Chapter 12

Brigadier-General Andrew Thomson unbelievably went on to cause the army further heartache after he was fired from Etaples.

The official reason put out by the High Command for Thomson’s removal from the position of base commandant and his reversion in rank from temporary brigadier-general to colonel was ‘illness’, and in the light of what was known about his drinking habits, this may have been partially true. Thomson left Boulogne on 23 October 1917, and went straight to the Somerset home of his brother-in-law who had just been permanently invalided out of the army on an entirely legitimate basis.

Haig had rightly calculated that Thomson would keep quiet about the true reason for his dismissal. The former commandant had every reason to do so. Three months later he got his reward.

‘He was reinstated to his former rank, and dispatched apparently out of harm’s way as commandant of British prisoners-ofwar in neutral Holland. He could hardly be risked on active service and the army was keen to see him out of England,

Thomson’s new Dutch command was the result of one of the ‘side-shows’ of the First World War. The 1,500 British internees whom he arrived to take over in the northern Dutch university town of Groningen were the remnants of Winston Churchill’s ill-starred attempts to save Antwerp from German capture in October 1914: a belated, hopeless, doomed intervention by 6,000 men of the Naval Brigade for which Churchill was subsequently bitterly attacked on the grounds that much prestige was lost by a defeat which was eminently predictable.

In 1914 these men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, completely without training, had been played on to trains by a brass band at Dunkirk, their only instruction being that of their commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel George Cornwallis West: ‘Remember you are British, and I am sure you will give a good account of yourselves.’ The Naval Brigade tried to do just that. But their weapons were inadequate, their training non-existent and they arrived too late. They were, moreover, hopelessly engulfed by thousands of fleeing Belgian civilians. Not even a desperate, on-the-spot intervention by the First Lord of the Admiralty himself could save the day.

The astonished troops had encountered their supremo in the midst of confusion on a road outside Antwerp. Churchill had been on his way to confer with Naval Brigade commanders when he was caught up in the maelstrom of fleeing Belgian refugees and British soldiers. He presented an extraordinary sight, dressed in a flowing dark-blue cloak and yachting cap, as he jumped from his car and vainly tried to disentangle the jumble by yelling orders from a vantage point on an embankment. Not even Churchill’s personal presence could stem the retreat from Antwerp. Fifteen hundred members of the Naval Brigade strayed across the border into Holland, There they were interned for the duration.

They lived comfortably enough in comparison with those left to fight on, occupying three large wooden huts known as Timbertown, with adjacent huts serving as bath-houses, recreation hall, workshops. Although they suffered the deprivations common to all long-term prisoners-of-war, together with the acute anxiety caused by the: uncertainty of the length of their detention, their fears, frustrations and sense of bitterness were not reflected in the camp’s monthly magazine.

But with the arrival of Thomson at The Hague as their guardian angel, all that was to change. ‘Thomson had evidently learned few lessons from Etaples. He was never mentioned by name in the prisoners’ periodical, but his remote dictatorship immediately made itself felt, In the June 1918 edition of the camp magazine, under the heading EDITORIAL, the whole of page 1 was a blank with just the one word ‘Censored’ printed across the middle. Page 2, however, provided some explanation.

We regret having to insert so many blank pages this month but at the last moment the above article, together with the one on the hunger demonstration that took place during May, has been censored. Why, we do not know, for both contained nothing but bare facts and a decidedly moderate record of the ‘protest’ and the general feeling of the Camp.

While apologizing to our readers, many of whom we know ook to us to give a true and concise view of our life here, we trust that they will recognize that our inability to furnish a full account of what has lately happened in our midst is due to the nature of what transpired.

The amazing fact was that the rule of Thomson had provoked another outburst of bitterness and a demonstration of protest. The magazine went on angrily to refer to the ‘isolated minority’ at the top, whose only help was to offer ‘heroic’ expressions such as ‘Grin and bear it’, ‘Be British’. The interned troops were hard hit by inflation and inadequate food, and Thomson’s empty words produced only resentment. As the magazine commented next month:

‘The whole atniosphere is pregnant with bitterness. It is idle and wrong to say that the rations are sufficient for the physical needs of developing young men, and itis just as wrong to compare our position with that of the Dutch populace at large.

Rationed though they may be, they can augment their allowances with foods and delicacies that are beyond the range of our purses: for most of the Camp’s members have to depend upon their one pound a month allotment with which to supplement their scanty rations, while those who are married and possess families are dependent upon less.

The face value of the pound in this country is at present sixteen shillings and four pence, while the cost of foodstuffs has doubled and trebled itself.

We are not whining, and we have no wish to suggest that we are Jacking in fortitude and courage, but the common, ordinary obligations we owe to country and self must be conssulted and carefully safeguarded.

The extremely serious mood of these editorials threatening further discord and disruption must have got through even to Thomson, in his position as one of the ‘isolated minority’, and made him glad that the war finally came to an end the following month. With the Armistice, the Naval Brigade at last went home to Britain. Brigadier-General Thomson, on the other hand, took his demobilization and departed for Switzerland with his wife. He would never return to his native country.