NEWS

Goose and plum pudding: How German prisoners of war marked a WW I Christmas in Canada

12/24/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/22/2015 05:59 EST
When Christmas came for the German merchant marine sailors interned at Fort Henry in 1915, the prisoners of war were given a festive meal.

Of course there were those living outside the fort's grey walls in Kingston, Ont., who didn't think such a celebration was right in those tense First World War times.

"There were goose, plum pudding and a whole lot of things that citizens generally thought were much too good for German prisoners," the local newspaper, the Daily British Whig, noted, adding, "They pay for it themselves, however, and so have to suffer from the expense and not, as was thought by some, feast at the expense of the Canadian people."

One hundred years later, much attention has focused on the beginnings and lessons of the First World War, with stories of young soldiers leaving Canada and finding heroism and horror on the battlefields of Europe.

At home, however, a lesser-known war story unfolded, a story that is gaining more attention of late and may even have lessons for the unsettled world of today — how do you treat "enemy aliens" captured on the battlefield or simply caught up in the hysteria of the times.

From 1914 until 1920, 8,579 people were arrested and interned in Canada under the auspices of the War Measures Act. They held citizenship from countries legally at war with Canada.

The internees, who were considered a threat to national security, were held in 24 camps across the country. Many of them were Ukrainian, some were German, Bulgarian or Turkish. Eighty-one children were with them. So were some families.

'Overshadowed'

The experiences of those who were interned in WWI have been "overshadowed to some degree by events of the Second World War," says John Maker, a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, which has a special exhibition on enemy aliens on display until March.

"The people who went through the First World War internment experience were not keen to talk about it for very long, and in fact they themselves didn't really bring it up," says Maker.

"It was to the following generations, their kids, that really started the process of commemoration and remembrance."

A Parks Canada pavilion focusing on internment camps opened in Banff last year, with Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney saying the camps had been covered up for decades and it was time to put things right.

Earlier this year, 100 plaques were unveiled to mark 100 years since the War Measures Act was enacted. Much of the public commemoration has focused on the experience of some 4,000 Ukrainian-Canadians, a group that felt it shouldn't have been interned in the first place.

Father Taras Makowsky, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who was part of unveiling ceremonies in Saskatoon, said that current struggles overseas show the importance of remembering the mistakes of the past.

"We can’t go back to those hateful times," he said. "We have to learn to respect and love everybody for who they are."

Official PoWs

Of the internees, however, about 2,500 men were members of enemy armed forces — merchant marine or other naval crews, for example — and were considered official prisoners of war.

"A lot of those ended up at Fort Henry," says Maker, noting the greater number of inmates at Fort Henry were German.

Among those keeping watch over those prisoners was Edward William Skinner, grandfather to Charles Shamess, a Toronto man whose interest in the internment experience was triggered by papers handed down in his family.

In those papers was a postcard dated Jan. 2, 1917, and addressed to his grandfather, who was about to go into service with Canadian soldiers overseas. Signed by two German prisoners who had been interned after arriving in Montreal in August 1914, it said: "With best wishes to you and your family, my dear Skinner, for a bright New Year and every luck in its course."

"What struck me most of all was here are these German prisoners in Fort Henry wishing my grandfather, who clearly had befriended them ... all the best of luck in its course as he's getting ready to go over and fight their compatriots," says Shamess, "and I thought, what must that have felt like, for them and for him." 

Intrigued by it all, Shamess explored newspaper accounts of the day.

"I read about the number of escape attempts and several that were successful and again was struck by this urge of these men to escape first of all from imprisonment, which makes sense to me, but then to try to get across the continent, across the ocean to go and fight against the people that have interned [them] …."

Shamess was also struck by evidence of how even in difficult circumstances, people can find bits of happiness.

Athletics and education

"They had regular [theatre] performances. They had athletics. They had tennis matches. They had calisthenics, put on these circuses, had education classes," he says, noting in particular a photo showing two prisoners dressed up as clowns.

"Throughout it all, they found ways to entertain themselves, to keep busy, if you will."

Not every internee had that experience. There were disease and death in the 24 camps — records show tuberculosis and pneumonia accounting for almost half of the 107 deaths occurring in a nearly six-year period. Three suicides were recorded. Six escape attempts ended with death by gunshot.

An internee's experience was determined in large part by the kind of internment camp in which he was held, Maker says.

Some camps, such as Fort Henry, which held primarily German prisoners who were considered a greater threat to national security, were in urban settings: places where they could be more closely guarded. 

Other camps, which held internees of other citizenship who were considered a lesser threat, were in the frontier hinterlands. Several were on the border between British Columbia and Alberta. Internees there typically did manual labour, says Maker, clearing forests, building roads and so on.

But at the camps holding Germans, such as Fort Henry, "they were compelled to do work only for their upkeep and their own health so they were largely left to their own devices," says Maker.

"They would do handicrafts, they would cook food, they would engage in physical exercise, that sort of thing."

Taking notice of holidays

And they marked holidays, too.

"There is evidence that Christmas and the holidays were celebrated in various camps," Maker says, noting a time when three Austrian Jews were furloughed from Fort Henry to take part in religious celebrations around the New Year.

Shamess says he senses his grandfather understood the irony of the best wishes he received from the German prisoners "as he prepared to leave for the horrors of France and Belgium," where he was gassed twice.

"At Christmas, he got to be at home with his wife and two young daughters while the prisoners he befriended, many of whom were husbands and fathers, were locked in a dank old fort simply because they were on a boat that landed at the wrong time in the wrong place," says Shamess.

Shamess also sees the internment experience offering modern-day lessons about how complicated war is and how prisoners held anywhere are treated.

In the end, Shamess says he is "heartbroken and amazed" at what internees and those holding them went through, "and that they, if they survived it … managed to carry on with their lives after some of the most horrible conditions both for the prisoners and for the soldiers imaginable."

MORE:cbcNews