In 1969 a plan was set in motion by the German War Graves Commission that would amalgamate – as much as possible – the location of German war dead in Canada.
Prior to this initiative, the German POWs had been buried in a large number of cemeteries that were scattered across Canada. However, the consolidation of war graves wasn’t a new idea. This practice had already been implemented in a number of other countries where German war dead were located.
In tune with the characteristic German need for efficiency, the relocation of war dead to one cemetery is – from a caretaking perspective – an easier and more cost effective way to ensure that the graves are being properly looked after.
The German War Graves Commission gave the job to Parkway Planning Associates Limited, a Canadian company that placed Helmut Schmitz in charge of the project.
Mr. Schmitz’s first job was to identify and locate all of the German prisoners of war who had been buried in Canada, and then notify those respective cemeteries of the German War Grave Commission’s intent to relocate the remains.
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, also had to be finalized.
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. Some might argue that 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, at least until anti-German sentiment in Canada during the First World War resulted in its renaming on September 1, 1916.
In July 1970, Mr. Schmitz provided each cemetery with a copy of a letter from the Department of National Defense dated April 23, 1970. The letter provided the officially required permission for the remains to be relocated, and the following month Mr. 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 Mr. Schmitz’s instructions. The graves at Hillside had been marked by large white headstones that had been carved by fellow prisoners in the Medicine Hat camp. The remains were dug up, the bones washed on a sunscreen, and then placed in plastic bags along with any personal items found in the coffins, which sometimes included uniform insignia, crucifies, 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 superintendent. Hillside had been officially commended in 1954 by the German government for its exemplary care of the POW graves.
Down the road from Hillside things didn’t exactly go to plan.
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. The only information available to locate them was that they were known to have been buried 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. The coffins, which were nothing more than rough boxes, were finally found. They appeared to be in good condition, but when opened they found 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 Mr. 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 who had originally been buried elsewhere were relocated to the new German War Graves Section at 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.
Over two hundred relatives of theses POWs 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 that had untended cemeteries.
Not every German prisoner who died in Canada found a final home at Woodland.
The bodies of some at the time of their death were never found, and consequently they were never buried to begin with. It also appears that a few POWs have slipped between the cracks, the 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 simply vanished from the field of battle, they have been forever lost in the terrible ether of war.