A hero to Canada — and to the German enemy, too

By 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:

Pte. Harry Cochran turned down offers of cash as a reward for saving a child while a POW in Germany. Instead, he opted for permission to write three letters home each month instead of two.

“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 lifesaving 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 towards 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 three-year-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 one hundred years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918, and Harry made his way back to France. There is a telegram to his parents dated Dec. 24th, 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.

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