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The internment of Belgian, British and German soldiers in The Netherlands during the First World War 1914 - 1918 

At the start of the First World War on 4 August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium. From that moment onwards hundreds of thousands of Belgians fled to the Netherlands; among which were  about 40.000 Belgian military refugees. In conformity with the Peace treaty of The Hague of 18 October 1907 the neutral nation of the Netherlands was obliged to disarm and intern EVERY military man. 
In the first days of war 52 Belgian and 179 German military men had crossed border with Limburg and they were interned (together!) in Alkmaar where the empty barracks was appointed internment camp by the government. The Belgians were soon after transferred to Camp Gaasterland.

Wounded Belgian at Middelburg 1914 Camp of tents at Amersfoort november 1914
Wounded Belgians at Middelburg 1914 Camp of  tents at Amersfoort at the end of 1914

On 10 October 1914 the fortified city of Antwerp fell. Next to an estimated 1,000,000 civilian refugees over 40,000 military refugees fled to the neutral Netherlands to escape the possibility of becoming prisoners of war. Because of the chaotic situation approximately 7,000 soldiers dressed in civilian clothes were able to escape via Vlissingen to England and enrol again for military services there. Over 33,000 military men were disarmed. Among these were 6 generals and 400 other officers (these officers were all interned at Zwolle). 

Next to these Belgians 1,600 English military men of the First Royal Naval Brigade had fled to the Netherlands. They had landed at Zeebrugge and were employed at the defence of Antwerp. This English military was given the order to co-operate with part of the Belgian army in delaying the advance of the German army in the North. In doing so retreating had become impossible.

The military refugees who had fled to the Netherlands were transferred to empty (because of the mobilisation) barracks in the Netherlands:

- Amersfoort (near which Camp Zeist was built)
- Harderwijk (this is where Camp Harderwijk developed)
- Groningen (here
the English Camp (het Engelse Kamp) was set up)
- Oldebroek (Camp Oldebroek was closed down in July 1916)
- Alkmaar (Camp Bergen was built for the German military refugees.  
The Belgian military refugees who were originally also interned in Alkmaar 
were transferred to
Camp Gaasterland, which was closed down in December 1916).

Refugees were accommodated in the barracks of:
- Leeuwarden (1,200 people)
 - Assen (2,500 people)
 - Kampen (1,800 people)
 - Zwolle (400 people)
 - Loosduinen: ‘Ockenburgh’estate (1,500 people).

These camps were all closed down at the start of 1915.

The English military refugees were first transferred to the barracks at Leeuwarden and Groningen. The Leeuwarden-group was transferred after a couple of weeks to Groningen where from 1 December to 3 January a camp of barracks was built (the English Camp) that due to the terrible weather conditions was only put into use on 18 January 1915.

Before the fall of Antwerp on 10 October there were already 2,200 interned Belgians accommodated at Gaasterland, spread over the different villages: Oudemirdum, Rijs, Bakhuizen, Balk and Sondel. Security (450 men) was difficult to obtain because of its size.

Camp Amersfoort 1914 Canteen Camp Harderwijk Panoramic view of Camp Harderwijk Kiosk in Camp Harderwijk Fourth street in Camp Harderwijk

Amersfoort and Harderwijk had to accommodate the greater part of these interned. At first this took place in existing barracks that turned out to be much too small. At Harderwijk (there were 13,000 military refugees to accommodate) a camp of tents was erected 2 kilometres from the centre. At Amersfoort 15,000 people had to find shelter in a barracks designed for only 4,000. Here a camp of 900 tents was erected. The crowded barracks of Amersfoort forced Bosboom (the then Secretary of State for War) to build two wooden camps of barracks (Camp I and II) as early as mid-October 1914 near Zeist on the estate of the local government of Soesterberg. The official name of this camp was: Internment camp Amersfoort - near Zeist: usually referred to as Camp Zeist. The camp existed of two camps of 24 barracks in an area of 25 hectares separated by a broad aisle fenced in with barbed wire. Later sports grounds were laid out here. 12,000 to 15.000 interned could be accommodated here.

In December 1914 at Harderwijk the building of a camp of barracks was begun in the area where the (provisional) camp of tents was erected. In an area of 32 hectares there were 50 barracks built where a further12,000 to 15,000 interned could be accommodated. The camps Zeist and Harderwijk were designed as small villages: with schools, shops, bathhouses, canteens, churches, post offices, etc.

Camp Bergen (Camp for Germans) Camp Bergen (Camp for Germans)
Camp Bergen (NH) for interned Germans Panoramic view of Camp Bergen (NH)

German officers and men were firstly interned in the barracks of Alkmaar. Later they were transferred to the near, newly built, internment depot of Bergen (NH). On 1 January 1915 there were three German officers and 122 men in the camp. Among these were a large number of deserters and this caused a lot of problems and fights. In May 1916 after thorough investigation 32 deserters were released. In 1917 the number of deserters escaping to the Netherlands increased. That is why a specific camp for deserters was established next to the original camp. In 1917 after the required research 554 deserters were released.

The increase in the number of interned was mainly caused by the internment of stranded aircraft crew, marine ships and submarines. Belgian, British and French officers who refused to give their word not to flee were interned in the fort Wierickerschans near Bodegraven and on the island of Urk. From March 1915 in the former Depot of Discipline at Vlissingen a penal settlement was erected to isolate ‘undisciplined individuals’.

Interned who were married had special rights: their families were allowed to settle near the camps and the married interned were given permission to visit regularly. This resulted in a housing shortage and therefore complaints of increasing rents. Because of the failing economy more and more wives were without income which made internment an ever present threat.
To solve this problem seven family villages or women’s villages were built:

near Amersfoort:  
- Alberts’ Dorp (Dorp meaning village)
- Elizabeths’ Dorp
- Nieuwdorp

near Harderwijk:  
- Leopolds’ Dorp
- Heidekamp

near Gaasterland: 
- Boschkant

near Oldebroek: 
- Moensdorp

In May 1918 6,640 families had settled in these villages.

Woman's Camp Alberts' Dorp near Amersfoort Woman's Camp Leopolds' Dorp near Harderwijk
Women’s Camp Alberts’ Dorp near Amersfoort Women’s Camp Leopolds’ Dorp near Harderwijk

Because of employment in Dutch companies more and more interned left the camps. They were accommodated in the Depot of Internment groups (Depot der Interneringsgroepen). They worked in the so-called internment groups or internment depots that were under supervision of a Dutch officer, erected near the place of employment. Work could be found for example in the mines of South Limburg and at the port of Rotterdam. 

This employment was always discussed with the Central Employment agency (Centrale Arbeidsbeurs). Interned were only hired when there were no Dutch employees available. However, there was a great shortage of labourers, because a large number of Dutch young men was mobilised. When researched it appeared that on 1 September 1918 from the 31,256 interned 11,432 were employed in groups or depots and 3,012 were employed individually - this is 46,2 % of the total. The internment camps slowly depopulated. Therefore a few reorganisations were made. From mid-1917 only four camps remained in use: Zeist, Harderwijk, Groningen and Bergen (NH).

Following Oldebroek and Gaasterland (closed down respectively in July and December 1916) Camp Harderwijk threatened to close down at the start of 1918. The remaining interned would have to be transferred to Camp Zeist. However, thanks to intensive lobbying of especially the shopkeepers of Harderwijk, on 2 September 1918 the remaining 4,500 inhabitants of Camp Zeist were very unexpectedly transferred to Camp Harderwijk.

In the Netherlands there has been a total of the following interned: 33,105 Belgians (among which 406 officers), 1751 British (139 officers), 1461 Germans (68 officers), 8 French (5 officers) and 4 American officers. The interned from France and America came from aircraft that landed on Dutch soil.

On 11 November 1918 the war was ended. However, it took until the signing of the peace treaty before the Dutch government started discussing the repatriation. Only starting December 1918 could the interned return to their homeland.

Literature: Literature on internment and refugees 

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