PRISONERS OF WAR: Behind Canadian Barbed Wire
Excerpts from the book:
MEDICINE HAT, ALBERTA
There is a western rodeo going on with the brilliant, hot July sun blazing down upon the dusty spectators in the stampede grounds. Over in the livestock section of the exhibition grounds the people are not aware that the sheep building is the place where a German Afrika Korps soldier was hanged. The people milling about in the huge, green shingled drill hall next to the grandstand can not be expected to know that in the same building where the displays now beckon, was the gymnasium where yet another German prisoner of war was hanged by his comrades in arms. These words were true in 1980 and in 1998 while the sheep building has been demolished, the original gymnasium still stands.
Canadian Superior Propane Limited occupies a long wooden building that was the supply depot for Lethbridge Lager 133. Today that old wooden flat roofed building still wears a tired red-brown overcoat of asphalt roofing material. An empty and somewhat forlorn small building nearby was used by the Veterans' Guard of Canada for record keeping and the occasional cigarette as they watched over German prisoners of war. There are a few pieces of barbed wire attached to the posts or lying on the ground even though the prisoners' accommodations have long been demolished. Those words were accurate in 1980 but in 1998 the buildings and barbed wire are long gone. However in May 1997 the local historic society erected a site marker as a permanent reminder of the old POW location.
No memorial was placed at the site of the Lethbridge jail where prisoners were hung for their part in the two Medicine Hat lager murders.
The Lethbridge and Medicine Hat camps were built exclusively to contain combatant German prisoners of war. Each camp held twelve thousand prisoners.
Each year, thousands of tourists visit Old Fort Henry, the limestone fort overlooking the grey-blue expanse of Lake Ontario. The old fortification has seen many years pass and more than one or two wars come and go. As you walk down into the fort with its austere grey walls, you feel like you are in a prison. It was used for prisoners of war in both the First and Second World Wars. If you walk to the east side of the fortress and duck your head as you enter the Officers' Mess, you will find a low vaulted room with restored roof paintings of a knight on a white charger and a drinking scene. Both scenes were painted by German POW during World War Two. To both right and left are display cases which give a glimpse of photos and artifacts from the stay of prisoners in both wars.
Escapes took place from Old Fort Henry in both wars.
Not too many people drive to Bowmanville unless they have business in the town or relatives. Bowmanville is a relatively quiet town, east of Toronto. You need to ask directions to the former Home of Delinquent Boys on the north east side of town. The facility was a delinquent boys' home prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, it was soon used to house another type of 'delinquent' - German officer prisoners of war. The setting is lovely with rolling emerald green lawns, flower beds, many trees, a swimming pool and a number of substantial brick and stucco buildings.
After the Second World War, the Ontario government used the site once again for delinquent boys in the more usual sense of the phrase. New housing developments are rapidly crowding on the site and perhaps it will be taken over as a housing development. Bowmanville has its memories of POW escape attempts and a 'battle'.
The old POW site in this town north of Toronto is difficult to find. Either people are embarrassed that German prisoners lived there or they don't know much about the camp or perhaps memories have just become terribly hazy. Some German POW came to Gravenhurst for convalescence. The site is perched on and around rocks on the shore of Pine Lake in Muskoka country. In 1978 the old concrete pilings of the main building remained in addition to a decrepit guardhouse, a tired, lonely old red fire hydrant amidst the weeds and a desolate pump house by the lake. Old bits of roofing material refused to decompose even after thirty five years of abandonment. In the tall brush, I found a well preserved pieced of canvas fire hose with solid brass fittings, but other than that, memories seem to be few at Gravenhurst. In 1998, no physical evidence remains on site.
Have you ever visited the old Cave and Basin pool at Banff? That was a favorite haunt of many tourists who loved to walk through the Cave and wrinkle their noses at the sulfurous odors or who enjoyed swimming in the pool with the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains in the background. Few people realize the Cave and Basin was the winter home of prisoners of war, alien internees during the First World War. Few remember that these men worked to improve the local Ice Palace, the toboggan run and the ski hill.
Out here on the seemingly barren prairie, the wild flowers are flung like confetti in this month of July. The scatteration of colors is a minor discovery even to one raised on the prairie. Away to the east, storm clouds are piled up like great lumpy heaps of mashed potatoes. Suddenly a stroke of barbed wire lightning slashes to the earth. To the west rise the ragged range of the eastern slope of the Rockies; near to the south, the foothills are crowded upon each other. But Ozada siding on the Canadian Pacific Railway is somewhat desolate, forlorn and windblown. On these level gravel strewn flats there is little to mark where the leaky First World War canvas bell tents dripped on both guards and then thousands of German prisoners of war in 1942.
If you know where to look you can still make out the suggestion of the supply road and a drainage ditch. In 1978 you could still find the occasional piece of barbed wire and the stub of a rotting fence post and the occasional makeshift tin perimeter light shield.
Here on the Morley Indian Reserve, the wind rustles the grass where the Afrika Korps prisoners were kept for a time.
Within a few miles of Ozada is the Kananaskis-Seebe site which was used first for alien internees and pacifists and later German officer personnel in the Second World War. The site is at the crowded edge of rock and trees on the north side of Mount Barrier. The poplar trees are now invading the POW site. The University of Calgary has an environmental center here and the Province of Alberta, a forestry station and nature walk. A few tired photos show a more barren, sunburnt, windblown frost touched site that hemmed in people behind Canadian barbed wire. 'The location is breathtaking in its beauty and grandeur' - the old monotone, narrated, Technicolor travelogue from Moveitone films would have stated, and it would have been right. Over the main road and down a short rocky path, Barrier Lake delivers its startling color impact of Robin's egg blue/green. The lake was not there when the prisoners were there. The prisoners felled the timber and brush below the present water line and the lake was dammed and flooded after the POW travelled the Atlantic Ocean back to war blasted Germany.
Perhaps Barrier Lake should be renamed Prisoners' Lake - and yet their imprisonment was indeed a 'barrier' to their freedom.
The prisoners referred to Barrier Mountain as 'Old Baldy'. On September 12, 1984 at my request, the Alberta Historic Sites Board renamed the mountain as 'Old Baldy'. When I announced this at a prisoner of war reunion in Wurzburg, Germany in 1996 some of the ex-prisoners had tears in their eyes.
In 1978 there were a number of huge, old cotton mills left vacant in the rolling green hills of north-west England. The row houses march brick by brick and side by side up the hills. At one time a large number of German combatant prisoners of war were kept in an old cotton mill in less than satisfactory conditions. A few photos survived of prisoners inside the mill, others on the playing field.
Oldham became a transfer point and a holding depot for German prisoners being sent to and returned from Canada. Today the mills are gone and a medium sized metal works plant occupies most of the site.
DACHAU (NEAR MUNICH), GERMANY
In 1978 I visited this concentration camp to help keep my perspective in writing about German prisoners of war in Canada. You lose your perspective in a place like Dachau. You realize that the Nazis had lost their human perspective. Dachau is tidy. Dachau is stark. Dachau is terrifying.
There is a world of difference between Dachau and Medicine Hat. The former prisoners of war fully realize how well off they were to be 'guests' of the Canadians. And I realize that not all Germans were Nazis nor Nazi sympathizers.
KITCHENER, ONTARIO (FORMERLY KNOWN AS BERLIN)
On a rainy May day with the dark bloated clouds hanging low, I visited Woodland Cemetery. Tucked away in the south east corner lie one hundred and eighty seven German prisoners of war. They are buried two to a grave. Some died in the First World War, the majority in the Second. They died at thirty six different camps across Canada but mainly in Ontario or Alberta. At time of death they were buried locally, but then in 1970, a decision was made to consolidate the graves in one location to guarantee the graves, proper care. How did they die? Why didn't the remains, once disinterred, get shipped home to Germany?
In a corner of this quiet yet mildly disturbing graveyard is a very disturbing piece of 'official' vandalism.
There are two carved wooden grave markers taken from Gravenhurst cemetery and placed in a fieldstone alcove. One grave marker memorialized Major Wilhelm Bach who died of cancer. The other, lists soldier Erich Ertz who had won the Iron Cross. The one marker had a German swastika carved on its face; the other had the cross as a symbol of bravery. Both symbols were there until April 1978 when a self appointed hypocrite from the Canadian Legion in London, Ontario decided in the wake of a television show entitled 'Holocaust', that he would travel to Kitchener and demand the cemetery caretaker remove the offensive swastika and iron cross from the two wooden markers.
In 1980, the fresh scars of the obliteration were visible reminders that while World War Two officially ended in 1945, some hostilities and animosities may never be laid to rest.