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'...Large groups of Groningers stare 
at us through the fences…’ 

The English Camp in Groningen 1914 -1918 (part 3)

This is the third part of a series of 13 about the history of the English Camp in Groningen where 1,500 British service personnel were interned during the First World War. During my investigations, I managed to acquire the diary of John Henry Bentham. He was born in 1894, and had volunteered with the Royal Navy before the outbreak of war. He was duly called up on 1st August 1914. Below is a summary from his diary, in which he recounts his experiences during the first few months at Groningen. 

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On arrival at Groningen, the First Royal Naval Brigade is housed in the Rabenhauptkazerne. Many Groningers came to have a look.

From John Henry Bentham’s diary

After a train journey of more than 12 hours, we finally arrived into Groningen at noon on Sunday 11th October. Every man sported a 7-day beard, and we looked filthy and dishevelled. A huge throng of people witnessed our arrival. Afterwards, we were marched to the Rabenhauptkazerne [barracks] on the Hereweg. It did not look very hospitable, and the Dutch Landstorm kept a strict guard. This consisted of mainly older reservists from the Dutch army. We slept in large halls, with iron bunk beds where the air was incredibly stale at night. We were allowed to send a postcard home to reassure our loved ones, and to advise them that we had safely arrived at Groningen. 
Officers were housed in hotels, under word of honour. The men were under the direct command of a Dutch CO and our own NCOs. In order to kill the time, we were ordered to perform the weirdest of chores in the morning, like cleaning etcetera. We had nothing else to do for the rest of the day, and we were soon bored silly. 

Breakfast consisted of half a loaf of bread, which had to last the rest of the day. It tasted of nothing, and we thought it was made of potato peelings and husks. There was a small piece of margarine and coffee, without any milk or sugar. Porridge was issued not until much later. Our lunch consisted of either boiled pork with potatoes or boiled leg of pork with beans, covered in lard. Our ‘tea’ consisted of tea with a piece of Dutch cheese. There was no variation, and everyone was fed up with the monotonous food after a while. Extra food could fortunately be purchased from street merchants. 
Within a fortnight, the group that had originally been transferred to Leeuwarden rejoined their colleagues in the barracks in Groningen. They were initially housed in the Fongers Rijwielschool, but two barracks were constructed for them within the Rabenhaupt Army Base. This made the base overpopulated. 

During the first few weeks, physical exercise consisted of walking circles on base premises. Later we had to take part in compulsory long distance marches along stinking canals. During our first outing, the elderly Landstorm guards could not keep up with us. They began to puff and pant and we upped the tempo even further. They later accompanied us on horseback or by bicycle. 

We became an object of curiosity for sightseers in Groningen: large groups of people came to gawp at us through the fences. On Sunday afternoons especially it was very busy. We felt that we were monkeys in the zoo. We were very popular with the Groninger girls, and through the fences the first friendships were forged. 

Some guards were bribable, and at night they would take in a lady of the night. She would disappear into the guardroom with a sailor for a few guilders. One guilder (nowadays 45 Eurocents or 33p) was the daily wage for an unschooled labourer [author’s note]. Guards would also smuggle genever (Dutch gin) into camp, which would result in fights. Our boys quickly discovered another way of acquiring drink: they would pretend to suffer horrendous toothache. They would be taken to the dentist, who would extract a completely healthy tooth. Then they would seek pain relief by visiting a string of pubs, accompanied by a guard. The pair would return arm in arm, both as drunk as a skunk. 

During this period, I once failed to salute a Dutch officer. When he remonstrated me on that incident, I apologised, saying that he looked like a postman or a tram driver, and I therefore did not recognise him as a Dutch officer. He regarded this as a serious insult, and I was duly punished with 14 days’ cleaning of latrines. Not just our own, but also those used by the Dutch guards. It was freezing cold, and I could barely keep hold of the brush. I have never had such a horrendous job: those Dutch soldiers were filthy beyond belief! 

Next: British complain of poor food 

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