The previous existence of a World War I prisoner of war camp is a chapter in Amherst’s history that many residents may be unaware of, but from 1914 – 1919 it was the largest of 24 POW camps in Canada. At one point near the end of the war the number of prisoners reached 854 in the camp.
Although the majority of the prisoners were German sailors from the SS Kaiser Wilhem der Grosse, which was captured by the Allies in the North Atlantic, the rest were “enemy aliens” which was how Canadian officials viewed German or Ukrainian born residents in Canada that had not become naturalized British citizens by the time the war broke out in 1914. The camp itself was located in a foundry that had been seized from it’s German owner by the Government of Canada.
This large series of buildings housed the prisoners, including it’s most famous detainee, Leon Trotskey who was detained there in 1917. Although only there a short time after he was detained in Halifax when the ship he was on stopped on it’s way to Russia, Trotskey had nothing good to say about the camp in his memoirs.
"The Amherst concentration camp was located in an old and very dilapidated iron-foundry that had been confiscated from its German owner. The sleeping bunks were arranged in three tiers, two deep, on each side of the hall. About eight hundred of us lived in these conditions. The air in this improvised dormitory at night can be imagined. Men hopelessly clogged the passages, elbowed their way through, lay down or got up, played cards or chess. Many of them practised crafts, some with extraordinary skill. I still have, stored in Moscow, some things made by Amherst prisoners. And yet, in spite of the heroic efforts of the prisoners to keep themselves physically and morally fit, five of them had gone insane. We had to eat and sleep in the same room with these madmen." - Leon TrotskeyRussian Revolutionary
During his month in Amherst Leon Trotskey held many meetings with his fellow prisoners to teach them about the benefits of the Russian Revoloution, including praising leaders of the revolution, Lenin and Liegknecht. The commander of the camp put an end to the meetings.
As part of the prisoner’s day, they were put out to carry out various manual labour duties in Amherst. Some of the lasting reminders today include the stone cairns at the Townsend Avenue entry way to Dicky Park, once the site of an outdoor swimming hole dug by the POWs. The men also cleared land in various parts of the area. Others did carvings which were sold by the camp. One such item is a replica of the SS Kaiser Wilhem der Grosse, which is owned by Bill Casey.
The Amherst POW camp was the site of a riot in 1915 and one prisoner was shot and four more were wounded after the prisoners refused to enter the gates of the camp after a day of labour in the area. Over the years of operation approximately 11 prisoners died from various causes and six had successfully escaped. There is a tombstone in the Amherst Cemetery to remember the deceased prisoners, whose bodies were repatriated to Germany in 1919.
A plaque marking the site was unveiled by the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association in 2014. It is mounted on the wall of the Casey Concrete office, located on the site of the POW camp.
“To mark 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the World War I, I dug out the model ship and learned about it’s history and the POW camp where it was made. The ship has been in my family for many, many years and I was always fascinated by the detail of the craftsmanship.” – Bill Casey
After posting about the model on FaceBook, a number of news organizations called to talk about the ship and this mostly forgotten bit of Amherst’s history. Below are a number of links to these interviews and a short documentary on the Amherst Camp.
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