Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"To suffer death by being shot": Canada's sole military execution of the Second World War

Up to a few years before Confederation, there were vast array of crimes that colonial governments in British North America saw fit to hang people for.  Some 200 activities could get one executed including sodomy, stealing turnips, or wearing a disguise in the woods.  By 1865, only murderers, traitors, and rapists were considered loathsome enough to hang.  Soldiers, however, were subject to military law, and those who were found guilty by courts martial of desertion, cowardice, or murder could be sentenced to death.  Clearly, when it comes to punishment for one's transgressions, soldiering has its disadvantages.  The distinction between military law and civil law is critically assessed by Chris Madsen in Another Kind of Justice:
With little pretence to lofty ideals, military law serves strictly utilitarian and practical purposes in the maintenance of discipline within armed forces. Its endearing qualities are few. The application of military law is sometimes arbitrary and is heavily influenced by situation; it places the interests of service and group before the individual, and tends toward severe punishments. (Madsen, p. 3)
In the First World War, twenty-five (or twenty-six depending who is counting) soldiers were executed, largely on charges of desertion.  These soldiers' fate, and the administration of courts martial was largely trusted to British officers.  By the end of the conflict, the lack of a supreme Canadian authority to oversee courts martial decisions was trumpeted as unjust by advocacy groups who wished to abolish the death penalty.  While the end of death penalty for murder in Canada would have to wait until 1976, by the Second World War authority to execute a soldier had been transferred to Canadian hands.

The Canadian Army sentenced three soldiers to death during the Second World War, but only one unfortunate soul, Harold Pringle, was actually executed.  Harold Joseph Pringle was born on January 16th, 1920, at Port Colborne, Ontario, and had enlisted in early 1940.  By late 1940 he was overseas and was beginning to tally up what would become a large number of convictions for absence without leave.  In February 1944, he was dispatched to the Italian theatre, corroborating the (somewhat exaggerated) complaints of officers there that the theatre was being used as a dumping ground for undesirable personnel.  After serving with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment in the Liri Valley, Pringle again went away without leave and in June of 1944 joined a gang of black marketeers in Rome.  Association with these outlaws would be his ultimate undoing.

© IWM (TR 1844) Capt. Tanner.
It was in Rome on the 1st of November, 1944, that a fight erupted between Pringle and other members of the gang, which resulted in the shooting of Private "Lucky" McGillivary, a fellow criminal.  The gang took Lucky outside of the city, where they riddled the body with bullets and left it for dead.  On the 12th of December 1944, Pringle was taken into custody by the military police and charged with murder.  While his defence attempted to argue that McGillivary had died of his previous wounds when Pringle later shot him, and that there was insufficient evidence to convict him, the officers at the court martial were not convinced, and Pringle was sentenced "to suffer death by being shot." (Army Headquarters Report No 91, p.97)

The report of the Chief of Staff at Canadian Military Headquarters (London) to National Defence Headquarters (Ottawa) of May 1945 regarding the review of the Pringle case shows the legal grey areas in a case of murder or other civil offenses, especially, at the end of the war:
The fact that the accused and the victim were both members of the Canadian Army, and that the trial was by a Canadian Court Martial, is not, in my view, the controlling feature of this case.  In essence, this is a case which arises out of the shooting of one Canadian citizen by another Canadian citizen.  Considering the matter in this way, I have come to the opinion that the fact that the war is now over and won should not influence me to treat the matter otherwise than simply as a case of murder. (Chief of Staff, CMHQ to NDHQ, 12 May 1945, DVA (WSR) file C-5292 as cited in Army Headquarters Report No 91, p.98)
Three other cases of Canadian personnel sentenced to execution by British civil courts show that the murder of civilians was treated as a civil offence.  (See Jonathan Vance, Maple Leaf Empire, p.178)
A Telegram confirming Pringle's sentence.  RG24 Vol 12718. Library and Archives Canada

British courts martial had meanwhile tried two others in the Pringle case, and in the Spring of 1945 Sapper CHF Honess and Fireman WR Croft were executed. It took until 5 July 1945 for the Pringle sentence to be conveyed by order in council.  A post-war Army Headquarters Report recorded, in its dry prose, "The finding and sentence were promulgated at Avellino, Italy, at six o'clock on the morning of 5 July, at which time Pringle was informed of the disallowance of his petition by the Governor General in Council.  Exactly two hours later the sentence was carried out by a firing squad." (Army Headquarters Report No 91, p.99)

Sympathy for Pringle greatly varies among historians.  Andrew Clark wrote a biography which writes of Pringle in a sympathetic light portraying him as a victim of the war and the military system.  (Review by Lukits) He would likely agree with Chris Madsen, who noted that those executed in the previous war were not "bad apples", but ordinary men pressed into extraordinary circumstances who simply could not bear the strain.  (Madsen, p.46)  Jack Granatstein, however,  was not convinced that we should pity the deserter, criticizing Clark's "overly sympathetic treatment of Pringle, which all but demeans the suffering and sacrifice of those who stuck it out and fought."

Granatstein's comment brings to light a philosophical question about honoring soldiers and commemoration.  Pringle is buried in Caserta cemetery with the honours accorded all Canadian soldiers by the Commonwealth War Graves Commision.  On first glance, this seems to be a place of respect which was not earned by this deserter and murderer.  When we think of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, with their symmetric rows of identical tombstones, we consider their eternal residents' memory in relation to their sacrifices as soldiers.  A murderer who was put to death by the military seems rather out of place in this context.  Certainly many other soldiers buried in the cemeteries would have had military rap sheets, and civilian cemeteries bury the good with the bad, but the very fact that Pringle was killed by the military he served for seems problematic in light of the meaning of military cemeteries. 
Caserta Cemetery CWGC

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