When Pte. Orville Marshall stepped onto a ship docked in Italy on July 6, 1945, there were no Canadian troops behind him.
More than 93,000 Canadians fought in the Italian campaign during the Second World War, but it was Marshall who was the last to leave the war-ravaged country.
Most Canadian troops had left by February 1945, shipped to northwest Europe to join the 1st Canadian Army for the final push through the Netherlands to Germany. Marshall, meanwhile, was one of just a select few who were kept behind in Avellino — weeks after the Allied victory in Europe was declared — to complete one final, nasty piece of business.
The execution of Pte. Harold Pringle.
Marshall, who lives in a Selkirk personal-care home and is just weeks away from his 100th birthday, still doesn’t understand why it was done.
"The war was over," he says. "It was a horrible, horrible thing."
Harold Pringle’s window in Number 33 British Military Prison looked east, away from the Gulf of Naples. On June 5, 1945, Pringle sat on his cot, learning back against the wall. Before him lay an immaculately kept cell. Harold had folded the sheet on his bed back over his army blanket and creased it. On the table sat a pencil, cut short, and three books: the Bible, The Song of Bernadette and True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. There were also two tin boxes, each containing a rosary. The larger of the two held a pair of medals and one coin medallion.
Outside, diesel fuel choked the scent of palm trees and exotic Italian plants. Trucks rumbled by, their wheels crushing pavement and dirt beneath them. As he listened to them grind, Harold let his legs go limp off the bed and shrugged his head slightly to the left so that it rested on the wall’s cool concrete. In his left hand he held a deck of worn playing cards. It was 2 p.m. and already he had played over 20 hands of solitaire. He could not face another game...
It’s an ugly side of Canadian military history that’s rarely talked about — 26 Canadian soldiers were executed during the two world wars for cowardice, desertion and murder. Pringle has the distinction of being the lone Canadian executed in the Second World War.
The son of a First World War veteran was born Feb. 16, 1920 and grew up in Flinton, Ont.
When Pringle was 16 going on 17, he lied about his age and enlisted on Feb. 5, 1940. It wasn’t as if his father, William, was upset at him. In fact, Pringle’s dad enlisted the same day, even travelling overseas to England with him.
William soon had a nervous breakdown and began suffering post-traumatic syndrome disorder, likely triggered by his First World War memories. He was sent back to Canada, leaving the underage Harold alone. And it showed: during the next two years in England, the younger Pringle frequently went AWOL and was disciplined before being thrust back into action. By December 1943 he was fighting in Italy.
It was there, where two-thirds of his company died, that Pringle began to unravel while fighting against German troops on the Hitler Line, says Andrew Clark, author of A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle.
Shell-shocked, Pringle went AWOL again, joining other deserters in Rome. During an argument, one of the deserters shot another. The remaining three decided each of them would shoot the victim and dump the body to make it look like a gang hit. He was pronounced dead while being ferried to an American army hospital and the conspirators were arrested and tried.
The British executed their two soldiers who had been convicted, leaving Pringle’s fate to Canadian authorities.
"It’s for that crime he is found guilty of and executed," says Clark. "The prosecution said (the victim) was alive when he was (repeatedly) shot, but there was much evidence to show there was no bleeding because he was dead.
"Today (Pringle) wouldn’t be executed. Then, it was shoot him, get rid of him, and forget him."
Across the yard at Number 33, a priest dressed in a British army uniform walked toward the jail. Chaplain Thomas Lenane — Father Tom, as he liked to be called — was on his way to meet a new prisoner. The commandant of Number 33 told Father Tom that Harold was a deserter and a black marketeer, and he had killed another Canadian the previous November. There had been two other deserters in on the murder, the commandant told him: both were British, and both were dead. The Canadian was being kept around until his papers came back from Canada, but either way, the officer assured Father Tom, it was up to the Canadians, not the British, to shoot him.
The task would fall to Capt. Ramsay Park, who was ordered to keep the war diary for the Canadian forces in Italy. On June 10, it was announced that remainder of the Canadian army in Italy would be shipped back to England. However, Park wrote, "A small rear party of seven officers and 24 other ranks remaining to deal with the case of C-5292 Pte. Pringle, H.J., sentenced to die by being shot, on a charge of murder."
Clark interviewed numerous people about Pringle before his book was published in 2002, but only one who witnessed the execution — former Lt. Hugh Ramsay Park, who led the firing squad.
Seventeen years later, he discovered another eyewitness was still alive. Marshall had emailed him saying he was also at the Pringle execution.
"I checked and his name was on the manifest," Clark says. "I flew there to Winnipeg and talked to him. He said he found my book by accident. He saw it on the floor and he picked it up, saw the photo on the cover, and said, ‘Hey, I knew that guy.’"
Marshall’s military career almost started like Pringle’s, but he was rejected after trying to enlist when he was 17. Two years later, on Oct. 9, 1940, Marshall was able to sign up, and trained in Canada before shipping out to England.
He later became part of the Italian campaign and was fighting on the front lines during the Battle of Ortona until being injured by an artillery shell on Jan. 31, 1944.
"I couldn’t see anything," he recalls. "Blood was in my eyes. The medic finally got to me and cleaned me up. I then could see and I saw my rifle on the ground and the barrel was all bent. Something hit it while I was holding it.
"I don’t know whether shrapnel or ground."
The injury ended his fighting career and led to his assignment as a supply-truck driver before being chosen to drive military brass around.
That’s why he was still in Italy even after the Allied forces declared victory in Europe on May 8, 1945.
Marshall was there when the Brigadier J.C. Stewart told Pringle he would be executed that day — July 5, 1945.
And he was there when the firing squad ended Pringle’s life.
"I was right there, it was so horrible," he says.
"It was officers. They had to. They were forced to do things. They were going to tie him to a post, but (Pringle) said you don’t have to. I’ll take my medicine. If I deserve it, I’ll take it.
"He fell to the ground. Pringle stayed there for a while. The brigadier didn’t want to stay, so he left it up to the deputy assistant provost marshall to make sure he was dead. The deputy assistant provost marshall — he had a pistol — rolled him over. He pulled out his trusty pistol and shot him through the head.
"It was just awful."
Many years later, Marshall told Clark that nobody in the firing squad said anything, that they all went and got drunk.
Dr. Alexandra Heber, chief of psychiatry with Veterans Affairs Canada, says as long as there are wars there will be PTSD.
Of the 629,000 veterans in Canada, about 125,000 are clients who have come forward with a claim for a condition related to service and are receiving help from the federal department, Heber says.
Of that number, about 25 per cent have a disability or a mental-health condition and, of those, 70 per cent — about 22,000 — are diagnosed with PTSD. But there could be others who haven’t sought help.
"It’s just because of the intensity and all the factors we know cause PTSD. Stress to your own life, or seeing death, destruction nearby or to people you care about as well as physical injury and from sexual assault. Those are the big criteria that tend to cause post-traumatic stress disorder," she says.
"Many, if not all of those, you find in a war."
But not all soldiers are affected by PTSD, says Heber, who spent three months in Afghanistan serving as chief psychiatric officer and saw how it affected soldiers, up close.
"A lot of people will get PTSD-like symptoms. They will have nightmares, they might be triggered by different things after a traumatic event, but for most people that will diminish over time," she says.
"But when those symptoms continue, usually two to three months following the event, and people are still having a great deal of nightmares or flashbacks or finding themselves emotionally triggered... people where it lasts for several weeks or months probably have PTSD.
"Having treatment and support as early as possible is best."
Heber says people with good social support also have a reduced risk of falling victim to PTSD.
In the past, the legions were the places veterans got together to drink and socialize with others who had similar experiences.
Today, Heber says, the military has learned that rather than sending soldiers directly from the battlefield into the arms of their families, it’s beneficial to have them spend a week or so at an interim camp, giving them a chance to be in a place away from conflict, absent the pressures of home life.
She says it’s similar to the experience soldiers used to have decades ago during the long trips home by ship.
She says it also helps that soldiers deployed now are rotated through and regularly brought home to be replaced by other troops, while also training and preparing for six months before being deployed for six months.
"We know from studying military history, especially from the mental-health viewpoint, we know often people who developed PTSD were treated very, very badly because no one understood what it was and, yes, sometimes they would be executed as deserters," she says.
"We look back now and look at that person’s behaviour and it is clear they were having some kind of traumatic reaction."
Heber says the Canadian military also sends mental-health personnel right to the front lines so they can immediately help soldiers who have difficulties.
Pringle may have been the lone execution of a Canadian in the Second World War, but that wasn’t the case in the Great War. Three of the 25 Canadian soldiers executed during the First World War were from Manitoba.
Pte. Stephen Fowles was 18 when he enlisted in 1916 and he later ended up in France as part of the reinforcements for the 44th Canadian Infantry Battalion. He deserted less than a year from the time he enlisted, was caught and ordered to be executed, but his sentence was reduced to 10 years in prison, then to a suspended sentence. Before long he was sent back into service.
Fowles deserted again, was again sentenced to a suspended sentence and sent back to the front lines. He deserted a third time and his luck ran out; he was executed in June 1918.
Pte. Dimitro Sinicky arrived in Canada from Ukraine and volunteered in 1915. Sinicky was one of the reinforcements for a battalion decimated by the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He later became part of a trench-raiding unit, but one night he refused to go on a raid, and sat down. He was charged with cowardice and executed in October 1917 at the age of 22.
Benjamin DeFehr, who was born in Winkler, enlisted as a driver in the Canadian Army Service Corps and was sent to England in 1916. He was serving in France and shot a sergeant-major in the back before being overpowered. During DeFehr’s court martial, he said he was drunk, but others testified he was sober, and he was found guilty of murder and executed by firing squad in August 1916. He was 28.
Shawna Wood, a distant relative Pringle, says he should never have been executed.
"The war had been over for months and they left a group of guys there for just the execution," Wood says. "That was completely dealt with wrong.
"I strongly believe anyone who went AWOL was having their humanity popping through and they ran because of the intensity of war."
Wood says the stigma of what happened to Pringle was so strong that not only was the private’s military file sealed for decades, the soldiers involved in the execution were ordered to never discuss it and her own family never talked about him until the publication of Clark’s book.
"My take is, whether or not he was guilty of involvement in the murder, the fact they left him there until months after the war ended wasn’t right," she says.
The day after Pringle’s execution, the remaining Canadian troops left in Italy boarded a ship to start the long journey back to Canada.
After dropping off the brigadier, Marshall had to deliver the vehicle to the British Army compound. When he returned, he was the last Canadian soldier on Italian soil.
Once home, he became a baker, then a psychiatric nurse in Selkirk. He got married and raised a daughter and son.
Marshall says the last he saw of Pringle’s body was when the troops "threw him" into the back of an army truck to take him to a military cemetery about 60 kilometres away.
About a decade ago, he returned to Italy and visited Pringle’s grave.
"He should not have been executed," Marshall says. "I don’t think too often of Pringle, it doesn’t get me upset. But I just wish it had gone different back then."
Harold was offered his last requests. He asked for tea and cigarettes and strawberry jam. He refused the offer of morphine. On a sheet of YMCA foolscap, he began to write his family for the last time: "Well Mother Darling this is going to be an awful surprise to you all and I sure hope and pray that you don’t take it too hard. But the papers have just come back from Canada and I guess the good Lord wishes for me."
— Excerpts from A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.