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A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle Paperback – Jan 13 2004
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Before there was post-traumatic stress disorder there was shell-shock, the principle cause of Allied desertion during both world wars, and an offence punishable by death. During World War I, 26 Canadian soldiers were put to death, most for "cowardice" or desertion; over the course of World War II only one faced a firing squad, a 23-year-old farmhand from central Ontario. And this solitary judgement, in the view of journalist Andrew Clark, author of A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle, was not only deeply flawed, but also politically motivated.
A Keen Soldier reads as part dark history lesson, part true-crime novel. Clark, through a series of veteran testimonials, family letters, court transcripts, and declassified service records, pieces together Pringle's war experience in Italy, his desertion, the murder he was charged with while a member of a theft ring in Rome, and his subsequent trial and execution. His research is extraordinary, given the dearth of information and a dwindling witness pool, as are the many eye-opening side trips into disgraceful Canadian military conduct overseas. Clark is as adept at bringing long-dead characters to life as he is at re-creating the political circumstances that made Pringle a public relations liability for then Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Throughout it all, he intersperses numerous heartbreaking letters written home by an increasingly despondent, largely abandoned Pringle. All the missives open and close identically: "Just a few lines again To say Im well and in the very best of health. I sure hope and pray this few lines find you all in the best of health.... From your lonesome Son Harold answer real soon." These phrases evolve into a morbid mantra as time runs out on Pringle's life, something Clark exploits to great effect.
Though the writing weakens when Clark's literary aspirations poke through the fabric of the narrative (especially in the book's final paragraphs, in which the author launches into a forced, mostly disingenuous symbolic reading of Pringle-as-Christ-figure, his death as absolution for war--blech), his journalistic instincts are grounded. In the end, he makes a compelling case for Pringle's innocence, a victim of a government that went to great lengths to sacrifice one of its own sons. --Jamie O'Meara --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“...meticulously researched... Instead of a straightforward black-and-white story, Clark offers a personal look at the kid from a small town in Ontario and the relatives and war veterans who were affected by [Pringle’s] troubled life and untimely death.”
—The National Post, 11 November 2002
“[A] powerful debut, written in a vivid but admirably controlled style, which only serves to intensify the passion for the truth, and compassion for the soldiers, that burns through its pages.”
—The Toronto Star, 10 November 2002
“Using personal correspondence, court documents and interviews with many of the principal characters, Clark masterfully tells the story of Pringle’s final days. …He does a wonderful job of putting the tragic story of this young soldier into a more complete historical context.”
—Globe and Mail
“In what may be one of the best biographies of the year, reporter Andrew Clark strips away the darkness around one of the sorriest episodes in Canada’s military history: the execution of a deserter accused of murder under dubious circumstances in the months following the Second World War. It’s a fine detective story, a tribute to the courage of the Canadians who fought in Italy, and a stirring indictment of political betrayal.”
—New Brunswick Reader
“Andrew Clark, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker from Toronto, has pieced together this troubled life through relentless detective work, strong investigative research, and sheer good luck….Clark has shed important and substantial light on [the] tragic episode [of Pringle’s sentence]….A Keen Soldier tells a disturbing story, and Pringle’s case may represent injustice at its absolute worst….By helping to reopen the Pringle file, A Keen Soldier may be a catalyst for the reassessment of a matter that represents an unfortunate footnote to Canada’s superb war effort in Italy.”
“Reading this book is no easy feat, knowing that within its pages a very real young man will die. He is not some fictional hero who lays down his life for his friends in a noble cause, or some diabolical villain who, in the end, gets his just deserts. This is the story of a young man who could easily be the father, brother, friend or husband of any of us. … The execution of Harold Pringle is truly one of the great tragedies of Canadian military history, and Andrew Clark is to be commended for allowing a shaft of light into this dark corner of our country’s past.”
—The Telegram (St. John’s)
“With this troubling tale of a Canadian soldier in World War II, Andrew Clark calls into question the ideals that are said to have motivated the Canadian effort in that war — of justice, decency, open-mindedness, and virtue. The enormously sad and sobering story of Harold Pringle is told here with grim panache and poetic flair.”
—Modris Eksteins, author of Walking since Daybreak and The Rites of Spring
“It’s precisely the slow pace and quiet language in this fascinating account of a bizarre Canadian military execution in Italy fifty-five years ago that so powerfully convey war's awfulness and absurdity.”
—Ernest Hillen, author of The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java and Small Mercies: A Boy after War
“Andrew Clark has written a heartbreaking book on the quality of mercy. A Keen Soldier gets to the essence of modern warfare — to the faceless, pitiless bureaucracies that wage such war and convey utter disregard for the qualities that make us human. The ‘keen soldier’ is the boy whose soul is lost in every war, no matter what his fate.”
—Jack Todd, author of The Taste of Metal
Top Customer Reviews
It has several things going for it, which make it a top notch book. It is well researched and is very much a labour of love. This is obvious. It is fairly well written and a pleasure to read. Finally, it looks at some otherwise unusual aspects of Canadian military life. I have read lots of military history, but very little has mentioned the legal system. So I found this very fascinating. Others might not.
On the flip side, the author does stretch some things out and it feels like a bit of padding. I think some things could have been edited out and not have hurt the book.
But ... that is no big deal. Just a few more pages to read, and they are well written.
Am very pleased I got this as a gift.
I just have to add to my review and increase my rating. This book is by no means an academic work (and if it was, it would be at least double the length) but in tracing Pringle's life the book touches on many unique and not well known bits of Canadian military history. The prisons, jails, the legal system and most fascinating to me, a glimpse into the war time criminal underworld in Italy.
If you want a selection of fascinating digressions all in one well written book, this is it!
When award-winning journalist Andrew Clark found the file on Harold Joseph Pringle, he uncovered a Canadian tragedy that had lain buried for fifty years. This extraordinary story of the last soldier to be executed by the Canadian military -- likely wrongfully -- gives life to the forgotten casualties of war and brings their honour home at last.
Harold Pringle was underage when the Second World War broke out, eager to leave quiet Flinton, Ontario, to serve by his father’s side. But few who volunteered to fight “the good fight” realized what horror lay ahead; soon Pringle found himself in Italy, fighting on the bloody “Hitler Line,” where two-thirds of his company were killed. Shell-shocked, he embarked on a tragic, final course that culminated in a suspect murder conviction.
His appeal was reviewed by the highest levels of government, right up to prime minister King. But Private Pringle was put to death -- the only soldier the Canadians executed in the whole of the Second World War. His own countrymen carried out the orders, forbidden to go home before completing this last grotesque assignment, even though the war had ended. The Pringle file was closed and stayed that way for fifty years -- until Andrew Clark uncovered it and began a two-year investigation on Pringle’s life in the army.
A Keen Soldier is a true-life military detective story that shows another side of what many consider our proudest military campaign. Andrew Clark examines the fallout of a crisis that disfigured our national conscience and continues to raise questions about the ethics of war.Read more ›
Clark also goes off on long tangents, which are arguably necessary to understand some of the main points the book is trying to present. The use of Colin MacDougall's book EXECUTION to substitute for Pringle's mind set or combat record is pretty unconvincing, however, and falls under the heading "wild speculation."
Clark has done a great job in researching this book, and has hit on some great sources, and in a timely manner. I recommend this book for its clear writing, its attempt to approach the subject in a neutral manner (neither condemning nor condoning either Pringle's conduct nor the Army's conduct), and Clark's overall well done attempt to discuss the broader issues - military justice, battlefield psychology, and the criminal underworld of occupied Italy. Clark is obviously no soldier, he is a journalist, but he shows an understanding of some of the soldier issues inherent in the case, and makes good use of secondary sources available to him - and a wide range of them, at that - as well as the aforementioned primary sources.
Clark obviously worked hard on this book, and it shows. My only reservation is that it may be seen as part of the same revisionism that is fuelling efforts to exonerate those soldiers executed for crimes in the Great War - try as we might, how can we really put ourselves into the minds - or hearts - of those who were alive at the time?Read more ›
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