As the 100th Anniversary event approaches, the commemoration committee will be running a series of five stories about the camp, it’s history and what went on there. We hope to gather stories that have been passed down to descendants of those that have worked there and share them with you. As well, we will tell you things that have been written and/or documented. 

The Amherst Prisoner of War Camp

written by Marjorie MacLean

During the First World War, the Halifax Prisoner of War camp had become overcrowded by 1915, so an additional camp was built in Amherst. This camp became one of the largest Prisoner of War Camps in Canada. The first prisoners of the camp arrived from Halifax through a long journey and process. Their ship, the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, was attacked by the Englush and sank off the coast of Spain. They did not have enough space to bring them back to Britain. The closest English base was in Jamaica so they were taken there. Fear developed that if any of them escaped they could damage other ships since they knew where to strike a ship for maximum impact. Since they naively believed there would not be much ship traffic in Canada they took them to Halifax. The camp at Citadel Hill was not large enough to hold everyone so the regular sailors were sent to Amherst by armed train. The first class officers were kept in the Citadel.  In October 1916 the Citadel Camp closed and the officers were then sent to Amherst. This group made up the majority of prisoners at the camp as they numbered over 500.

Unlike the rest of Canada, where internees were mostly of East European origin, the internees in Nova Scotia were mainly German reservists. Toward the end of the war the Amherst camp held 854 internees. The old Malleable Iron Foundry on the corner of Hickman and Park Streets became the home of the Camp. This site was likely chosen as the location as it had much needed space for the large number of prisoners. The vacant factory had several large buildings and was close to the rail line. Today the site is home to the Casey Concrete plant. A number of years ago, a group of Ukrainians laid a memorial plaque at the Casey site.  Ukrainians were the next largest group of people that were interned at the camp. The camp was also made up individuals who were immigrants with a German, Ukrainian, Croatian, or Russian background.  These people were rounded up as it was felt they perhaps would sympathize with their country of origin at the time of war. 

When prisoners first arrived, the camp was dirty, dusty and cold. The kitchen and washrooms were not sufficient for the number of men that were being interned. Over time, letters back and forth between the camp officials and their superiors in command began the process of trying to improve things for the prisoners. During this time, the U.S. was neutral and therefore were chosen to be the intervening party on these types of matters. The camp was inspected by U.S. military from the embassy in Halifax to ensure the prisoners were being treated properly and their conditions were livable and that they were receiving adequate rations. As pictures will show the camp provided many opportunities for the men to keep busy and often enjoy themselves. My next story will be on what the men did, day in and day out at the camp for the times they were there.

Life for Prisoners of War in Amherst:

Legacy Left Behind

written by Marjorie MacLean

Some of the prisoners in the Camp dining area
Artifacts at the Cumberland County Museum

A POW camp had to be set up in a hurry as the camp at the Halifax Citadel could not house all the prisoners that came off the SS Kaiser Wilhlem der Grosse. A group of buildings in Amherst was found that would provide the most space.  The building in Amherst, that prisoners were housed in,  was one quarter mile long and one hundred feet wide.  The south end was composed of Officer’s quarters, camp hospital, and medical inspection room.  The north end housed the soldier’s barracks, washroom, mess hall and recreation room.  This left the centre part for the prisoners themselves. The entire compound was surrounded by barbed wire entanglements.

The guards (265 at one point) as well as prisoners shared the camp space making it a large number of men interacting within the camp.  You can imagine what the place was like initially as it had not been used in a number of years and had been a iron foundry.  The living conditions when the prisoners first arrived were very poor.  It is said that clouds of dust would roll down from the rafters, creating breathing problems for some.  The sleeping quarters were three tier bunk beds in close quarters.  The latrines for this number of men were at first overwhelmed.  Even the kitchen to serve the numbers interned was not adequate.  For the most part however, conditions were seemingly better than Allied POW’s in Europe.  Amherst   prisoners were given the same rations as a Canadian soldier would receive on active duty.

Complaints by POW’s were made about the conditions and they were hear!. Over time conditions improved dramatically.  This is noted in a report on October 2nd 1916 from the American Counsel and which can be found in the Cumberland County Museum. The American Counsel often did inspections of camps due to the fact they only came in to the war in 1917.  The report described the Amherst Camp as being very improved with 18 rooms, plus a recreation building, and large outside space with tennis court.  Also there was a recently built barracks for guards.  The Counsel stated there were no complaints from the prisoners.  If you view the pictures at the Cumberland County museum and at the Armoury Military Museum you will notice that they had many activities so they could keep active.

Prisoners often volunteered to be sent out to work during their stay in Amherst.  During the summer of 1916 their labour was used at the Nappan Experimental Farm; cleaning forests for farm land.  Other groups worked on the maintenance of the Canadian National Railways, sometimes in New Brunswick and then returned to Amherst.  Some of the lasting reminders of their work include the fact they helped create Dickie Park.  The stone cairns at the Townsend Avenue entry way to Dickie Park were built by them as well as an outdoor swimming hole dug by the POW’s.  They were given the materials necessary for music, theatre, and craft-making.  Many took up woodcarving, which was sold at the camp store.  These legacies combined with the various pieces of artifacts that are still with us today remind of this unique and troubled era.

If anyone has any more of these lovely wood carved items and would like to have them displayed at the commemoration please contact Marjorie at 902-667-3579. They are looking to have as many of these artifacts as possible on display July 2nd.

Stories About Prison Camp Life and Attempted Escapes

written by Marjorie MacLean

During my research for this series of articles I came across information that could be corroborated through official records, and some that could not be.  Many of these stories were told to me by individuals whose family members were involved with the camp and the prisoners. I thought I would relate some of them here. 

Things were not always peaceful within the confines of the barbed wire.  On June 25, 1915 “while a group of prisoners were being conducted to the compound for physical exercise, one of the prisoners, Fritz Clause by name, assaulted one of the guards knocking him insensible, and refused to enter the compound upon the guard’s order.” The riot that ensued resulted in one guard being injured, one prisoner (Fritz Clause) shot and killed, and four others were wounded. An inquiry into the matter found that discipline had been lacking and the camp commander, Major G.R. Oulton, a veteran of the Boer War, was replaced by Colonel Arthur Henry Morris.

Over time some prisoners, understandably, tried to escape. With the comings and goings on work details outside the camp they felt they had a good chance of making a successful escape, and if they were lucky they could get to then neutral United States. One such attempt happened one Monday night, January 19. Twelve prisoners escaped through a tunnel they had secretly dug, from the camp, under the barbwire, to an outside shed. They made off late in the night, and their disappearance was not noticed until 8:00 a.m. Tuesday morning. Immediately Col. Morris notified Divisional Intelligence and the hunt was on to find them. They did pretty well as eleven of the men made it past Saint John, and on the way to the U.S. border but were captured. The last man was not captured until later. He avoided his pursuers, but could not avoid the winter weather. When captured, William Wegner was a sick man. He later died in the camp of pneumonia.

Another attempt was initially successful, as four young Germans escaped the camp and were not captured until a few days later. They were found in an open boat in the Bay of Fundy near Point Lepreaux. It was believed they cruised along the coast to the head of the bay and were probably aided by sympathizers as they seemed to have been well clad and were not hungry.

A happier story told to me was about the Filmore family who had a tree farm just outside Amherst. The farm often used prisoners for the labour required to run the farm. Sometimes the prisoners would stay on the farm overnight, and not return to camp for a number of days. These men did not try to escape but seemed to enjoy what they were doing. I think they knew when they were well off given the circumstances.

Russell Clarke, whose father was the Quarter Master at the camp, told me a story about trips his father made to Kapuskasing, N.B. with prisoners.  Apparently some prisoners had contracted Tuberculosis over their time at the camp, and had to be taken to a Sanitarium in Kapuskasing, New Brunswick. They would receive treatment there, which often took a very long time. Russell remembers accompanying his dad on a couple of such trips. One was in the spring, as his father took a break in his trip, to go fishing before driving back to Amherst. The fishing was good!

Most indicators seem to show that, given the circumstances, the prisoners, guards and the community got along remarkably well. Many pictures show prisoners enjoying themselves. One of the favourite activities was playing music. This pleasure was made possible by the provision of instruments by the community. The only other source was two wonderful instruments made by the prisoners themselves. That cello and violin survive. These instruments have been restored and will be played at the Anniversary event on July 2. This will be the first time they have been played in over 100 years.

The next article will talk about why Germans are coming here for this Anniversary Commemoration.

Why the Germans are so Interested in Our 100th Anniversary Commemoration

written by Marjorie MacLean

A delegation from the German Embassy came to Amherst in March of this year. They came because of a letter Bill Casey had sent to the German Ambassador with regard to the 100th anniversary of the camps closing. One of the delegation answered the question when he said “We knew about the camps in Ontario and Kitchener where we go once a year. But what is here in Amherst is new to us.” At that point the excitement for the upcoming July 2nd commemoration began.

In 1919 a peace treaty for World War I was dictated to the Germans within the halls of Versailles. With this peace came the repatriation of the Amherst POWs back to Germany, the Ukraine, and other countries of origin, as well as those who had been interned from Canada. As of May 1918 there were only four internment camps remaining open across Canada and one receiving station. At this period, the Amherst camp was the largest internment camp in Canada. The internees were comprised of 825 Germans, 83 Austro-Hungarians (made up mostly of Ukrainians), 2 Turkish, 1 Bulgarian and two of unknown origin.

During the four years of the camp, six prisoners successfully escaped by crossing the border in the U.S.A. while thirteen others had died during their internment. Their deaths were due to a number of causes which were noted in the military files on the camp. Three from Pneumonia, three from bullet wounds, as well from Bright’s disease, diabetes & Heart Failure, wood alcohol poisoning, hemorrhage of bowels and Typhoid fever.

These men were buried in the Amherst Cemetery. Some documents say their bodies were returned to Germany in 1919. Yet more definitive proof says they were disinterred in 1970. A letter of March 30th 1970 advised the Amherst Cemetery Co. that the German War Graves Commission, supported by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as well as reciprocal agreements between both governments, wished to have the German War Dead of two world wars be exhumed throughout Canada. The remains would then be reburied in one central resting place in Canada. After further correspondence, permission was given to Furlong Funeral Home to exhume the bodies. When disinterred they were to be shipped to Mr. W. Meyer, Woodland Cemetery, Kitchener, Ontario. They were also instructed to destroy the grave markers. In Amherst’s case those doing the work decided to just throw the markers into the grave itself and cover them over. In the case of the person who died of typhoid fever the grave diggers had to wear a treated face masks and then had to destroy (burn) their clothing on completion of the project. The workers were then given new cloths. Each grave was opened separately leaving the German with typhoid fever until the last. The work was personally supervised by Furlong Funeral Home and the Superintend of the cemetery. My understanding is Chester Lewis was the Superintendent, Howard Furlong was the Funeral Director and the grave diggers were Earl Jobe and Medley Jones. We understand that the German delegation is most interested on what they found here. They wish others to know more about the Amherst Prisoner of War Camp and how we have retained so many of the artifacts, pictures and information about the camp. Such treasurers are in the Military museum at Major James Ralston Armoury and at the Cumberland Co. Museum. Also there are pieces of the prisoners work in private homes in and around Amherst.

The next story will give you all the details for the commemoration day of July 2nd, 2019, 10:30 to 2:30, and more stories about the men in the camp. If you have any prisoner of war artifacts that you would like to donate for display please contact Marjorie MacLean at 902-667-3579. We would be pleased to display them. If you have any stories about the camp we would like to hear them.

Making beautiful music with a piece of history

Written by Darrell Cole, Amherst News

Ray Coulson (right) , curator of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum, looks over a 100-year-old cello that Charles Long of Atelier VioLong of Dieppe, N.B. restored. The cello, made by an intern at the First World War Amherst internment camp, will be played by a member of the German Luftwaffe Band during a ceremony in Amherst July 2 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the camp’s closing. – Darrell Cole

100-year-old cello to be played at commemoration of WW1 Amherst internment camp

A little more than a hundred years ago a German sailor at the Amherst Internment Camp went to work building a cello, despite scarce supplies and the most rudimentary tools.

Little did he know the care that would be put into bringing that musical instrument back to life so it can be played one more time.

“It’s a very unique instrument. It will have its own distinct sound – almost as if it will tell its story when it’s played. It will talk,” said Charles Long of Atelier VioLong in Dieppe, N.B. “It was built by someone who didn’t have the proper training or the proper tools, it’s like a piece of folk art. He made it from his mind and it’s very different in the wood, the
model and the way it was put together. Everything was made by hand and there were a lot of nails in it – some wooden and some steel.”

The cello will figure prominently in a special ceremony in Amherst on July 2 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the closing of the First World War Amherst internment camp that was home to more than 850 prisoners from April 1915 to September 1919.

The camp, located in an old malleable iron works foundry at the corner of Park and Hickman streets, was the largest of its kind in Canada. Among its internees was Leon Trotsky, who spent a month at the camp before being released to return to Russia where he played a role in the rise of the first communist government under Vladamir Lenin.

Following a ceremony at the Amherst cemetery, where 13 prisoners who died at the camp were buried before being reburied in Kitchener, Ont. in 1970, members of the German Luftwaffe band, who will be in Halifax performing at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, will hold a concert at the Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury.

It’s during this concert that a member of the band will play at least one piece on the cello that Long has restored.

Long said it took about three weeks to restore the cello to playable condition but considering its age he said it can only be played once because it’s very fragile after spending decades in an attic and on display at the Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum in Amherst.

“It took a lot of gluing, but the problem was as I was gluing it, it changed the pressure points and it began to break so I had to be very careful and very cautious with how I worked on it,” Long said. “It was a long process, but it’s playable…once, maybe twice at most.”

Long said it’s not unusual to restore a violin or cello that 100 or 200 years old because they are made to last. This cello is different because it’s essentially a piece of folk art made with whatever items were available to the artisan – something that would’ve been very difficult in a First World War prisoner of war camp, where not only tools to craft it would’ve been hard to find but also the supplies to make it with.

“When you consider what he had to use and the conditions he would’ve been working in, it’s incredible that he was able to craft something like this,” said Long, who has restored and repaired musical instruments from across North America over more than three decades.

Ray Coulson, curator of the museum, admitted to being excited to hear the cello make music again.

“It’s tremendous that we can get it to the state that it can be played again,” Coulson said. “I can’t wait to hear it and then we’re going to put it back on static display.”

Coulson said the cello has been in the museum’s collection for several years after being donated by renowned New Brunswick fiddler Ivan Hicks.

Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey, who pitched the idea of holding a ceremony to recognize the anniversary of the camp’s closing, is amazed at how things have come together.

“I still can’t believe that something that was made in those conditions has been restored so it can be played,” Casey said. “It will the first time in more than a hundred years that a German musician has played it. It’s very symbolic.”

Ivan Hicks is thrilled to learn a cello he and his wife, Vivian, donated to the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum will make music again.
The Hicks’ duo donated the cello to the museum a number of years ago after it sat in display in their home.

“When we lived in Riverview, my wife, Vivian, said it would be nice to have one of those big wooden bases that we could show in a corner of our house or a front room. The question was how would we get one,” he said. “We started asking around and one day we got a call from a woman in Sackville, who said she thought she had something we’d like to have.”

Hicks and his wife went to Sackville to pick it up and learned some of the cello’s history.

“She said it was made by a German prisoner of war during the First World War. Many of the prisoners were musicians and didn’t have their own instruments so they made them,” he said. “It was in her attic for many years and we brought it up to Moncton.”

After sitting in the corner at their Riverview home for several years, he called the museum and said it better belonged there than in their house.

“When we brought it down they showed us pictures of the prisoners on the inside of the fence playing music for people on the outside,” Hicks said. “They had many different kinds of instruments, you name it they had it.”

My Final Story

written by Marjorie MacLean

I have enjoyed doing this series of articles around the Amherst Prisoner of War Camp and I hope you enjoyed reading them.  I would just like to leave you with two more stories that I find uplifting. Given what I have learned about the lives of both prisoners and guards during this time in history these stories are a fit ending.

While talking with Russell Clarke about his father who was a guard at the camp he showed me a picture of the guard’s hockey team which included his father.  He told me the man that was not in hockey uniform was Lieutenant Keistead the Sports Officer and Manager of the team. He went on to tell me that Lieutenant Keristead married a Ms. MacIvor who was a school teacher here.  After the war he did different things that in the end made him a very wealthy man.  On a return visit to Amherst he donated money for a school award.  This award was for a young woman who best represented the spirit of the school.  It was called the Ethel Jean MacIver Kierstead Award.  I checked it out and that award still exists.                          

Shortly after the first article appeared in this newspaper I had a call from Brian Hatfield of Linden, a retired Chief Warrant Officer with the military.  He told me how he had been stationed just outside Lahr, Germany between 1977-81.  He had become friendly with his landlord and at times would have an evening drink with him.  On one such occasion Brian was introduced to an elderly gentleman.  With quite good English the gentleman asked where in Canada Brian was from and Brian told him the Amherst area.  To his surprise the gentleman told him he had been in Amherst during World War I, as a prisoner of war at the camp.  At that time Brian had had no idea that Amherst had such a camp and was quite surprised.  He asked the gentleman how that had been for him.  You will be happy to hear, for this man, that he felt he was well treated while at the camp.  He learned some English and worked on a farm as a daily labourer.  To him it was better than being in the trenches.

Hope to see you at the July 2nd commemoration.