914 the postman delivered buff-coloured envelopes to all the reservists. War had been declared. There was no reluctance to answer the mobilisation call, and those on the Island made their way immediately to Stornoway, thence to Kyle of Lochalsh, and eventually to one of the Channel ports.
The most pressing military need at the time was for infantrymen, not for ships' crews, so the Naval Reservists found themselves issued with a rifle and ten rounds of ammunition. Their training had been as crew for warships, and the handling of big naval guns, not as infantrymen! But on 5 October they were transported to Antwerp in Belgium, via Dunkirk, to attempt to defend the strategic port from the advance of the Kaiser's Army. The defences were built in the nineteenth century and were no match for the heavy artillery or the devastating fire from the 'Big Bertha' mortars. The ill-equipped and inadequately trained Naval Brigades had no chance and held out for less than three days.
This tiny force of raw recruits and reservists were contemptuously nicknamed by the Kaiser 'Winston's Little Army'. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and having exhorted the Belgians to hold Antwerp at all costs, the only troops he had available to send in support were these RNR sailors. Before they left on the ill-fated expedition Churchill had inspected them, but all he had remarked was what a fine body of men they were. He obviously realised how unprepared they were for the ensuing ordeal.
They were facing overwhelming odds, and despite orders that they were to defend this strategic deepwater port at all costs, it was obvious that a retreat was necessary. There were also specific orders that on no account should the Naval Division be caught in Antwerp. Eventually the orders came to fall back, and two of the Brigades did so, but for some hours the third remained ignorant of the withdrawal. 3,500 men reached the Burght, crossed the River Scheldt by pontoon bridge and marched to St Niklaas, where they boarded trains and escaped. The other 1,500 men of the First Brigade, consisting of Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood Battalions, finally got their evacuation orders but when they arrived at the river the bridge was no longer in place. Fortunately there were some small boats available for ferrying them across, but valuable time had been lost. They arrived exhausted at St Niklass early on the morning of 9 October.
All the transport had departed and they were forced to continue on foot to St Gillis-Waas. There they discovered that the railway had been blown up, and they were almost completely surrounded by enemy troops. In fact some of the Naval Brigade had already been captured, including John Maclean Ungeshader, John Buchanan Brenish, John and Angus Maciver Crowlista, and Donald Mackay Valtos. Only three of the Uigeachs who were sent to Antwerp managed to escape that day: they were Kenneth Maciver Geshader, Donald Macritchie Aird and Angus Mackay Valtos. The rest were now facing capture, being wounded or even being killed by the fierce bombardment they were suffering. Commodore Henderson was in charge and the lives of his men depended on him making the right decision. Reluctantly he chose the safest option: rather than become prisoners of war, they would cross the border. Once they were on Dutch soil, and had surrendered their weapons to the Dutch Army, they became internees in the neutral country of Holland.
The First naval Brigade had been fighting for four days, mostly on the retreat, but now their war was over. However, morale was fairly high because at this stage of the war no one expected it to last more than a few months - they would surely be home for Christmas.
What happened to them over the next four years I will explain in the next episode.
Dave Roberts Islivig, with a great amount of help from Guido Blokland and Menno Wielinga; Iain Macdonald Islivig; Calum Buchanan Brenish; Murdina Maclennan Cliff; Iain Buchanan Islivig; Finlay Maciver Carishader; and Seonag Maclean Timsgarry.