Anthony Sumiejski, Prisoner of War
It is often the heroism of those who returned home or died in battle that is celebrated in stories of war. Yet we know that there are others who fought in war, were captured, and sent to prisoner of war (POW) camps where they often experienced extreme conditions of hunger, brutality, and hard labour. The legacy of the men who died in these camps is diminished because “those who were captured or surrendered were sometimes characterized as weak, and their failure to overcome the enemy served as a source of embarrassment that countered the ideals of strength and dignity in the battlefield.” Anthony Sumiejski’s story is distinct in that as a young Polish man who immigrated to Canada in 1912, where he worked as an interpreter in a coal mine in Glace Bay, and was later employed in the Steel Plant in Sydney. He became a naturalized citizen in 1914, and joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) in 1916, when he returned to Europe to fight against his former German regime. Anthony was a prisoner of war when he died in 1918.
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“The Dominion Steel and Coal Company and the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company welcomed this wave of workers and even recruited them in some cases. The Sydney industrial area, which was the fastest growing region in the Maritimes in those years, was the most multicultural community in Eastern Canada in 1914.”
Seeking a New Life in Canada
- During the late 1800s and into the twentieth century, there was a growing trend for immigration to Cape Breton Island with large numbers from Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean seeking a new life with stable employment in the coal and steel industries. They settled in communities in Sydney, Sydney Mines, and the Glace Bay area forming one of the most multicultural regions in Canada.
- Antoni Ryszard Sumiejski was born in Podsamcze, Poland, in 1888. At the age of 24, he left his wife and family and emigrated to Canada in pursuit of a new life. When he entered through immigration, he took the English name Anthony Richard Sumiejski, which was not an uncommon practice at that time. Very few immigrants could speak English, and often when they spelled their name for the immigration officer, it was recorded as it sounded, and that was the name they took for the rest of their lives. Survey your classmates to see who are descendents of immigrants whose last name was changed because of this process.
- Podsamcze is located in Western Poland, a region that was under German rule when Anthony was growing up. The Poles were not looked upon favourably by the Germans, and life during that time was very difficult for those living in that region. Although we do not know exactly why Anthony left his wife and family to go to Canada, we can assume that living under German rule presented challenges. Speculate why you think he may have emigrated to Canada.
- Two years after arriving, Anthony applied for naturalization, which would declare him a British subject and a Canadian citizen. It is believed that he was anxious to enlist in the Armed Forces and serve Canada in the First World War so as not to be considered an enemy alien. Read his naturalization record found in the photograph gallery and record your observations.
- Read the letter that Anthony wrote to his friends following his naturalization. In it, he expresses gratitude and appreciation, and pledges to defend freedom for Canada in the struggle against the German forces overseas. He writes, “No one knows it better except he who has felt the weight of German atrocities himself.” Considering that he grew up under harsh German rule, do you think that experience was the impetus for him joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force? Why or why not? Do you think this was his reason for leaving Poland?
- Today, immigrants to Canada must complete a long process in order to qualify for citizenship. Research the differences between naturalization in 1914 and citizenship today. When did the process change? Why?
- Life for immigrants was not easy during that time. There was already a growing Polish population in the Sydney area, and most likely Anthony felt refuge there. Do you think there was prejudice and racism at that time? For additional information, explore the website: https://diversitycapebreton.ca/ to learn more about four cultural groups living in the Whitney Pier area of Sydney where the steel plant was located: Croatian, Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian.
- Compare and contrast the experiences of immigrants today with those of immigrants around the time when Anthony arrived in Cape Breton.
Service in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces
- Less than two years after Anthony Sumiejski moved to Canada there were signs of change taking place in Europe. This period in history has been recorded as a time of instability, migration from one country to another, and growing social unrest. In many ways, it is not unlike what is the current situation in the world.
- It would appear that the outbreak of the First World War was the impetus behind Anthony’s rush to get his Canadian citizenship. If successful with his Naturalization application, he would qualify for acceptance into the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF), and so he initiated the process after only two years in Canada. Why do you think Anthony was so anxious to enlist and serve Canada overseas? Research to access information to justify your answer.
- Conscription into the military did not happen until 1917 and so anyone who enlisted prior to that did so voluntarily. By 1914, based on photographs and other objects in the collection including personal letters, it appears that Anthony had already acquired a large circle of friends, yet it seems that he was the only one from that circle who joined the CEF. Why do you think his friends did not join with him?
- Read the letter dated June 29, 1916 from Lieutenant Michael Dryden. In it, Dryden confirms that Anthony could join him in the 106th Battalion D Company. It is obvious from his letter that they had known each other and Dryden promises to do everything he can to help him settle into his new role as a soldier. Dryden also offers to pay for transport from Sydney to Truro where the office of the Battalion was located. Anthony was given a second-class ticket for his travel. How did they know each other? How do you think he would have travelled to Truro? What do you think was the difference between first and second-class travel at that time? Justify your answer.
- Anthony and his Battalion sailed from Halifax in July 1916 and arrived in Liverpool, England ten days later. Think about Helen Kendall’s description of her crossing earlier in the war. Imagine that you are Anthony on that ship and you decide to write to your friends in Sydney after a week of sailing on the Empress of Britain. Tell of your experiences on board and the dangers faced daily.
- Anthony spent close to four months in England before being deployed to the battlefield in France with his friend and Lieutenant, Michael Dryden. He served on the front in various battles, but the one that is described in detail in a letter to his friend, Robert Hubley, was the most significant – the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Describe in your own words how Anthony felt after this battle.
Anthony Sumiejski, Prisoner of War
- Three weeks after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Anthony was captured by the Germans and he is declared missing in action for several months until his whereabouts became known. As a prisoner, he was eventually sent to the Friedrichsfeld POW camp in Germany.
- Research what life was like for prisoners of war in Germany during World War I. In Friedrichsfeld, there were 35,000 prisoners, larger than Sydney’s population at that time, but much smaller in physical size. There are two photographs of the camp in the exhibit. Based on what you have discovered through these photographs and your research, describe Anthony’s life in the camp. Do you think he would have been treated better or worse than other prisoners housed there? Why or why not?
- Anthony died in the POW camp on May 2, 1918. Explore the records in the second photograph gallery to learn more about his death. The cause of death is listed as ‘weak heart/dropsy.’ Research this condition to discover its cause and the treatment in the early 1900s. There is speculation that, at least for Anthony, this condition may have been caused by harsh and even brutal treatment by his German captors. Why do you think this may have been the case?
- Anthony’s body was buried at Friedrichsfeld camp and later moved to Conde-sur-l’Escaut Communal Cemetery in France where it is marked by a military headstone. Explore the photograph gallery to see photos of his graves. In the photograph gallery there is a photo of Robert Hubley’s mother visiting Anthony’s grave. In a letter addressed to his friend Robert Hubley on July 9, 1916, he had written, “Believe me, my Dear Friends, I am going to fight the battle of free nations, and I will prove true to my oath as a Canadian and to any service that will be required, willingly sacrifice my life.” Who remembered Anthony and his willingness to sacrifice his life? What do these photographs tell you about his legacy? Do you think his life has been celebrated?
- Prisoner of War camps exist in many war-torn countries today. In recent years, we have learned of the torture and hardship at Guantanamo Bay, a US prison in Cuba. Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen of Middle Eastern origin, was only sixteen when he was jailed in this camp while awaiting trial for the killing of an American soldier. Research Khadr’s story, including his treatment at Guantanamo Bay, his repatriation to Canada, and life after his return. Are you surprised at how he was treated? The Geneva Conventions extensively defined the basic rights of wartime prisoners (civilians and military personnel), established protections for the wounded and sick, and established protections for the civilians in and around a war-zone. Does the treatment that Omar Khadr received contravene the Geneva Conventions?