Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles leading up to the July 2 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the closing of Amherst’s First World War internment camp on Park Street.
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, a camp hospital and a medical inspection room.
The north end housed the soldier’s barracks, a 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 an 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 bunkbeds 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 POWs in Europe. Amherst prisoners were given the same rations as a Canadian soldier would receive on active duty.
Complaints by POWs were made about the conditions and they were heard! Over time conditions improved dramatically.
This is noted in a report on Oct. 2, 1916 from the American counsel and which can be found at 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 Col. James Layton Ralston 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 Dickey Park. The stone cairns at the Townshend Avenue entry way to Dickey Park were built by them as well as an outdoor swimming hole dug by the POWs.
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. The organizers are looking to have as many of these artefacts as possible on display July 2.
For more information on the Amherst Prisoner of War Camp and this event please go to our website:amsherstpowcamp.ca
Marjorie MacLean is the co-ordinator of the 100th anniversary of the Amherst Prisoner of War Camp commemoration scheduled for July 2 at the Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury.