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A Lucky Escape from Internment. The Experience of Falkirk District Civilians

Updated: Feb 11



IWM Q 102953 Ruhleben

On the 30 July 1914, Provost Nisbet of Denny, a town in Falkirk District, was on holiday with his wife and daughter staying with a relative of his wife in Wittenberg a town thirty  miles south-west of Berlin. They had been on a visit to Berlin on Thursday 30 July and saw the crowd’s waving flags and singing the German National Anthem. They immediately returned to Wittenberg where they were advised to leave and on 3 August made their way to Hamburg with a view to taking a ship to England. Provost Nisbet visited Currie and Co, the shipping agent in Hamburg, with a view to getting passage on the Vienna, a cargo ship. However, she had been held up by the port authorities as she was loaded with sugar, regarded as contraband. On the 4 August he again visited the offices of the shipping agent and found that the Vienna was due to leave that afternoon. They got on board all their luggage, having first been inspected by the German customs officials, and the ship sailed at 7pm that evening however, having proceeded down the Elbe the ship was stopped and was held and prevented from going further. It was then ordered back to Hamburg where the Captain was placed under arrest and the passengers taken ashore.

 

On Thursday 6 August Provost Nisbet went with his family, along with twenty-six others, to the US Consulate who provided them with passports and they boarded a train at Altona station leaving for Rendsburg in Schleswig-Holstein. On arriving in Rendsburg at 3am on the Friday morning they were met by German soldiers calling on all English people to leave the train both the father and daughter got off the train however, the train then left with his wife still on board. It was here that they met a  fellow Scot a Miss Janet Burns who came from Camelon in Falkirk District. She was on holiday in Germany when war was declared and like the Nisbet’s had made her way to Hamburg to board the Vienna.

 

The Germans placed all three in custody and they were joined by two other Scottish men, one from Wemyss Bay and the other from Glasgow, they were held ‘..in a shed which looked very much like a cage for wild animals according to Janet Burns. The group was allowed out to purchase food and coffee Janet Burns describing the experience on entering the café: ‘We had hardly entered it when a German officer got up and asked a soldier why he allowed English people to sit beside Germans, we were instantly ejected from the café, and had to drink our coffee in our prison.’ They were held for three hours before being marched to the station by a company of soldiers. They were then put on a train for Flensburg and on reaching this destination were again detained for seven hours before crossing the border to the town of Vandrup and here Mrs Nisbet rejoined the group. They then boarded a boat at Esbjerg that took them to Harwich.

 

On the same day the Nisbet’s were making their plans to escape, James Forbes-Thomson, whose father William was a spirit merchant with premises on Falkirk High Street and was the First Officer on the SS Sangara which traded between Germany and Africa, was seriously ill in a Hamburg hospital with malaria. With the declaration of war he was forced to leave the hospital and on Wednesday 5 August he bought a ticket for a train leaving Hamburg for Neumunster and on arriving here he was detained and imprisoned. ‘I think, because I had a Chief’s ticket, and the Germans believed that all officers in the British mercantile marine were connected with the Naval Reserve. They dread the British Navy.’ Despite his suffering from malaria he was kept in prison for five days and on giving his word of honour not to take up arms against Germany he was released and given documents that allowed him to travel on to the Danish border. He then went from Denmark to Harwich.

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