Amherstburg Uncovers WWI German Field Gun
Story by Michael Seguin
Photographer Courtesy Mayor DiCarlo
They say that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. A quaint sentiment. But, as always, the truth is often much more mundane: Those who forget their history are doomed to find it.
On December 14th, construction workers were digging up the former baseball diamond in Amherstburg’s Centennial Park while building the new high school. However, once their shovels pierced the pitcher’s mound, they discovered something decidedly peculiar.
They uncovered a century-old German 77 Field Gun, a relic from the First World War.
And what is most startling about this treasure, Amherstburg Mayor Aldo DiCarlo states, is not that they found an ancient piece of German artillery under the baseball field, but how few residents were surprised.
“There were people who were well aware that it was there,” Aldo laughs. “It seems that during all this discussion about where to build the new high school and the digging, no one bothered to mention that they might come across a forgotten old war trophy underground.”
That disturbed World War I German artillery cannon has been on an incredible adventure. The gun was originally captured by Canadian troops during World War I. It was, along with a little over 1,100 similar trophies— such as Howitzers and trench mortars—shipped over to Canada in 1922.
The Town of Amherstburg reached out to the Militia Department, requesting that the Field Gun artillery cannon be displayed outside the Town’s original high school as part of a cenotaph.
“It was delivered by the Dominion War Trophies Commission of Ottawa,” Aldo explains. “We actually found the original Amherstburg Echo article about it from April 28th, 1922.”
The German Field Gun did not make the trip alone. The Town of Amherstburg also received a massive Trench Gun, along with an entire armory of weapons, including machine guns, helmets, enemy rifles, pistols, periscope rifles, shell cases and even a piece of a Zeppelin!
For many years, the German Field Gun and Trench Gun stood vigilant outside the Town of Amherstburg high school.
However, several of the Field Guns’ war buddies were called back into active duty for World War II.
“We lost the Trench Gun to World War II,” Aldo states. “When the Canadian government started needing more metal during their fight with the Nazis, they took back a lot of our trophies. Especially the big ones, obviously. They melted a lot of them down to make more artillery. But, for some reason, they didn’t want the Field Gun. That’s what makes it so rare!”
Unperturbed at being passed over, the canon maintained its post, on Sandwich Street, for another 30 years. Eventually, it was determined that the Field Gun—and the cenotaph itself—needed to be moved to make room for expansions onto the original high school.
“The cenotaph was moved to Centennial Park,” Aldo explains. “It stood in the southeast corner, on Simcoe Street.”
Although, Aldo admits, the Field Gun’s reassignment was short-lived. “At some point in the 80s, it was decided that the appropriate place for the cenotaph was the King’s Navy Yard Park,” Aldo states. “But, at that point, the Field Gun was declared nonrepairable. They thought it was too far gone.”
The Field Gun—stationed atop a four-foot-high plinth of local quarried stone—was buried where it stood. The mound formed the base for the new cenotaph at the King’s Navy Yard Park.
And then, in 1988, the cenotaph was moved once more. The Field Gun remained submerged, forgotten by more and more as the decades passed.
At least, forgotten until 32 years later, when an Equipment Operator for Sterling Ridge Infrastructure disturbed its slumber.
“Coincidentally, they only dug it up because they were building a new high school,” Aldo laughs. “So, the Field Gun started at the current high school’s original location and was only found because they’re building the new high school.”
Reaction to this rediscovery has ranged from complete bewilderment to recognizing a familiar face.
“There’s a lot of excitement!” Aldo explains. “There are people of my generation—and beyond!—who have no idea about its history. But again, what was interesting was how some of our more distinguished residents, who remember it, weren’t surprised at all. It was, overall, quite a find!”
Aldo has done interviews with several different military organizations curious about the Field Gun, some located as far as the United Kingdom.
“There’s a lot of historians out there,” Aldo states. “And you don’t find relics like this every day. We’re not talking World War II anymore—this goes all the way back to World War I! That makes this thing over 100 years old. Finding something like this is big news.”
The Field Gun has special significance for the Town of Amherstburg, as the municipality was home to several veterans of major skirmishes from the First World War, such as the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
“The Town of Amherstburg has a lot of war history,” Aldo explains. “The Town was actually founded during the War of 1812. Amherstburg actually started with Fort Malden. It was a British military camp protecting our border. The Town was essentially built around that military establishment. I guess we were nothing more than Fort Amherstburg, at some point. We have a long history with wars.”
For now, no future plans for the uncovered German Field Gun have been decided on.
“The artillery gun may be over 100 years old,” Aldo states. “But for the Town, as of right now, it’s really only a few months old! We’ve rediscovered it, and so far, the only formal thing that Council has done with it is decided to look into it. My expectation is that it will find a prominent place alongside the cannons we have from the 1800s. Really, the only question is: in what condition?”
The Field Gun is currently being stored in Public Works, where it is protected from the elements.
“We have a military historian who works in our clerk’s office, Mr. Fox,” Aldo reports. “He’s been an absolute cornucopia of information. And he says that, all things considered, our friend is actually in quite good condition! Some of the metal may have corroded away, but despite what it’s been through throughout its lifetime, the bulk of it is still there.”
In short, the 100-year-old German Field Gun is, in fact, quite restorable. “All the military organizations who have reached out to us are interested in restoring it,” Aldo explains. “Now, back then, the wheels were made out of wood. So, they’re long gone. But the hubs they connected to are still there! We can’t exactly go out and buy new wheels. But we can always manufacture new ones.”
That said, restoring the German Field Gun brings up several points. Some believe that it should remain in its original condition, without any modern additions.
“Once you’ve restored it, you can’t get around the fact that it’s not 100% original anymore,” Aldo admits. “So, that’s the big debate! It all depends on what the Town decides is best.”