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.