The Isle of Man in World War One (Part One)

Terry Jackson

The Isle of Man is an independent self-governing Crown Dependency and is situated in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Barrow in Furness.

In the mid-19th Century, volunteer army units were created, the perceived threat still being France. By the Childers Reforms in the 1880s, the sole remaining Manx unit was designated as 7th Volunteer Battalion, The King’s, (Liverpool Regiment). As the Territorial Force formed in 1908 by legislation did not include the Island, 7th Battalion was the last volunteer unit in the British Army. (A detachment of nine men accompanied the 6th King’s to South Africa during the Second Boer War).    

On 4 August 1914, the battalion was attached to the West Lancashire Division and was only one company strong. It was used for guard duties. A second company was formed three weeks later and a third just before Christmas. A service company was formed from these in March 1915 and posted to 16th (Reserve Battalion) The Kings. Liverpool Regiment. Some were retained in a new company that guarded the POW camp at Douglas.

In October 1915, the service company transferred to the 3rd Reserve Bn. Cheshires at Birkenhead and became 1st Manx (Service) Company. In January 1916, it joined the regular army’s 2nd Bn. Cheshire Regiment in Salonika as ‘A’ Company for the reminder of the war. At the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918, it was with 84th brigade 24th Division north of Lake Doiran. A second service company was formed on 27 November 1916 at Bidston Camp, Birkenhead, which was later broken up to supply drafts for France.

The effect of the war on the local population was quite dramatic. In peacetime, the main trade was from the tourist trade. At the height of the season, the population could swell to 50,000 and there were over 2000 properties used as boarding houses with several hotels and the associated leisure facilities, public houses, theatres etc. There was also a camp in Douglas where young men could holiday under canvass

Tourism coincided with the advent of reliable steam ships from Liverpool to Douglas and the traditional Wakes Week holidays taken by the employees of factories especially in the mainland industrial towns. The visitors had money to spend when urban industry was closed, which also allowed renewal and renovation of machinery etc.

By 1913, more than 660,000 people were visiting each year (including day trippers), mainly on ferries from Liverpool. In 1907, Motor Cycle racing had come to the island and it was to develop into the TT (Time-Trial/Tourist Trophy) races. However, on the outbreak of WWI, the tourist industry was wiped out virtually overnight, as men returned home, which affected the livelihood of many island families.

On the 8th August 1914, the Aliens Restriction Act was passed. The Act was aimed at identifying enemy spies, but all enemy aliens who had worked in Britain, no matter how long they had been resident, had to register as an enemy alien. (British born wives also had to register). Failure to comply meant a £100 fine or six months in jail. On the mainland, hastily arranged accommodation included disused factories and ships. Movement was restricted to a 5 mile radius. The British Government realised the Island would be a secure site for controlling enemy aliens and approached the Manx government for assistance.

In September 1914, two hundred male internees were shipped to the Island. They were placed in Cunningham’s Camp in Douglas. This had provided tented holiday accommodation for up to 1500 single men who had by this time returned to the mainland on the outbreak of hostilities in order to sign up for service. Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, the camp was requisitioned for internment purposes. Renamed Douglas Alien Detention Camp, the all-male internees were a mixed group and ranged from the extremely poor to the very well educated and wealthy. The camp was later split into three sections. There was a privilege camp for those who could afford to pay for extra facilities (and also employ an internee servant), a Jewish camp, where kosher food and facilities for celebrating Jewish festivals were provided and an ordinary camp for the rest of the civilian aliens. The camp commandant was Colonel Henry William Madoc (1870-1937), the Island's Chief Constable.

By October 1914, there were 2600 men in the camp, with a period when it increased temporarily to 3300 to relieve overcrowding in London camps. This created a similar problem in the camp and along with boredom and complaints about poor food, led to a riot in November 1914 during which five internees were shot and killed by the guards. An inquest found the actions of the guards justifiable due to the riot. However, it was realised that a bigger additional camp was needed. This brought about the construction of the Knockaloe Alien Detention Centre near the west coast of the island, one and a half miles south of Peel. The site had been used in the past for training the volunteers. It was much larger than the Douglas camp. It was arranged into four sub-camps of wooden huts and was within a barbed wire fence. By 1918, it housed over 20,000 men. Men were allowed to wear their own clothes and have personal items such as books. The men started workshops, art classes, theatrical groups and a school. After the armistice, the internees were gradually released from both camps so that by the summer of 1919 Cunningham’s had reverted to its original use. Knockaloe was subsequently dismantled.

The Naval War was obviously a key factor in the Island’s wartime experience and this will form part of a separate article, including the experiences of the Manxmen and Manxwomen who served in the conflict.

The reason for my interest in the Island is that I do have Manx blood in me. In 1944 my Stockport father Ronald was training on the Island in the RAF ground crew. Whilst there, he met a local young lady, Florence Gertrude Taylor. They married in 1944 and I was born 3 years later in Stockport. My father, like me was an only child. Florence had 7 siblings. Two of the men stayed on the Island. The other two men and the women all settled on the mainland. One brother, Bill, emigrated to Australia & I twice stayed with him and his family on my trips there. The last time, Ann accompanied me down under.