This is a follow-up article on the excellent coverage Dave Mathieson wrote for this paper a couple of weeks ago on the 100th anniversary of the closing of the Prisoner-of-War Camp in Amherst in 1919.
Our Member of Parliament, Bill Casey has been in contact with me in preparation for the visit of the delegation from the German Embassy in Ottawa, which included three musicians. Bill’s interest in the camp, also known as the “Internment Camp”, was partly influenced by the fact that he had inherited two items from his father which had been made at that camp by German war prisoners. One is a replica of a German ship and the other of a British tank.
Both artifacts are over 100 years old. The ship model in particular has lost many of it’s pieces and Bill is having it restored with the help of his nephew.
When the photo of a group of people looking at a grave marker in the Amherst Cemetery, which accompanied Dave’s story, revealed me as one of the party, I had someone ask me shortly thereafter, just where the prison complex was located in Amherst. I was rather surprised to get that question from a senior person who has lived in Amherst most if not all of his life. That question made me realize that there may be others who know nothing or little about that segment of Amherst’s history and that it may be appropriate to write more about it.
I remember very distinctly receiving a phone call from a woman in 1970, very shortly after I had returned to Amherst to practice law at Hicks, Lemoine. She told me that she had two oil paintings she wanted me to see and maybe buy because the artist had the same name as I. Of course I was interested and went to her house on Patterson Street. The two framed paintings have turned out to
have been painted be a “Hoag". Not exactly my name but she thought, pronunciation wise, it was close enough. I liked the paintings and the price was reasonable so I bought them. Then she showed me a beautifully hand-crafted ivory-inlaid cribbage board. It was not for sale but it served as a reason for her to tell me that it had been made by a German prisoner-of-war. I can’t remember
whether she said it was bought or given to her family. What was relevant was that her home was very close to where the prison facility was located. Just south of Patterson street between Park Street and the railway track. Most, if not all of that space,was later used for the Maritime Winter Fair and the Bailey Arena and is now occupied by Casey Concrete.
She was very positive in her recollections of the prisoners, how talented most of them were and how industrious and well behaved. “We had no troubles with them” I recall her saying.
A few years later, I had a client who made a point of telling me that her father had been one of the guards at the Amherst prison camp. Her knowledge of her father’s experience was also very positive. Most of the prisoners weren’t just soldiers and sailors; most of them had learned a trade and they were able to exercise their skills freely. That is how so many items were created, which were either given to the guards or members of their families or sold to the general public in the camp’s own store.
Over the years I had heard other stories of special things made by the German prisoners,which became heirlooms in many homes of Amherst families. All in all, I had come to the conclusion that the presence of 853 prisoners during the years from 1914 to 1919 was a relatively benign aspect of the history of Amherst. For that reason, I was surprised to have heard it referred to as “Amherst’s darkest hour”. Why would that be?
The prisoners were used to create Dickey Park, including the pool. They were marched to Nappan where they cleared the forest and created fields and helped to erect buildings in connection with the Experimental Farm. They formed an orchestra and a band and a theatre group and held periodic performances for the general public. No one ever got out and killed anyone.
But it wasn’t all rosy. Two riots took place and some prisoners were shot. There was an escape. They dug a tunnel from an outhouse to the railway tracks and 12 of them climbed on a freight train heading west. Most of them were recaptured but six made it to the United States. Some also tried to escape while working in Nappan. The most famous prisoner there was Russian revolutionary and Joseph Stalin contemporary Leon Trotsky. He was only there for a few weeks, but he tried to stir up a lot of trouble in that short time.
The 100 year anniversary observance is planned to take place on July 2, at the Amherst Armouries and at the cemetary where 13 German prisoners were buried. The Cumberland County Museum contains a lot of information, photos and artifacts of that prison period in Amherst’s history. It will also be hosting a special travelling exhibit for several months starting later in July, entitled "Enemy
Aliens". There is also a book with that title. I don’t really like that phrase. It has such a negative connotation and does not really apply to the Amherst experience. I used it as a title to get your attention. Maybe they are doing it for that reason as well.
I plan to write a second article as we get closer to the events on July 2 and about what happened to the remains of the prisoners who were buried in Amherst. Anyone interested in this subject may also contact Ray Coulson at
the Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum in the Amherst Armouries: (902-667-6797; email@example.com)
Morris Haugg is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel