Newfoundland takes Prisoners of War

Archival Moment

August 22, 1914

Prison13495337191864875045prison3-hiIn the hours following the declaration of the First World War in August 1914, the government of Newfoundland began to declare ‘certain individuals’ as ‘Prisoners of War.’

In St. John’s, the local papers reported as early as August 18, 1914 “that one Carl Winicarski, an Austrian fireman was held as a prisoner of war.”

On August 20, 1914 “the police (in St. John’s) arrested another German as a Prisoner of War, there are now detained on the Police Station two Germans and a Pole.”

These were all men working on foreign vessels, that happened to be tied up in St. John’s harbour, that were carrying passports of the enemy countries, the Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary and The Ottoman Empire (Turkey).

It appears that the Police Station was inadequate for the purposes of holding ‘Prisoners of War.’   The St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram reported on August 21, 1914:

“Owing to complaints being made that the Police Station was unfit to quarter Prisoners of War (POW’s) yesterday afternoon two German’s and a Pole were removed from there to the Penitentiary, where they will be allowed a certain amount of liberty.”

Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) on Quidi Vidi Lake became then the home for the prisoners of war in St. John’s. Initially, “prisoners of war” were also held in Corner Brook and Harbour Grace in the town’s Police or Court House cells.   As the numbers increased they were transferred to a facility in Donovan’s, (on the outskirts of St. John’s) and eventually to a larger facility in Amherst, Nova Scotia.

The Amherst Camp was the largest prisoner-of-war (POW) camp in Canada during World War I with a population of 853 prisoners. The most famous prisoner of war at the camp was Leon Trotsky.

The Prisoners of War in Newfoundland “were allowed a certain amount of liberty” and remembered fondly their time in Newfoundland and the people that they met while they were incarcerated.

Richard Frohner who had been arrested in Harbour Grace wrote from Amherst in 1917:

“I would rather be in Harbour Grace as here. (Amherst). Our best times we had over there (Harbour Grace) and in Donovan’s but I know that we will not get back as POW’s, we hope that this war will be over and we will be free once more…”

Recommended Archival Collection: Distinguished Service: the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the Great War, this on line exhibition documents the lives and experiences of the province’s soldiers and aims to encourage interest in research on the Royal Newfoundland Regimen. The service records of the First 500 and others are available at the Provincial Archives at The Rooms. Many of the service records (but not all ) are on line , http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/part1_entering_the_great_war.asp

Recommended Exhibit: Pleasantville: From Recreation to Military Installation. Level 2 Atrium   Pleasantville before the First World War was the site of the St. John’s cricket grounds. With the declaration of war, Pleasantville quickly emerged as a tent city, the home of the storied “First 500”. It was here that the First Newfoundland Regiment recruits began preliminary military training during the months of September and October of 1914. This exhibition highlights some of the activities and training of the Blue Puttees up to their embarkation on the SS Florizel for overseas service.

Recommended Exhibit: The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery. POINTED NORTH: Rockwell Kent in Newfoundland & Labrador, May 31 – September 21, 2014. As part of the Rockwell Kent Centennial in Newfoundland, The Rooms presents paintings, drawings, prints and books from various points throughout Kent’s career, highlighting those inspired by his time here. With anti German sentiment rising as the Great War approached, Kent who had studied as a youth in Germany cavorted about Brigus, Newfoundland singing German tunes and extolling the virtues of German culture. See also http://therooms.ca/rockwellkent/