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Uigeachs interned in Holland part III: heroes not cowards
Uigeachs interned in Holland part III: heroes not cowards
An account of the internment of Royal Naval Reservists from Uig in Groningen, 1914, by Dave Roberts
Everyone predicted that the war would be over by Christmas 1914, but in fact it dragged on another four years. For the First Naval Brigade, now interned in Holland for the duration, the greatest difficulty was coping with the long hours of inactivity. This was a problem for both the British and the Dutch and there were guards appointed by both sides to prevent any trouble occurring. The Dutch authorities were unable to understand why the men could not be sent home, but the rules of war stated that the internees should not be permitted to take any further part in hostilities.
Activities were therefore organised to reduce the boredom. Books and materials were sent out from Britain. Study courses were arranged for the sailors. Angus Macdonald attended first aid and navigation classes, and he recorded what he learnt in a small notebook. Some of the men studied for exams and were able to sit them in the camp. At least one sailor studied for the ministry and many earned merchant seamen certificates. A number of groups and societies started up including drama, music and crafts. There was soon a thriving cabaret company who put on regular concerts.
The men were permitted to take on work outside the camp. Some worked in coalmines, some in shipyards and others on farms. There was a knitting club, and the sailors produced jumpers and socks, both for themselves and to sell. Others who had the skills already made trinket boxes and other wooden items also for sale. Some of these items were shipped back to Britain and sold at Selfridges in London. The money earned could be used to purchase extra food and essentials and for other activities such as trips to town to the cinema or bars.
As the war dragged on food became scarce in Holland, and in camp its quality and quantity deteriorated seriously until even rats were caught and eaten. Donald Maclennan was so desperately hungry that on one occasion when they were working on a farm he and his companions caught and killed a sheep. They decided they would have to eat it raw so as not to draw attention to themselves by lighting a fire.
The confined nature of the camp meant that the only exercise possible consisted of groups of men walking around in circles. Later compulsory route marches under armed guard were organised, along the banks of the 'stinking' canals. As time went on the men were able to enjoy sporting activities such as athletics, cricket and their favourite, football. There were numerous teams in the camp who played against each other, and later there were matches against local Dutch teams.
As there were so many activities taking place outside the camp, it was inevitable that from time to time there was trouble. Internees were permitted to frequent the bars in town, as long as they could afford to do so. On more than one occasion this led to punch-ups. The most frequent causes of such aggravation were encounters with visiting German sailors. As a neutral country Holland permitted German ships into their ports. Often the police had to be called in to break up an incident, and the internees would be escorted back to the camp.
It wasn't just visiting sailors who created the opportunity for a fight. The local young men were becoming very jealous because the British 'war-heroes' enchanted the Groningen girls. The fathers and older brothers of many of the Groningen girls forbade them to go anywhere near the camp or the internees, but this had no effect. It was not long before romances began and there were a number of marriages between the British men and Dutch girls. The married internees were permitted to spend each night at the home of their wives; however these visits had to be accompanied by a guard who would stay at the house. There were also a number of children born out of wedlock. There are still people in Holland who wish to discover the identity of their British fathers.
There were not many escapes, and the British Government discouraged any attempts. In fact
one escapee reached the British Consulate only to be turned away because the Consul did not want to be seen to be aiding and abetting such activities. Dutch people, who were on the whole sympathetic, aided those who did manage to get back home. However in the north of Holland some residents reported suspects to the authorities. One successful escapee arrived home to a very hostile reception from his parents. They felt that he was safe in Holland, now he would be sent back into battle, and next time he might not be so lucky.
Time wore on, and at last the war came to an end. After four long years the Armistice was signed and they could finally go home for good. Would they be greeted as heroes? They had survived a war that had killed 57 out of the 312 Uigeachs who went to fight for King and Country. They had returned fairly unscathed or damaged by their experiences. Despite being jokingly accused of "sleeping in Holland for four years", they were not cowards. They may have had doubts themselves about whether they had 'done their bit' for their country. Possibly they felt that surrendering to a neutral country would not be seen as a very brave thing to do. When I spoke to people who had known these men, they could give me very little information. This was due to the reticence of the internees, over the years, to talk about their experiences. Some wondered whether the reluctance to talk was due to embarrassment about the whole thing.
Some of the surviving ex-internees (four of them from Uig) met in Stornoway for a reunion in October 1959. They had all been in the same hut as Donald Macleod, a Lochsman, who had emigrated to Canada soon after the end of the First War. He later moved to California where he lived for some years, before returning home in 1958. He had saved quite a bit of money and decided that he wanted to meet up with his Groningen friends again. So it was that he arranged and paid for a dinner at the Caledonian Hotel for the surviving members of his hut. Some of the internees even travelled back to Groningen in the same year. These events would have gjven them an opportunity to reminisce about their shared experiences, without others overhearing them. Unfortunately for us too little of the story of their time in Holland has survived, and they cannot be interviewed now as they are all long dead.
The action that the Commanding Officer took on 9th October 1914 would be judged by today's standards as the only sensible option available to him. However at the time, the authorities questioned the decision. The men of the First Naval Brigade had all enthusiastically answered the call of their country, without question. Each and every man would willingly have given his life, had the circumstances at the fall of Antwerp not conspired to save rather than sacrifice them. In fact it must have taken great courage for a trained sailor with only a rifle and ten rounds of ammunition, to face the onslaught of a well-prepared invading army! They were in fact heroes who cheated death or capture, and survived the war.
Thanks to Guido Blokland and Menno Weilinga, lain Macdonald of Islivig, Calum Buchanan of Brenish, Murdina Maclennan of Cliff, lain Buchanan of Islivig, Finlay Maciver of Carishader and Seonag Maclean of Timsgarry.