Boston port’s key role in the First World War

Caroline Walls EMN-140608-152045001
Caroline Walls EMN-140608-152045001

Coastal Boston’s Caroline Wallis writes about the role played by the town’s port during the First World War ahead of a new exhibition starting tomorrow...

During my research for our first pilot exhibition about the history of Boston’s rivers and waterways, I learnt that the town played a key part in the First World War.

From 1916 to 1919, the port steadily welcomed back thousands of Prisoners of War that had been held captive in Germany for the duration of the conflict, including twenty-four civilian fishermen from Boston captured in the earliest days of the war.

With the war’s centenary commemorations beginning this year and organisations across the country creating exhibitions on the subject, I felt it would be a good opportunity to investigate Boston’s role as repatriation port further and share what I found out with local residents and visitors to the town in an exhibition of our own.

What struck me to start with, when creating the exhibition, is that very few people I talked to knew about this significant aspect of Boston’s history. And why so few photographs? I puzzled over this until I found during the course of my studies that the press were forbidden from entering the area of the dock used for the repatriations. Even the mayor at the time, Arthur Cooke Yarborough, was initially refused access to welcome the PoWs home until he was granted permission… but asked not to speak to the men.

Fortunately, some of the prisoners were willing to talk about their experiences to local newspapers such as the Boston edition of the Lincolnshire Standard - now the Boston Standard - and give an insight into their treatment as a PoW in Germany. Their statements make for interesting reading. Most complained of the food and praise the efforts of Walter Royal, landlord of a local hotel, in setting up the Interned Boston Fishermen’s Fund in 1915. Walter’s brother, Fred, was one such interned fisherman and returned to Boston in November 1918. The Standard wrote that the men’s testimonies of their treatment in Germany were ‘too bad to be put into cold print’. Other sources indicate that some camps, such as Ruhleben, were civilised. Ruhleben, where the captured Boston fishermen were interned, had an orchestra, theatrical group and gardening club, amongst other leisurely pursuits.

This last piece of information is rather different to what we usually think of as a PoW camp. However, the individuals held captive by the Germans, which included women and children, were held for committing no other crime than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Known as ‘enemy aliens’, simply being a British citizen in Germany at the outbreak of war resulted in being placed in a Prisoner of War camp. Other internees were Allied men unfit to serve, either from existing conditions or after receiving injuries during conflict.

Our exhibition has drawn on two key sources, local newspapers from across the country including the Boston edition of the Lincolnshire Standard, and a handful of photographs taken of prisoners returning into Boston. Thanks must go to the British Newspaper Archive, the Imperial War Museum and the Boston Standard for letting us use these wonderful contemporary sources.

Newspapers were often the only way people could learn of world news at this time and it was amazing to discover that local papers from as far apart as Exeter and Aberdeen were reporting the regular arrivals at Boston to their readers. There were regular departures, too, of course. Britain held German and other ‘Central Powers’ prisoners, who were brought from the British PoW camps to Boston by train, transferred by another train to the dock, and shipped back to the Netherlands before returning to their own countries.

After the war ended, prisoners – both British and German – continued to be repatriated through Boston. The Standard’s Sentinel column wrote in 1917, after a London-based reporter questioned the use of Boston for the task: ‘Boston is quite as capable of handling this traffic as any other port, and certainly with a minimum of discomfort and a warmth of welcome to our maimed heroes unsurpassed by Hull, Grimsby, or even [the reporter’s] glorious Thames’. This is an aspect of Boston’s history of which we should be proud and take care to commemorate, both over the next four years and beyond.

○ The free exhibition ‘Home at Last: Boston’s Role as a First World War Repatriation Port’ is available to view at the Black Sluice Riverside Café from tomorrow (Thursday).