‘It’s incredible’ – New Zealand war hero Bert Hansen’s handwritten manuscript from WWI found

Stan Hansen waited 80 years to unclasp the brown suitcase stowed at the top of his parent’s wardrobe that guarded the written history of his father’s war years.

The memories recorded of veteran Bert Hansen’s seven-month ordeal as a German prisoner in Belgium during World War I were too painful to ever pass his lips while alive.

“My father wouldn’t talk about the war although he featured in it,” Hansen says.

Yet a visceral memory of Stan’s childhood was his father’s strained wheezing from his exposure to mustard gas: “he’d just cough, cough, cough.”

With Stan having only a “vague awareness” growing up of his father’s experience as a prisoner of war, the brown suitcase took on a kind of mythological significance.

“It was up in the wardrobe in their bedroom and it was an absolute no no. We children weren’t allowed to go anywhere near it,” the 88-year-old said.

“The first time I touched that bag I’m actually photographed with my father in Christchurch as a little 3-year-old boy, with my father carrying my suitcase.

“It would be 80 years [since] I’ve had the opportunity to touch it, because it’s been sacrosanct.”

After Bert Hansen’s death in 1951 at the age of 53, the suitcase entered the possession of his youngest son, Arthur, who for his own reasons kept the contents confidential.

“He was a difficult guy to deal with at the best of times,” Stan says of his little brother.

“The saddest part to me is that growing up, my eldest brother, Jim, who should have been the rightful person to at least have read memoirs, died without seeing them.

“We were aware there was something fairly precious to my father in the top shelf in the wardrobe in his bedroom.”

With Arthur’s death in January this year, the brown suitcase was finally accessible to Stan and his remaining older sister.

Stan’s daughter Sue says he could barely stand from shock when the suitcase was finally opened in their Point Chevalier home.

Inside was a 109-page handwritten manuscript detailing his father’s capture at age 22 in the northeast of France, in Meteren on April 16, 1918, during the German Spring Offensive.

Bert was able to escape twice from the prison hospital he was in and was sheltered by the Belgian underground resistance until the Armistice took effect on November 11, 1918.

Stan’s wife, Kath, was as astounded at the documents as her husband.

“[It was a record] of his terrible adventures from the day he was captured until the Armistice,” she says.

“During that time he was in six different prisons in either France or Belgium, almost dying, as hundreds of others did in those prisons. He escaped twice, and I understand he is the only Kiwi soldier who escaped twice from German captivity on the Western Front.”

Perhaps of even more interest in the case was Bert’s post-war correspondence with French citizens who helped him during his imprisonment and escape.

“Of most interest is a lot of French documents. They were letters mostly,” Kath says.

“It looks like in 1924 and 25 he was corresponding with the locals in and around the church from where he made his first escape. The parish priest at the time sent him these three postcards of the church, which had been turned into a casualty clearing station.”

A translation of a postcard send to Bert in 1924 from a priest named A. Guidon at St Peter in Chains church in Leuze-en-Hainaut, West Belgium, gives an insight into the type of correspondence.

“You will find annexed a card (interior view) of our church transformed into a prison (as you knew it),” Guidon writes in French to Bert.

“Despite the fact that the Germans wanted to hide your escape, we were well aware about it. One of the men who supplied you with food (that we offered) gave us assurance about your disappearance.

“Would you be so kind enough to let us know whether some civil persons were involved in your escape. Who did provide you with civil clothes? Who sheltered you? If someone really helped you, we would love to honour him.”

Fr. Guidon ends by asking Bert to send him some New Zealand stamps for his collection.

Kath says she intends to write her own book over the next two years, covering the manuscript and various other correspondences uncovered in the suitcase.

She says she believes Bert was planning to do the same thing in the 1920s before the project was postponed.

Bert had already described in a 1919 article, the starvation and forced labour he endured during his seven-month cycle of capture, escape, capture and escape in France and Belgium.

“As I made my way through all these papers, I got the impression Bert may have been collecting information in addition to his own story because he was going to write something better and bigger,” Kath said.

“On the last few pages I came across about three or four little notes on the side which sort of reinforces my theory that he was actually going to write something else.”

A photo of Bert in dress attire in Europe during the war also intrigued the Hansen family.

“How on earth was he dressed like that?” Stan asks. “He was a prisoner.”

Sue Hansen says she plans to return to Europe to retrace many of the sites mentioned in the manuscript.

“It’s a story that keeps evolving, it’s incredible,” she says. “The internet helps but it’s been like a jigsaw puzzle. We had most of the outside but we were missing a lot of the inside pieces. With these things it might not seem a huge number but it is actually. It’s pretty old and people are amazed that we’ve even got these.

Sue will also meet two historians the family have been in contact with over the past two months.

“Our two main local contacts in Belgium, one has museums, the other publishes for academia, and they’ve gone into their network and all of a sudden all these people are saying ‘hey we want to be involved’,” Sue says

“I’ve taken lots of photos and sent them off to Europe, the embassies. The churches are fascinated with these writings because a lot of them were destroyed.”

Stan says his travelling days are over, but just being able to read his father’s handwritten words describing the story he could never tell while he was alive is more than enough.

“Oh it’s incredible. It’s an incredible story. It’s incredible actually that he was able to move around and get so many people to help him in occupied Belgium,” he says.

“Until the end of January this year I’d never seen them. To me this is a complete find.”

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