‘Guten Appetit’: A Material Legacy of Internment at Amherst

At first glance, this object seems rather innocuous, if not somewhat out of place considering that it is surrounded by a vast sea of items which are more ‘typical’ of a First World War collection. Yet, when one begins to dig, one finds that it has a potent connection to what is still today a relatively unknown facet of Canada’s First World War experience: internment.

The key to understanding this object’s story lies in the small plaque which is affixed with nails to the bottom of the tray. While the combination of the faded writing and the frequent use of shorthand has, to date, impeded a full translation of the inscription, the second and third lines reveal that the tray was made in Amherst, Nova Scotia in the summer of 1917.

Two part composite image. In the bottom-left: a shrunk photo of the entire 'Guten Appetit' decorative tray. In the top right: A zoomed in view of the inscription which can be found on a plaque attached to the bottom of the tray.
Figure 1: An interesting takeaway from this inscription is that this tray was intended as a Christmas gift (“Als Weihnachtsgruβ,” literally “As a Christmas greeting”) though it, as far as can be observed, does not specify an intended recipient. It is possible that the initials on the face of the tray (“A.W.”) were the initials of the recipient, or, alternatively, of the maker. Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm such speculation.
Two part composite image. On the left: An aerial photograph, taken in 1931, of the town of Amherst, N.S., featuring the former premises of the Amherst Internment Camp near the bottom-right corner. On the right: a zoomed in view of the former Amherst camp.
Figure 2: Though this aerial photograph of the town of Amherst was taken in 1931, the former internment camp can still be seen in the bottom-right corner of the original image. Zooming in, as on the right, shows the former camp grounds in greater detail.

Whereas the vast majority of Canada’s twenty-four internment camps housed ‘enemy aliens’ – civilians of Austro-Hungarian, German, Turkish, and Bulgarian origin – and other ‘subversive’ elements which were perceived as potential threats or impediments to the war effort, Amherst’s internee population was almost exclusively comprised of German prisoners of war. Most of these men were sailors of the German navy and merchant marine, who were captured by the British and transferred to Canadian custody. Canada was considered a safer destination for such prisoners of war, as the possibilities of escape were, given the vast distances of the country and the significant distance from Europe, severely limited. In any event, Canada had little say in these transfers, for they were a matter of imperial policy.

It was a particularly large transfer in the spring of 1915 – somewhere in the order of 800 prisoners were expected – which prompted the opening of Amherst on April 17th, 1915. The camp was located at the Malleable Iron Works building, a “large, open, dust-laden structure,” which, following the construction of necessary facilities (kitchens, lavatories, etc.) and the installation of three-tier bunks, “gave the prisoners every necessity save adequate ventilation, cleanliness, and privacy.” [1] While such a description is harsh, one must consider that prisoners of war were, under Article 7 of the 1907 Hague Convention, only guaranteed comparable lodgings to those of Canadian soldiers which, oftentimes, could scarcely be described in more generous terms.

A work party of men interned at Spirit Lake clear trees.
Figure 3: Internees of Spirit Lake, another internment camp located in Quebec, are seen here clearing trees. Such tasks were typical work for internees across the country, who were paid twenty-five cents a day – equivalent to a Canadian enlisted man’s pay.

At its height, Amherst camp housed approximately 850 internees, with facilities divided between enlisted men and officers. As per provisions laid out in Article 6 of the Hague Convention, these men were responsible for the maintenance of the camp facilities and, additionally, were employed as paid labour on nearby infrastructure and other development projects. Most notably, Amherst internees cleared and drained some 100 acres of land at the Nappan Experimental Farm and worked as ‘road-gangs’ to develop the rail network in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Despite this workload, internees were left with time to pass, and many turned to woodcrafts to this end, producing unique creations, such as a scale replica of the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the ship on which a large number of Amherst’s internees had served, and a replica of a U-Boat.

After the camps were closed, their histories, and the experiences of those interned within, were largely forgotten outside of those communities which were directly impacted by them.  This silence was worsened by the scarcity of memoirs or other writings of internees, guards, or others involved in the camps; many, on both sides of the wire, were, for diverse reasons, eager to erase this experience from memory. In the case of Amherst – which closed on September 27th, 1919 – this is all the more true, as the vast majority of its internee population was repatriated to Germany following the war, leaving few, if any, to preserve its memory in Canada. Today, alongside the tangible developments of internee labour which remain, items such as this tray are one of the few surviving material legacies of the camp, whose preservation and promotion remains significant as we attempt to unearth this frequently forgotten chapter of Canadian history.

Interested in learning more about internment operations in Canada during the First World War? Our latest travelling exhibition, “Confined,” is available online and addresses this subject. Visit it at: https://confined.greatwarcentre.com/


[1] Morton, Desmond. “Sir William Otter and Internment Operations in Canada during the First World War,” The Canadian Historical Review, 55, no. 1 (1974): 47.

Photo Citations

Featured photo and Figure 1: “‘Guten Appetit’ Decorative Tray [1917].” Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2016.02.19.01.

Figure 2: “Overview Town (Amherst, Nova Scotia) [1931].” Nova Scotia Archives, The Richard McCully Aerial Photograph Collection, no. 2012-010/001 (negative no. 99). Modified from the original.

Figure 3: “Clearing wood activities at internment camp.” Library and Archives Canada, no. 3257838.

Works Cited

Morton, Desmond. “Sir William Otter and Internment Operations in Canada during the First World War.” The Canadian Historical Review 55, no. 1 (1974): 32-58.

Otter, William. Internment Operations, 1914-1920. Ottawa: Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1921.

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