Remarkable WWI story of HMS Timbertown

Delving into the archives to find out more about HMS Timbertown.
Delving into the archives to find out more about HMS Timbertown.

After the fall of Antwerp in October 1914, 1,500 men from Winston Churchill’s newly formed Royal Naval Division crossed the border into the neutral Netherlands to evade capture from the German Army.

Incredibly, 102 men from that number came from the Isle of Lewis. These men were interned in a camp in the Netherlands for the duration of the war.

Tying the story together for the first time on the centenary of the internment, BBC ALBA’s Angela MacLean retraces the incredible journey the men took through the fort at Antwerp, to the border crossing with the Netherlands and finally on to the town of Groningen where the local authorities built wooden huts to house the men in a camp which became known as HMS Timbertown.

By visiting the National Archives in Kew to view the Admiralty records, BBC ALBA gains an insight into the events at Antwerp and what the sailors did for the four years during which they were interned in the Netherlands.

Here, Angela sees the full list of names from the camp which brings to light the characters who were interned alongside the men from Lewis – fishermen, clerks, an actor, a burglar as well as the Duchess of Cambridge’s great Grandfather, Frederick Glassborow.

As well as being home to many Englishmen, the camp also housed many Scots from areas such as Avoch, Easter Ross, Wick, Fife, Shetland, Orkney, Glasgow and one young man from Barra.

Newspapers from the time help Angela uncover what life was like in the camp, from the highs of the football matches and cabaret acts, to the lows of failed escape attempts, illness and death.

Angela meets naval historical expert Captain Christopher Page as well as local historians on the Isle of Lewis and in Groningen who explain the background to the story alongside the tender and personal insights which come from friends and family members of the interned Lewis men.

For the first time, HMS Timbertown pieces together stories which have lain dormant for many years and also uncovers stories that came as a surprise to some of the families of those interned.

HMS Timbertown will be shown on BBC ALBA on Thursday 9th October at 9.00pm.