A vi­tal piece of his­tory


Amherst’s First World War in­tern­ment camp oper­ated from April 1, 1915 to Sept. 17, 1919.

It was lo­cated in a mal­leable iron foundry lo­cated be­tween Park Street and the rail­way line.

The north end housed pris­on­ers’ quar­ters and their wash­rooms.

Fur­ther north, close to Pat­ter­son Street, was a large mess hall, recre­ation room, kitchen and pantry stores.

The of­fi­cers were housed in the south end of the camp and the of­fi­cers’ quar­ters were close by the camp hos­pi­tal and med­i­cal in­spec­tion room.

The camp was a quar­ter of a mile long and 100 feet wide.

It held 853 pris­on­ers and per­son­nel of 250 of all ranks. The POWs came from sub­marines, mer­chant ships, Ger­man ci­ti­zens liv­ing in Canada and sus­pected spies. A num­ber of Ukraini­ans were also de­tained at the camp.

Many of the pris­on­ers were taken off the Ger­man ship Kaiser Wil­heim Der Grosser that was in­ter­cepted and cap­tured early 1916 in the South At­lantic. The POWs were orig­i­nally held at McNab’s Is­land in Hal­i­fax and even­tu­ally moved to Amherst.

Many of the pris­on­ers made and sold items for money that could be used at the camp can­teen. Some of those items in­cluded fur­ni­ture and mu­si­cal in­stru­ments. They also traded with guards and peo­ple out­side the camp walls for tobacco.

The camp was com­manded by Ma­jor Gen. Sir Wil­liam Pot­ter from April 1, 1915 to June 15, 1915 when a riot broke out and four pris­on­ers were in­jured and one killed.

Re­tired Col. Arthury Henry Mor­ris, who served in In­dia and Africa, took over com­mand in June 1915 and re­mained in the post un­til the camp’s clo­sure.

Camp pris­on­ers were al­lowed to vol­un­teer work out­side the camp. They worked at the Nap­pan ex­per­i­men­tal farm, on the rail­way and roads and helped im­prove Dickey Park by build­ing a swim­ming pool.

Thir­teen pris­on­ers lost their lives at the camp – four died in es­cape at­tempts, four died of the in­fluenza and one died of ty­phoid fever. Three died of nat­u­ral causes and one died of al­co­hol poi­son­ing. There is a head­stone at the rear of the Amherst ceme­tery with the names of each of the in­mates who died at the camp.

In 1970, on or­ders from the Com­mon­wealth and Ger­man war graves com­mis­sions, all the Ger­man POWs who died at the camp were ex­humed from the Amherst Ceme­tery and re­buried in Kitch­ener-Water­loo, Ont.

The prop­erty was used as bar­racks for the North Nova Sco­tia High­landers dur­ing the Sec­ond World War be­fore they marched off to war.

It was even­tu­ally used as the site of the Mar­itime Win­ter Fair and the Bai­ley Arena was lo­cated there un­til it burned in 1958.

There were nu­mer­ous es­cape at­tempts – some suc­cess­ful; some not. The pris­on­ers at­tempted to make their way to the United States, which prior to 1918 was neu­tral and not in­volved in the war.

One of the largest es­capes saw 12 pris­on­ers dig a tun­nel through a hole in the sleep­ing quar­ters and out un­der the wall and barbed wire. The pris­on­ers went un­der the wire one win­ter night and got on the west-bound Mar­itime Ex­press at 8 p.m. The es­cape was not dis­cov­ered un­til 10 p.m. and an at­tempt was made to in­ter­cept them at the U.S. bor­der. Six were re­cap­tured and six man­aged to get across the bor­der.

Most fa­mous de­tainee was Leon Trot­sky, who was a leader of the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion in Rus­sia. On April 3, 1917 six Rus­sians were taken off a ship in Hal­i­fax. Trot­sky be­came an in­stant celebrity upon his ar­rival and hav­ing a ‘cap­tive’ au­di­ence he im­me­di­ately be­gan spread­ing the word of rev­o­lu­tion. His hold on the pris­on­ers not only con­cerned camp of­fi­cers, but Ger­man of­fi­cers as well. Af­ter tre­men­dous pres­sure, Trot­sky was re­united with his wife and son in Hal­i­fax and al­lowed to board a ship that took him back to Rus­sia. Six months later he be­came a piv­otal part of the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion and was the sec­ond most pow­er­ful man in the new Soviet Rus­sia. Trot­sky fell out of favour fol­low­ing the death of Lenin, los­ing a power strug­gle with Josef Stalin, who had him ex­iled to Mex­ico and then as­sas­si­nated in 1940 in Mex­ico City.

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