An excerpt from ‘The Lucky Shilling: William Marsh’s War’ e-book, whereby the prisoners are saved by the Scouts.
(By the author, Keith Marsh): ‘Before writing this book I often wondered why my father was such a supporter of the Boy Scouts. He constantly helped fundraise and was always the first father to volunteer when asked for help with building work on the Scout hut or to ferry Scouts in his car. It was I as I started to read his journal in depth that I discovered the passage about the Dutch Boy Scouts and understood why he admired them so much.’
After the Battle on the River Dyle when he wins the Military Medal, Bill is left for dead, eventually captured and with other prisoners, is subjected to a harsh and brutal treatment as they are forced marched through Belgium and into Holland. They are in a pitiful state and near to death as they are herded onto two paddle steamers and find themselves eventually moored in the middle of Amsterdam Harbour …’
Excerpt: Chapter 10 - Into the enemy’s lair
[William Marsh:] ‘It was about eight o’clock in the evening when we eventually anchored in the middle of the river. Both of the banks were now crowded with houses, warehouses and railway sidings and the proximity of the buildings – coupled with the fact that we were now stationary – made the atmosphere hot and oppressive. We still weren’t given any food or water and all we could do was watch as a German motorboat came alongside the steamer and offloaded hot food for the guards.
I found it bizarre and almost unreal to be sitting on a paddle steamer in the middle of the River Rhine amongst the Amsterdam docks, but I only had to look around at the state of my fellow prisoners to be reminded of the grim reality of our situation. I was thinking of this and starting to doze off to sleep, with my head resting on the steamer’s bulkhead when the chap alongside me, a royal signaller from London called Ernie, rudely jabbed me in the ribs. I turned angrily to ask him what the bloody hell he was up to when he pointed towards the shore.
The whole of the dockside was shrouded in darkness and I wondered why Ernie had woken me up when I started to make out the dim shapes of a number of small rowing boats that seemed to be silently making their way across the water towards our two steamers. I jumped to my feet and started to wake up the other prisoners. I had no idea what was going on or who was in the rowing boats but something in their stealthy approach told me that they were not the enemy. We stared at the silent figures in the rowing boats as they drew closer to the steamer until one of the prisoners suddenly shouted: “They’re bloody scouts, bloody boy scouts for Christ’s sake.”
At this, most of the prisoners on the upper decks crowded along the rails of the steamers as the rowing boats drew close and now we could see their scout uniforms with the distinctive wide brimmed hats.
By this time, however, the German guards had also seen the scouts in their rowing boats and started to shout at us to get away from the rails and at the boys to go back to the shore, but to no avail and the scouts continued steadily towards us. They were about ten yards away from the steamers when one of the boys in the leading boat called out in broken English: “We are Dutch scouts and we have some food and water for you.”
The guards were now really screaming at the scouts and there was no doubt the boys understood their threats as the Dutch and the German languages are quite similar, but they took no notice and rowed right up alongside us.
In total, there were four boats full of scouts and two went to each steamer. By this time the guards were really going berserk, running up and down the decks and threatening to shoot the boys if they didn’t get away from the steamers. The scouts calmly ignored them and started to pass up small packages tied up with string and screw-topped metal containers to us. Now the guards, completely frustrated by the scouts; the oldest of whom probably wasn’t much older than fifteen or sixteen started to fire their rifles into the water alongside the rowing boats. Still the scouts calmly continued to hand up the packages and the containers. The next thing the guards did was to open up with their machine guns that were positioned on the upper decks. The water around the rowing boats now boiled as the streams of bullets smashed into the water, still the scouts ignored the orders to withdraw.
A lot of us had been in combat over the last few weeks, some of us had fought hand-to-hand and many of us had seen acts of incredible bravery but what those scouts did beggared belief. They were civilians, children really and they stayed there, under fire, with a very real risk of getting killed to give us food and water.
When it was obvious that the only way the guards would deter the scouts would be to kill them, they stopped firing. I think even the Germans could see and appreciate the outstanding bravery shown by the boys. They let them pass up the rest of the food and water and, as the rowing boats turned and headed back to the bank, I saw a couple of the guards give the scouts a mock salute. Most of us found it hard to believe what had just happened. We just stood there holding the small packages and the metal containers and many of us had tears running down our cheeks. How had they known we were on the steamers?’
By William Marsh. From ‘The Lucky Shilling: William Marsh’s War’ by Keith Marsh
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More information about the Scouting Association movement in general can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scout_Association and more about Scouting in Holland, here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scouting_Nederland