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by Andrew Clark
Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 342 pages, $35.95
Reviewed by Dr. Steve Lukits

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“ To the Canadian Army, as such, Rifleman Jones was no more than an expendable six-figure number. But at one point in every army, as in any human organization, there must be one person to whom the number emerges as an individual, and who will be to greater or lesser extent accept responsibility for him.” What novelist Colin McDougall wrote about the fictional Jones is also true for the man on whom the character is based, Private Harold Pringle, the only soldier executed by the Canadian Army during the Second World War. In his book, A Keen Soldier, journalist Andrew Clark takes responsibility for Pringle’s life, including his early years in rural Ontario, his periods of incarceration and combat duty in Italy, his desertion and black marketeering, and his trial and execution by firing squad for murder on 5 July 1945. It is a remarkable story that has waited a long time to be told.

For self-serving political reasons that included the 20 June 1945 federal election, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government ordered Pringle’s execution kept secret, lest it spoil the glow of the victory in Europe. Until recently, the Canadian Forces duly maintained that it executed none of its soldiers during the last world war. That official denial is contradicted by Clark’s research of almost 1,000 pages of Pringle’s service record, his interviews with veterans who knew the soldier, family members and the man who commanded the firing squad. Clark also provides an historical context for Pringle’s story based on various secondary sources, but principally Daniel G. Dancock’s The D-Day Dodgers and Terry Copp and Bill McAndrew’s Battle Exhaustion.

Many readers will be attracted by the narrative frame of Clark’s personal quest to discover Pringle’s story and his dramatization of pivotal events based on his research. More traditional historians might object to this technique. But Clark’s style brings the story alive to general readers, many of whom will find ready sympathy with the author’s meeting aging veterans, including members of his own family, who are deeply reluctant to speak of the war and Pringle, yet want these stories told.

Central to A Keen Soldier are the accounts of Pringle’s army life, his trial and his execution. Clark presents him as victim of war and the system, but less so of his own character. Lying about his age, Pringle enlisted in the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment with his father, a First World War veteran aged 42. When the father was sent home, the son started getting into trouble and served a sentence in the infamous Glass House, Canada’s severe military prison at Headley Down, before being posted to combat with his regiment in Italy. He fought in the battles of the Liri Valley before deserting and becoming part of the black market gang in the summer of 1944. After the killing of a gang member, Pringle and three others were charged with murder.

The trial itself hinged on the shaky testimony of one of the accused, who was granted immunity, and the contradictory evidence of the forensic experts. Clark also emphasizes the last-minute replacement of Pringle’s experienced defence counsel by an inexperienced officer who was given only seven days to prepare, and by a chain of command seemingly intent on making an example of the Canadian deserter and his British co-accused by executing them. Clark makes a strong case for the historical hindsight that Pringle was railroaded to the firing squad and that there was a reasonable doubt to acquit him of capital murder.

These claims that Pringle was a victim, and Clark’s urging to recognize him as “a young, rebellious, shell-shocked rifleman” who ought to be at least considered for a pardon, will provoke every reader. The book also asks us to consider another truth. The story of Private Pringle’s wartime struggles, his desertion and execution, should increase our peacetime wonder and respect for the many other men who stayed, fought and died.

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Dr. Steve Lukits teaches in the Department of English at Royal Military College.