Naval men from Tyneside were prisoners in Timbertown

PRISONERS OF WAR ... some of the men inside Groningen Camp.
PRISONERS OF WAR ... some of the men inside Groningen Camp.

A HUNDRED years ago next month, men of the Hawke, Benbow and Collingwood battalions of the Royal Naval Division (RND), many of them from what is now South Tyneside, were disembarking at Gallipoli.

Less than a week later, they had almost been wiped out.

TIMBERTOWN ... these prisoners were from the training ship HMS Satellite.

TIMBERTOWN ... these prisoners were from the training ship HMS Satellite.

But the RND’s journey to the battlefield of the Dardanelles had begun – and for some, been halted – a year earlier, in Belgium.

In the first of two features, ahead of events in South Shields next month to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, and based on extensive research by Jarrow man Peter Hoy, we look at the events that led up to the division’s ultimate decimation in one of the First World War’s greatest bloodbaths.

ON October 10, 1914, two men from South Shields, Able Seamen Charles Redmond and John Whitehead, were shot as prisoners of war.

Redmond’s Hawke Battalion of the Royal Naval Division had sailed from England with another battalion, the Nelsons, less than a week before.

SPORTING ... the prisoners of war who made up Groningen Tyneside AFC.

SPORTING ... the prisoners of war who made up Groningen Tyneside AFC.

They had been tasked to take part in the defence of Antwerp, in Belgium, which the Germans had targeted as part of a plan to outflank the Allied armies and take the Channel ports.

The two Naval brigades had been sent to Belgium with practically no notice, being under-trained (many had never fired a rifle) and ill-equipped.

It must have been a baptism of fire for young men like John Smedley, who spent three days and nights under bombardment in the trenches and was wounded.

Smedley, who lived in Park Street in South Shields, had worked at Rennoldson’s shipyard in the town before the war.

NAVAL DIVISION ... Able Seaman Charles Redmond, left, was shot as a prisoner of war. Shipyard worker John Smedley, right, was wounded after spending three days under bombardment.

NAVAL DIVISION ... Able Seaman Charles Redmond, left, was shot as a prisoner of war. Shipyard worker John Smedley, right, was wounded after spending three days under bombardment.

In the event, the Belgian port could not be saved. Nelson Battalion escaped via trains from Bruges to Ostend, from where they sailed for England.

The RND returned from Antwerp, leaving an estimated 2,500 men behind in internment, its military capability reduced by almost four entire battalions.

The time needed for the training of replacement battalions would keep the RND well below strength until late in May 1915, when replacement battalions arrived at Gallipoli, one month into the campaign.

But for now, almost 1,500 seamen had been interned in a camp at Groningen, in Holland.

CAMP LIFE ... the English Camp had its own magazine.

CAMP LIFE ... the English Camp had its own magazine.

The prisoners nicknamed it Timbertown, accommodation being in wooden barracks in the so-called ‘English Camp,’ while their officers were housed in barracks.

As some of the pictures here illustrate, a glimpse inside the world of the camp would eventually filter back to their families at home on Tyneside, with snaps of local men participating in entertainment or sport, like the members here of the ‘Groningen Tyneside AFC’.

Numerous clubs were created: gardening, arts and crafts, fishing net-making and knitting (woollen jumpers, socks etc which could be distributed around the camp or sold to local people).

There were also clubs for photography, chess, music (which had its own orchestra, brass band and Gilbert and Sullivan Society), drama and, especially, sports – football, rugby, cricket, athletics, boxing, tennis and swimming.

The cabaret company, the Timbertown Follies, was very well regarded, with workshops for the carpenters, furniture-makers, tailors and electricians.

The camp also boasted classrooms, a small church, a post office, a library and a recreation room.

REMEMBERED ... the grave of John Whitehead, who was shot as a prisoner of war.

REMEMBERED ... the grave of John Whitehead, who was shot as a prisoner of war.

There were several escapes – later stopped when the British and Dutch governments came to an agreement that all escapees would be promptly returned to Holland.

British prisoners would be allowed leave, though, to go into the centre of Groningen – albeit there were sometimes complaints about their alcohol abuse.

Eventually, on certain conditions, including their word of honour to return, some men were even granted leave to return to England for up to eight weeks.

Prisoners also worked in local factories and shipbuilding yards, as well as on farms.

When the Armistice was signed in November 1918, 900 seamen left for England via Rotterdam.

A further 300 men were already on leave in England and the British working outside the camp were to leave later.

The English Camp was officially terminated on January 1, 1919. For them, the war was over.

Far worse, however, had been the fate of the reconstituted Collingwood Battalion, made up almost entirely of Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) men who had been Kitchener Volunteers in August and September 1914.

For many of them, on a summer’s day in 1915, their war ended in the face of Turkish machine guns and tragically accurate artillery shrapnel.

• Next week: The Battle of Krithia.