Gordon Hansford of Kentville, a retired schoolteacher, served in the RCEME, the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, during World War 2. Just before Christmas in 1945 Hansford was hospitalized in England with complications from pleurisy. While he was there, a German prisoner of war arrived at the ward he was in. This is Hansford’s tale of what occurred when word spread that an enemy soldier was being treated in the hospital along with Canadians.
The ward in the 24th General Hospital at Horley in the south of England was in a state of unrest. It was the day before Christmas and the 30 Canadian servicemen in the ward, many of whom had been wounded in action, weren’t happy when they heard that the patient they’d just brought in was a German soldier; one that perhaps not that long ago had been shooting at them.
“Everyone wanted to know who he was when he was carried in on a stretcher with a head wound,” said Gordon Hansford. “We were curious. We figured he might be from one of our own units and we could catch up on the news. We asked a nurse what Canadian outfit the new arrival was from and she said he was a German soldier. He had been in a prisoner of war camp but his wound gave him trouble, she said, so they brought him here.
“Nobody was pleased to hear that. Some of the Canadians in the ward were really angry. Let’s face it. There were men there from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders; some of their compatriots had been murdered by the 12th SS, and there were a lot of bad feelings towards the Germans.”
There was still tension in the ward on Christmas Eve, Hansford recalls, but the next day when he took out a flute he had been carrying around everything changed. “Since it was Christmas Day we had a nice dinner. After dinner, everybody sang and I played along with my flute.”
Without thinking about it, Hansford decided to play a traditional German Christmas song, O Tannenbaum. As the notes wafted through the hospital ward, the German soldier sat up in bed and started to sing in his native language. “He had a wonderful voice and it brought a hush to the ward. Then I played Silent Night and he sang the words to it in German. Everybody in the ward including the nurses joined in the singing. At the conclusion of this song we all clapped.
“Then this big Sergeant from the North Novies got up from his bed and limped over to the German soldier. The Sergeant was in bad shape but he made it to the soldier’s bed and placed a chocolate bar on his bunk. ‘Merry Christmas, Jerry,’ he said, ‘We’re glad that you’re here.’
“At that, everybody who could get out of bed went over to the soldier’s bunk and gave him something, gum, cigarettes, things like that. Everyone shook hands with him and wished him a Merry Christmas, some of them attempting to say it in German.”
Hansford can still see the German soldier sitting upright in his bed, his blanket covered with gifts, tears running down his face. In a poem he later wrote, Hansford said, “I knew then that a feeling of peace and good will to all men was there in that ward on Christmas Day in 1945.”