History of German POWs in Canada
German War Graves in Canada
In 1969 a plan was set in motion by the German War Graves Commission that would amalgamate - as much as possible - the German war dead who were buried in a large number of cemeteries scattered across Canada. Consolidating war graves wasn't a new idea: the practice had already been implemented in other countries where Germen war dead were buried. Aside from displaying the characteristic German need for efficiency, having your war dead in one location is from a caretaking perspective an easier and more cost effective way to ensure that the graves are being properly looked after.
Parkway Planning Associates Limited, the Canadian company that the German War Graves Commission had assigned the task to, placed Helmut Schmitz in charge of the project. Schmitz began to identify and locate all of the German prisoners of war who had been buried in Canada and then notified the respective cemeteries they were buried in of the German War Grave Commission’s intent to relocate the remains.
Schmitz also had to finalize the details concerning the relocation process, which included the legalities governing exhumations, how the remains would be transported, and how the costs incurred by the cemeteries would be covered.
Finding a suitable location for what would become the permanent home for close to 200 former prisoners of war presented another challenge.
The choice of Woodland Cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario, arguably satisfied the German War Graves Commission’s requirement for a centrally located cemetery in Canada, but a greater influence on the decision had to be Kitchener’s large ethnic German population who were less likely to complain about having German war dead buried in their backyard. Worthy of note is that the city of Kitchener was originally called Berlin until anti-German sentiment in Canada during the First World War forced its renaming on September 1, 1916.
In July 1970, Schmitz provided each cemetery with a copy of a letter from the Department of National Defense dated April 23, 1970. The letter was proof of the officially required permission for the remains to be relocated, and the following month Schmitz requested that each cemetery begin the exhumation process. Within two weeks the work of relocating the German war dead had begun.
In most cases the exhumations proceeded without any problems. At the Hillside Cemetery, which is located between Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, Alberta, the work unfolded according to Schmitz’s instructions. The graves there had been marked by large white headstones carved by fellow prisoners in the Medicine Hat camp. The bodies were dug up, the bones washed on a sunscreen, and the remains then placed in plastic bags along with any personal items found in the coffins, which sometimes included uniform insignia, crucifixes, and even German money.
The graves of the twenty POWs buried at Hillside had been well looked after, in part because on Al Baker, the cemetery's superintendant. In recognition of this Hillside was officially commended in 1954 by the German government for the exemplary care the POW graves had received.
Down the road from Hillside things didn't go exactly to plan. The five German prisoners of war who had been found guilty of murder and later executed at the Lethbridge Jail by the Canadian government proved to be as difficult in death as they had been in life.
Their graves, along with those of eleven other prisoners who had been executed at the jail, were unmarked, but they were known to be located somewhere within the prison’s exercise yard. Twenty-three holes were dug before those hired to exhume the bodies determined they had been looking in the wrong place. Finally found, the coffins, which were just rough boxes, appeared to be in good condition. However, when opened the boxes were full of black water, some with hair floating on the surface.
There was another problem with the Lethbridge Jail exhumations. It couldn't be guaranteed that the correct bodies were being removed. The funeral home hired to perform the work of locating and digging up the dead had to rely on physical descriptions of the men they were asked to find. As a result, nothing more than details of each German's height, weight, and bone structure was used as a means of identifying each set of remains.
The official exhumation instructions provided by Schmitz specified that each set of remains be placed in a plastic pouch clearly labeled with the exhumation number and a copy of the order attached to it. Up to six of these pouches were to be placed in a rough box, a solid wood box normally used to house a coffin, and then shipped COD via Canadian Pacific Railway to Kitchener.
By May 1971 all of the POWs had been relocated and buried in the new German War Graves Section of Woodland Cemetery. A special ceremony was held to commemorate the completion of the project and to pay respect to the men whose eternal slumber had been so rudely interrupted.
Relatives of the POWs - over two hundred of them - had been flown to Canada from Germany by the German government for the service. Along with local guests, including Al Baker from the Hillside Cemetery, the Germans gathered at Kitchener’s City Hall on the day of the ceremony before proceeding to Woodland. It was near the large granite monument that stands on its own at the north end of the War Graves Section that a religious service was held in the hope of providing closure for those who still mourned the loss of those who had never returned home.
Undoubtedly, those involved in the unenviable undertaking of relocating these graves did their best given the circumstances surrounding the job at hand; however, finding and identifying the remains of those who died so long ago while in Canadian captivity was not an easy task, not when you consider that the camps that imprisoned them were scattered across the country, and in some cases, were located in remote areas and had untended cemeteries.
Not every German prisoner who died in Canada found a final home at Woodland. The bodies of some were never found, and consequently they were never buried to begin with. It also appears that a few have slipped between the cracks, fallout of questionable record keeping during the time of their imprisonment. These men form the ranks of missing dead in Canada, and like many of their comrades who perished on the field of battle and who were never found, they have been forever lost in the terrible ether of war.