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Bringing Amherst’s WWI internment camp back to life

Matthew Casey (left) and his uncle, Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey, look over a diorama of the First World War internment camp in Amherst that he made for a ceremony at the Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury in Amherst on July 2.
Matthew Casey (left) and his uncle, Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey, look over a diorama of the First World War internment camp in Amherst that he made for a ceremony at the Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury in Amherst on July 2. - Darrell Cole

Diorama of camp created for July 2 commemoration of 100th anniversary of its closing

AMHERST, N.S. —

Amherst’s First World War internment camp is a forgotten piece of history – one that’s being brought back to life with a celebration in the bordertown on July 2.

Nothing remains of the camp that closed in September 1919, the property having been converted to an industrial site that’s the present home of Casey Concrete on the corner of Park and Hickman Streets.

Because of history, few people know what the camp, that housed 853 German, Ukrainian and Croatian interns from 1915-19, looked like, other than drawings in the possession of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regimental Museum in Amherst.

Enter Matt Casey. Several months ago, the Amherst area woodworker took a model of a German ship made by an intern at the camp and restored it. Now, he’s putting the finishing touches on diorama that’s a scale model of the camp.

“I thought it would be helpful for people to understand what was there,” Casey said. “Bill (Casey) approached me and asked me if I could put this together so people could get a better understanding of what the camp looked like.”

In putting together the diorama, Casey spoke to museum curator Ray Coulson and gained access to engineering drawings of the camp that were completed in the 1970s by F. Carman Wightman, who was an officer at the camp from 1915-16 and was captain and adjutant from 1916 until October 1918.

“I spent five days with Mr. Coulson and John Wales at the regimental museum because I wasn’t allowed to take the drawing out of the museum. It’s amazing how detailed the drawing was, but there were no measurements,” Casey said.

Using foamboard, he began to bring the camp to life with the two longest buildings that housed the interns and contained the kitchen, the camp hospital and washrooms in the front part and the drill area, guard room and quartermaster storage at the rear.

It also shows the large exercise yard, surrounded by fencing and barbed wire as well as the living quarters for the camp guards as well as for Canadian army soldiers at the west end of the camp on Hickman Street – where Casey Concrete’s office buildings are today located.

He still has a few tweaks to complete before the ceremony.

Marjorie MacLean, who is co-ordinating the commemoration event on July 2 at the Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury, appreciates the work Casey has done.

“It’ll give people a real appreciation of what the camp looked like and just how big it was,” she said. “We keep talking about the iron foundry and the buildings associated with the camp, but there has been no way to picture what it looked like. This does exactly that. It shows its proximity to the railway and the surrounding streets as well as the location of the buildings on the property.”

Bill Casey, the MP for Cumberland-Colchester, whose idea it was to host the event and invite representatives from the German embassy in Ottawa, said there will be numerous photographs from camp life at the commemoration as well as a slide show.

“It’s hard to imagine what was once there,” he said. “When you go up there now you see a bunch of cement block and all the building materials. It’s hard to vision that 853 people lived as prisoners of war on this property a hundred years ago.”

The MP said following the ceremonies on July 2, the diorama will be displayed in either the regimental museum or the county museum.

A video of the commemoration will be completed and made available to schools, the regimental and Cumberland County Museum as well as the German embassy.

“The German government has really risen to the challenge. At first, they didn’t know a thing about it, but now that they do they’ve gone to the German archives and the Canadian archives and they are going to be providing us with a bunch of new information we didn’t have before,” the member of parliament said, adding the Canadian and German governments have been very supportive of the effort as has the Town of Amherst.

Part of that information includes letters home from interns at the Amherst camp as well as copies of a newsletter they produced while interned in Amherst. One of the photographs in a newsletter shows the ship Matt Casey restored beginning last November and the German government is pretty convinced it knows the name of the intern who built it.

Casey, the MP, is hoping to connect somehow with his ancestors to tell them about the model of the ship, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, although he wants the model to remain in Amherst because it’s part of the town’s history.

“I think this event will help put Amherst on the map and its role in the First World War,” he said. “I also hope it shows the importance of the armoury to the community and how useful it is.”

Officials from the embassy first visited Amherst in February after receiving an invitation from the MP. They were unaware of the internment camp and were impressed with the history collected about it.

Instead of sending a couple of people to the commemoration, the 42-piece German Luftwaffe band, that’s performing at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, is coming to perform at the armoury and members of the band will be playing a cello made by an intern at the camp more than a hundred years ago while another will be playing a violin that was owned by an intern.

Schedule for July 2 commemoration ceremony in Amherst.

10:30 a.m. – German Luftwaffe Band arrives from Halifax.

11 a.m. – Col. James Layton Ralston Armoury opens to public with viewing of displays and artifacts.

11-11:30 a.m. – Dignitaries go to Amherst Cemetery for commemoration ceremony and laying of wreaths at internment camp monument

11:30 to 1 p.m. – Welcome and introductions. Concert begins.

1 to 2:30 p.m. – Reception and viewing of artifacts and displays

2:30 p.m. – German band departs for Halifax

For more information on the Amherst Prisoner of War Camp and this event please go to our website: amsherstpowcamp.ca

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