Saturday 16 April 2016

From the WW1 Barnsley Chronicle - "Barnsley Man's Escape From Internment in Holland - A Daring Exploit"

Nearly three years ago I wrote the story of the OH's great, great uncle, Thomas Croft who was interned in Holland during the First World War.  It was pieced together from his service records and family history with a few small snippits I discovered in the local newspapers. Then a few days ago I came across a very long piece in the Barnsley Chronicle which I had not seen before describing his escape in his own words.  It was published on 24 July 1915 and I have transcribed it in full below.

Barnsley Chronicle 24 July 1915 (Barnsley Archives)
With grateful thanks to Barnsley Archives for the use of the war years Chronicle as part of the Barnsley War Memorials Project's indexing mini-project to provide a full reference to all mentions of WW1 servicemen and women in the newspapers during WW1.  The Barnsley Chronicle from 1858 to almost the present day has been digitised and is available on two dedicated computers in the Archives, free to browse. The text has been OCR'd (Optical Character Recognition by computer) and can be searched for specific words on a month by month basis. Copies of articles can be printed off for a small charge. 

Digitisation of a newspaper is not infallible, when there is smudging, creases or damage to a page the OCR will not pick up the words clearly.  The Barnsley War Memorials Project aim to collate a Roll of Honour of every Fallen serviceman and woman from Barnsley and the only way to be sure of picking out every mention in the Barnsley Chronicle is to read each issue of the newpaper from beginning to end. It occurred to us that whilst we were doing this we could create a resource which would be useful for all visitors to the Archives.

A index of cuttings from the Chronicle, August 1914 to March 1917, has been available for many years in Barnsley Archives. The current project aims to complete the run up to the end of the war and into 1919, to improve the coverage of the existing index to include Death Notices and In Memoriam notices, and to make the index available online when it is complete. Volunteers with the Indexing mini-project are supplied via email with a .pdf copy of a single issue of the newspaper and an Excel spreadsheet on which to enter the details of every mention of a soldier, sailor, airman, nurse, conscientious objector, munitions worker or civilian casualty (and so on) of the war.  So far the project has completed a detailed index from April 1917 to September 1918 and it has been made available on the open shelves in Barnsley Archives alongside the cuttings index for all visitors to use to help them find their WW1 ancestors.  If you would like to help with this work please contact

Meanwhile, back to Thomas Croft's exciting story ...

A Barnsley man, Thomas Croft, A.B., of the 1st Royal Naval Brigade, has succeeded in escaping from internment at Groningen, Holland, and he arrived at his home in Waltham Street on Monday night, safe and sound, to the delight of his family and friends, who displayed flags and bunting in the street to welcome the daring A.B.'s unexpected return. The story which Able Seaman Croft relates abounds with exciting incidents, and shows that he must possess more than the average man's share of daring and resource.

He was formerly a soldier in the 2nd Batt. York and Lancaster Regiment, but after the outbreak of war was transferred to the 1st Royal Naval Brigade, and took part in the now famous defence of Antwerp. As history records, a number of the Royal Naval Brigade were driven over the Dutch frontier and were interned. Croft was one of them. He was interned at Groningen early in October, and was there until last Friday, when he made his daring escap in company with Joe Lumb, of Doncaster, who was a naval reserve man. Croft had once before tried to escape, but on that occasion he did not succeed.

Last Friday Croft and his companion managed to elude their custodians and the Dutch sentries, and were successful in getting civilian clothing.  Their objective was to get to Rotterdam, a somewhat formidable task considering that neither of the men could speak the Dutch language and that their supply of money was very limited. They walked hard the first night, but the ground was strange, and of course they were handicapped in not being able to make the necessary enquiries.  Imagine their dismay and disappointment therefore, upon finding at daybreak that they had been walking in a circle and had arrived back at Groningen. Their difficulties had by this time greatly increased, for their escape had been discovered, and people were on the lookout for them. However, even in the face of this set back Croft and his companion did not despair, and they boldly walked to Groningen railway station, passing policemen en route without raising any suspicion. Their prospect at the station did not at first seem very bright, but the two men got into an empty train which was drawn up. There they waited and rested awhile, though they experienced anxious moments when two parties of carriage cleaners came upon the scene and wished them the Dutch equivalent for "good morning." The two Englishmen, however decided they would pretend to be deaf mutes in order to avoid awkward and tell-tale conversations. The cheery carriage cleaners had thus to be content with grunts for a reply, but the situation was temporarily saved.

It was then early morning, but at last a train for the Hague ran into the station. Croft then took a risky, but as events proved a successful, step. He boldly went into the booking office (which fortunately was only in charge of a young girl) and took two tickets for the Hague, the Dutch pronunciation of which he had previously mastered. He and his companion boarded the train, which was a corridor one, but fate decreed that they should not be left alone. A Dutchman, his wife, and some children got into their compartment and the well-meaning lady after a short time addressed the Englishmen in the casual conversational style common amongst travellers.  But Croft and Lumb being "deaf and dumb" the good lady's efforts failed, and no suspicions were aroused. At Utrecht, which is a big railway junction, the two men had an anxious time, for the train was searched for them. Fortune favoured them however, for their Dutch friends in the carriage left the train, and Croft and his companion, being alone, were able to hide under the carriage seat and escape being discovered.

They safely reached the Hague, whence they journeyed by steam train to Delph, Croft being under the impression that they could travel by tram from there to Rotterdam.  In this he was mistaken, but undaunted, the two men set off to walk to Rotterdam, a distance of twenty-five miles.  During the whole of this time the only food that the two escaped sailors had had was a small bun each, given them by the Dutch woman in the train. They possessed a little money, but did not dare make any purchases lest their identity should be discovered.  Upon arriving at Rotterdam the two friends made their way to the docks, and after a cautious look round, saw a notice board indicating the way to the Hull boats. This looked more like home, and Croft and his companion at last spotted an English trading shop, "Kirkall Abbey," which was taking in cargo. They at once boarded her, but were met by the mate who called out "Are you Belgians, Germans, Dutchmen or Frenchmen?" Croft replied, "We are Englishmen, escaping from Groningen." They laid their case befor the mate and appealed for a journey to England. The mate, however, referred the to the captain, who said he dared not risk taking them on board as the ship would be searched by the Dutch authorities before she left Rotterdam.

Still not despairing the Englishmen hunted up ______, who in a short space of time secured them places on a Great Eastern boat. The captain gave them a cordial reception and fed them right royally.  At Harwich, the boat's destination, the escaped sailors were discovered by the Customs officers, and the story of their flight had to be again told. Their identity proved, one of the officers made them each a gift of five shillings to pay their fare to the Crystal Palace, where they arrived between 11 o'clock and 12 o'clock on Sunday night. On Monday Croft was allowed to come to his wife and family at Barnsley on a seven days' leave.

He says there are a number of Barnsley men interned at Groningen, and copies of the "Barnsley Chronicle," which arrive there weekly are eagerly perused. The men get fairly well looked after, but time hangs rather heavily on their hands. "It would be better if only they had some work to do," he adds.

That was the end of the article, but not the end of the story, for, if you have read my earlier piece you will know that Thomas was returned to Holland on 8th October 1915.  Interned men were not actually supposed to escape! He was later allowed some official leaves of absence and managed to visit Barnsley each time. He finally returned to England in November 1918 and was demobilised in February 1919.

Imagine if you found a story like this about one of your WW1 ancestors!  With the digitisation of the Barnsley Chronicle and the easily accessible indices to names for the war years it is not difficult to search from 1914 to 1918 in a very short amount of time. Why not give it a go next time you are passing the Town Hall and have a hour to spare?

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