AMHERST, N.S. – Closed in 1919, Amherst’s prisoner-of-war camp was the biggest POW camp in Canada, holding 853 Germans during the First World War.
Plans are now underway to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the closing of the camp on July 2, 2019 in Amherst.
A delegation from Germany was in Amherst March 26 to prepare for the visit.
“I’m amazed that they sent four people here for this advance meeting,” said Bill Casey, MP for Cumberland-Colchester. “It’s an indication of how interested they are in this.”
The delegation had three members from the German Airforce Band, which is based out of Erfurt, Germany, and they were led by Patrick Butzlaff, assistant to the German defence attaché at the German Embassy in Ottawa.
“When we talk about the prisoner-of-war camp here in Amherst, we just learned about that three months ago when Bill Casey wrote a letter the German ambassador in Ottawa,” said Butzlaff. “We knew about the camps in Ontario and in Kitchener where we go once a year. But what is here in Amherst is new to us.”
Casey wrote his letter to the Ambassador in January.
He says the idea to write a letter grew out of a model ship made by prisoners at the camp during the First World War, which is owned by Casey.
“The ship was my father’s, and the ship started all of this,” said Casey.
The ship had lost some pieces over the past hundred years and Casey asked his nephew, a sculpture, if he could replace the pieces that were lost. When they got talking about it, they realized the 100th anniversary was arriving soon.
“I contacted the ambassador to alert her to this and see if they were interested in an event to recognize the 100th anniversary of the closing,” said Casey. “And they’ve been really responsive, and it sounds like they’re going to have serious participation.”
The delegation started their tour of Amherst with a meeting at town hall, and from there they went to the Amherst Cemetery.
“Eleven German sailors and soldiers died here and there is a gravestone in the Amherst Cemetery with their names on it,” said Casey. “They were buried there from 1919 to 1970, at which time the bodies were moved to the main German prisoner of war cemetery in Kitchener Ontario.”
Butzlaff said he was surprised to see a German gravesite in Amherst.
“It was pretty impressive because when you see nobody buried anymore but there is still a stone that commemorates those prisoners of war, that’s pretty exciting and something we did not expect to see.”
Following a visit to the cemetery, the delegation visited the Cumberland County Museum and the Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum at the Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury.
Many artifacts from the camp are at both museums.
“When you see how precisely the internees prepared these artifacts, I don’t think we could find an artisan or craftsman today who would be able to do that, so it’s pretty amazing what they did back then,” said Butzlaff. “And when you realize they didn’t have the tools we have today, it’s pretty amazing.”
There are also instruments made by the German prisoners at the museum.
“There’s a cello there that a German prisoner of war made 100 year ago, and I’m hoping we can get a German band member to play that cello for the first time in 100 years,” said Casey. “There is also a violin there that was made by German prisoners.”
While at the armoury, the delegation picked out a spot for the band to play when they return on July 2.
“For this year we will have about 40 musicians that are planned originally for the tattoo in Halifax,” said Butzlaff. “We will use the time frame of the tattoo to come up here to Amherst to have a reception and a concert for the public and invited dignitaries and guests.”
Casey says planning is going along really well.
“It sounds like they’re very committed to this, and our own government is interested in it because Germany is an important ally to us and we want to focus on the value of friendly relations with like-minded countries,” said Casey.