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            Timbertown - Engelse Kamp (English Camp)
            
The internment of British militaries at Groningen
                    during the First World War 1914-1918

Written by Menno Wielinga, translation Guido Blokland

The Engelse Kamp [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 this place was an internment camp for British militaries during the First World War. 

Currently Menno Wielinga is extensively researching this English Camp in 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' or 'HMS Timbertown'. 

Early period group photo October/ November 1914. In the background the Rabenhaupt barracks where the Brigade was stationed during October, November and December. The English Camp was brought into use in January 1915. (Click to enlarge the picture.)

Obviously 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 Netherlands, 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 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. Churchill was so enthusiastically involved with this Royal Naval Brigade that it was known as 'Churchillís Little Army'.

In the training camp they heard that they were retrained to be 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 German. The Germans threatened to surround the French-British army in order to march unhindered to northern France. To gain time was therefore the most important aim with the defence of Antwerp. 

When it became obvious on 8 October that the fortified city of Antwerp could not be defended any longer against the German heavy guns, the Belgian and British troops decided to retreat by way of the river Scheldt. Due to a number of mistakes and miscommunications the battalions did not receive the order for retreat in time. Therefore they did not arrive in time at the place agreed on 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 rules 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 huts; the Dutch people called it the Engelse Kamp [English Camp]. This 'English Camp' was situated behind the prison at that time (currently the Van Mesdag Clinic) at the Hereweg. They called it 'Timbertown' or 'HMS Timbertown' themselves.

Barracks to the east of the camp (the 'Sterrebos' to the right, 
the prison on the left and the water tower at the centre)

Soon it became obvious that something had to be done to prevent demoralization of the British troops. A daily routine was meticulously clung to: exercise, march and practice. Furthermore present qualities were utilized 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 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 because of aiding in these 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). Also more and more contacts with the people of Groningen were established. A lot of 'Tommies' (as they were called by the Dutch people) became regular family friends of families from Groningen and there were courtships and marriages with Dutch girls. 

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The barracks to the west of the camp.

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.

Tug-of-war competition at the sporting grounds of the camp (1916)

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 of 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. 

At the Southern cemetery (Zuiderbegraafplaats) at Groningen nine graves of British militaries, who died there during the period 1914-1918, are a remaining memory of this period. 

Please forward information to Menno Wielinga:   

  
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