History-Ed Coleman: First World War humour in Hansford’s stories

Ed Coleman novanewsnow@tc.tc
Published on September 21, 2014

Born in 1899, the former Wolfville barber Cecil Hansford was 16 when he joined the Canadian Army to fight in the First World War. 

As a boy soldier with the 25th Nova Scotia Battalion, he soon found himself in the front line trenches in France. While in service, Hansford participated in 12 major engagements and was wounded twice. He would enlist again in 1940, when the Second World War broke out, serving through the war years at Camp Aldershot.

As his son Gordon often says, his father saw firsthand what trench warfare was all about. Like most First World War veterans, he came back with horror tales of being in the trenches. However, there was also a lighter side to the war, a side you rarely hear about. Cecil Hansford often talked about those lighter moments, about incidents that took place behind the lines in rest areas far from battle, and Gordon Hansford wrote them down and saved them. 

Here are two of the incidents that Cecil recalled, courtesy of Gordon Hansford. In the first, some Canadian boys outwit their officers while in a rest area in France.

“One day, the battalion was out of the line and billeted along a sunken road, which were common in that part of France. Two lads were exploring and came across and army service corps driver, who asked them to help get a wheel back on his wagon. They agreed to help and the three tried in vain.  The wagon was heavily loaded so the driver asked if they would watch it while he went for help. They said they would so he unharnessed the horse and rode off. As soon as he was out of sight, the pair lifted the wagon cover.  To their delight, the first thing that met their eyes was a big jar marked S.R.D. (Service Rum Diluted). Grabbing it, they started off down the road.

“Unfortunately they had to pass two officers at the crossing of a side road. They were sure they would be caught with their loot but one of them caught sight of a pile of stretchers at a clearing station. They threw the jug on a stretcher, threw a blanket on top and bunched it up so it would look like someone was under the blanket. The two bore their burden past the officers, giving them a smart ‘eyes left’ as they did. One of the officers asked if it was one of their boys and they said it was. Both officers saluted the dead hero as he was borne away to his last resting place.”

Spuds for Trade

“Every village in France has at least one ‘estaminet,’ a sort of restaurant or pub where the soldiers loved to hang out when they were out of the line. They could buy, for a few francs, some ‘Vin Rouge’ and eggs and chips. A couple of chaps from the 25th Battalion had spent their few francs and were heading back to their billet when they spied a wagon loaded with bags of potatoes rolling along, hauled by a large horse led by a grizzled old farmer. They offered him a few cigarettes and he offered them a drink of  Vin Blanc and one Canadian went behind the wagon to relieve himself.

“The farmer waved to them and started away. One of the boys told his pals he had taken a bag of spuds off the wagon and hid them in the ditch. They decided to trade them at the estaminet for a few bottles of Vin Rouge. They retrieved the bag and headed for the estaminet. There, the busy proprietor nodded towards the storeroom, where the two deposited their load. Noting that the back door was unlocked, they took the same bag of spuds out and traded them three more times.”