A hero to Canada — and to the en­emy

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - MAR­I­LYN BAKER

This is a story of a Cana­dian hero. Harry Cochran was my un­cle, but he could have been any­one’s un­cle, or fa­ther, or grand­fa­ther. Hero­ism, I have learned, comes nat­u­rally to or­di­nary Cana­di­ans.

Un­cle Harry was wit­ness to the very first No­vem­ber 11th in 1918.

Harry was a sol­dier in the First World War. He was, to my knowl­edge, the only Al­lied sol­dier ever to be dec­o­rated by “the en­emy.” He was awarded an Iron Cross from the Ger­mans. Along with a few let­ters and a tes­ti­mo­nial from the Ger­man War Of­fice, the medal sat in a trunk in our at­tic in Carman, Man., for more than 60 years.

It is now in the Mu­seum of the Reg­i­ments in Cal­gary. A long time ago, I wrote to the mu­seum to find out more de­tails. A mu­seum spokesman went to great ef­forts to un­cover Harry’s story. He wrote:

“The story of Pri­vate Harry Adolph Cochran, a sol­dier of the Princess Pa­tri­cia Cana­dian Light In­fantry, who served in the First War, was taken pris­oner and was to die shortly af­ter his re­lease, is a most tragic story. His pic­ture, to­gether with his two medals, is on dis­play in the PPCLI Gallery in the Mu­seum of The Reg­i­ments here in Cal­gary. Sadly, the story of his life-sav­ing ac­tion is not told for all to see ...”

Harry wrote a let­ter home in 1916. He de­scribes his cap­ture:

“The sec­ond of June was a fine, bright, warm day. At 7 a.m., Fritz laid a cur­tain of fire just be­hind our front line. We were kept busy dodg­ing trench mor­tars and grad­u­ally our boys were thin­ning out ... I hap­pened to look to­ward the Ger­man line and here comes the Ger­mans in the hun­dreds ... I got about fif­teen feet when some Ger­man saw me and handed me my packet through the left lung. It came out very near the heart ...”

Af­ter three days ly­ing in a dirty, wa­ter-filled shell­hole, Harry sur­ren­dered. “The Ger­mans were very good to us. They gave us wa­ter, cof­fee, sugar, bis­cuits, cig­a­rettes ... some young N.C.O. came ev­ery night and talked to us. He could speak very good English ... “

Harry spent the rest of the war in Ger­many. It was dur­ing this time in a POW camp that he saved a young Ger­man child from drown­ing. Files from the Bavar­ian Min­istry of War con­tain a full de­scrip­tion of what hap­pened:

“In Jan­uary of 1918, the Bri­tish Pris­oner of War, Adolph Cochran from the POW camp in Bayreuth, who is work­ing as an agri­cul­tural labourer in the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Heils­bronn, saved a three­year-old child from drown­ing. The child had bro­ken through the frozen sur­face of the vil­lage pond and had al­ready slipped be­neath the ice when Cochran, who was alerted by the shouts of the other chil­dren, quickly de­cided to crawl out onto the ice to the hole which was about 10 me­tres away from the bank; once there, he grabbed the float­ing child by the arm, pulled it out and im­me­di­ately started re­sus­ci­ta­tion mea­sures, which proved to be suc­cess­ful ...”

I won­der if there is a per­son some­where on this planet — sur­name Gugel, sex un­known — who nearly drowned at age three in Ger­many in Jan­uary 1918?

Harry turned down of­fers of cash as a re­ward. In­stead, he opted for per­mis­sion to write three let­ters home each month in­stead of two. A let­ter to his mother, dated Oct. 30, 1918, sounded up­beat, and con­tained guarded word­ing, hint­ing at the pos­si­bil­ity of the war’s end.

“My Dear­est Mother and all:

Rcd (sic) more mail from home ... It’s a shame I can’t tell you all the news, but it can wait ... there is lots of peace talk at present. I only hope it de­vel­ops into some­thing real . ... ”

The war ended 100 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918, and Harry made his way back to France. There is a tele­gram to his par­ents dated De­cem­ber 24, 1918:

“Free at last. I am in hos­pi­tal in France. Noth­ing se­ri­ous.

“Will wire again from Blighty. Xmas and New Year’s Greet­ings. “Harry.”

He did not make it home, or even back to “Blighty” — the United King­dom. Like mil­lions of oth­ers across Eu­rope and around the world, he came down with what was called the Span­ish Flu. Harry died on Dec. 28, 1918. He is buried in France. He was 23 years old. My grand­mother died on Aug. 24, 1920, in her 53rd year. She lies in the small, quiet ceme­tery in Carman. A grave­stone is etched with her name and Harry’s.

I won­der if she took some com­fort, even as she lay dy­ing of her bro­ken heart, in know­ing that her son was a Cana­dian hero.



Pri­vate Harry Cochran, of Princess Pa­tri­cia’s Cana­dian Light In­fantry, saved a drown­ing child in Ger­many.

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