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A Keen Soldier: The Execution of World War Two Private Harold Joseph Pringle

by Andrew Clark

During the Second World War the Canadian army executed one soldier. The unlucky victim, Private Harold Pringle of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, fell before a firing squad in Italy after V-E Day. Pringle had fought for some six months in Italy, seeing hard fighting, but – as he had done in Britain earlier – he deserted. Worse, he joined a gang of deserters in a criminal ring and probably murdered a Canadian soldier, another gang member.

Journalist Andrew Clark has thoroughly researched the military records and interviewed Pringle’s surviving comrades and family. He also unearthed Pringle’s pathetic letters home, but best of all, he found the notes prepared by Colin McDougall for his 1958 Governor General’s Award-winning novel, Execution.

This ought to have been more than enough to analyze the subject, but A Keen Soldier misses the target. Clark has a wobbly grasp of military terminology and practices, and he’s not much better on Canadian wartime politics. It is simply not sufficient to blame Prime Minister Mackenzie King for everything that happened to Canada, its army, and Private Pringle.

A more serious problem is his overly sympathetic treatment of Pringle, which all but demeans the suffering and sacrifice of those who stuck it out and fought. Deserters are treated harshly by the military because they are a terrible example to those still in the line. Nor are they much admired by their comrades. Yes, many soldiers crack under the strain, and they deserve our understanding and compassion. But does Pringle merit this treatment? Not in my view.

He had a record of military misdemeanours in Britain, then deserted in Italy. While living in Rome as a member of a criminal gang, Pringle most likely murdered another gang member. Clark argues that Pringle might not have done the deed, but he certainly fired at the victim. The whole truth is unknowable, but Pringle’s fate does not read like a miscarriage of justice.

His is a sad story of an ill-educated young man from rural Ontario who was a victim of his own weaknesses and war. But he was no keen soldier.