By Jenn Watt
Journalist Andrew Clark first started looking into the execution of Canadian soldier Harold Pringle following the Second World War because of a story told to him by his own grandfather who had served in Italy.
In a rare conversation about the war his grandfather told him about Pringle who had deserted and joined a gang involved in the black market and was eventually charged with participating in the murder of a fellow gang member.
“That kind of stuck with me and after my grandfather passed away in 2000 I did a freedom of information request to get Harold Pringle’s military record. Once I read that I was fairly convinced there was something going on that was worth investigating” Clark said in an interview with the Minden Times .
“After that there were many many many more files. And that there was a two-year process of researching and writing that book.”
The book A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle was published in 2002 and was nominated for the Governor-General’s Award for Literary Non-Fiction.
On Wednesday Sept. 18 Clark will be speaking at Minden’s Lions Hall about his book and research techniques at an event organized by the Bark Lake Cultural Developments and Haliburton Highlands Genealogy Group.
Before Clark began his research little was known of Pringle. The Canadian military didn’t acknowledge his execution and other than one contemporaneous report there wasn’t much to be found.
“There was a veteran named Colin McDougall who wrote a novel called Execution that was obviously loosely based on the case of Harold Pringle but it was a novel. When I first contacted the army they said no soldiers had been executed during the Second World War. I think in a way they had forgotten about it” he said.
The story of Harold Pringle the events leading up to his death and the act of execution itself illustrate the horrible nature of war. Although he was just one of millions dead in the conflict Clark said Pringle’s death stands out because of how deliberately it came to pass and that it came after the war was over: July of 1945.
“There were only 31 Canadians kept in Avellino [Italy] and they’re kept specifically to execute him” Clark said. “… Harold lost his life but … it was a different kind of sentence for the people who had to be part of the execution.”
In researching the book Clark also conducted interviews with veterans including the man who was tasked with running the execution.
“He had never talked to anyone about it he’d never told his family about it” he said. “It must have been strange for him to have someone show up and know all about it or at least have this interest. He passed away and I eventually got a letter from his family they had found my book in his belongings. They had no idea of any of it.”
Although A Keen Soldier was a piece of investigative journalism Clark said he wouldn’t hound anyone for an interview. He made inquiries and those who wanted to speak about that time were free to call him back.
“My position with it: it wasn’t my place to judge people who had gone through something I’d never even come close to going through. I didn’t feel like when I’m writing a book about Harold that it was a disgrace to the military or anything like that. … I can understand if you were in his regiment and you thought he was a disgrace because he deserted that’s your business you were there” he said.
Prospects for a soldier fighting in Italy were often grim.
“The reality is desertion was an issue for the Allies in Italy because they were a smaller force attacking a larger force. The casualties were actually quite high and they know that the campaign they’re waging there is a diversionary one. At some point people are worn out. … I was impressed by how much people stuck it out and the allegiance they had to their fellow soldiers and their regiments. I think with Harold he didn’t necessarily find that bond that sometimes happens.”
Journalist Andrew Clark . Photo courtesy of the author
Clark said the decision to execute Pringle along with two British soldiers who were also part of the same gang may have been politically motivated.
“The decision was made to execute Harold because the British had executed their two soldiers involved in this murder ostensibly” he said.
Locally there were also issues with deserters involved in the black market.
“In a way by executing these guys they’re sending a message to the Romans of we’re cracking down on the black market and deserters. It’s a pretty politically motivated execution” he said.
Although the book was published 17 years ago the story is still unveiling itself.
“I went to Winnipeg in June to see a gentleman who was actually there at Avellino and present when Harold Pringle had his sentence promulgated to him in other words the morning of his execution at 4 a.m. this fellow drove the brigadier to Harold and was there when Harold was told that he was going to be executed at 8 a.m.” Clark said.
He’s still processing the information he received from that meeting which he said reminded him that in non-fiction stories are never really over.
Andrew Clark will be speaking at the Minden Lions Hall on Bobcaygeon Road on Wednesday Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. The event is free and all are welcome.