The forty men sitting in the field that night knew what was about to happen, at least in the final moments. There was furtive talk about escape, as each passing moment revealed to them their coming doom.
They were no doubt tired, it had been a long two days. Two days earlier most of them were amongst the first wave of men hitting the shores in the Normandy Invasion, D-Day. Most were Royal Winnipeg Rifles, but there was a smattering of men amongst them from other regiments as well. They had fought their way ashore, and established that beachhead, losing friends and comrades beside them.
Then they had fought their way inland, across the Normandy country side, and at Putot-en-Basin, they dug in at the edge of town, along the railway to await the counter attack. It hit them with a ferocity that overwhelmed them, and the Rifles were nearly wiped out. Almost three of their four companies were killed, wounded or captured by the attacking 12th Panzer SS, the Hitlerjugend. Unsupported by armour, and harassed by snipers in the village the survivors withdrew under a haze of smoke.
A determined Canadian Scottish counter attack, this time with tanks and artillery support, beat back the Hitler Youth, and saved the line. By that time, these forty men, some wounded, most exhausted, were being slowly moved back of the forward area.
At one of the German headquarters their captors fielded a call from a furious Staff Officer. He had just received another group of prisoners and his message was clear, he did not want more prisoners taken. They were sent back regardless, as soon as the guards returned from the previous prisoner transfer.
They were marched down a dirt road in the growing dark. And as they reached the road to Caen a German convoy was moving down the road, but they stopped as they reached the prisoners. The prisoners were made to sit in the field, as the Staff Officer berated the Sergeant leading the guards. Soon the guards, joined by SS soldiers were issued with machine pistols, and closed in on the men.
It was clear what was about to happen and one of the Rifle officers began to try and talk to his captors, others whispered amongst themselves to run for the fields as soon as the shooting started. And then one of their executioners called out in clear English "And now you die".
When the shooting started most in the closest rows were cut down immediately. Some jumped and ran for the crops in the fields surrounding them. Some were killed but four, wounded and scared made it to the standing crop and hid or crawled away. One prisoner, sat motionless, amazingly unscathed. As the shock wore off he dropped down and slowly crawled to the wheat. Amazingly no one saw him.
Five escaped, momentarily, all were soon recaptured, but by less fanatical units, and spent the war in POW camps. Thirty five men died in that field, executed d'hor combat. They were buried in a shallow mass grave, their fate unknown until the end of the war, when the story of that night emerged, and their bodies were recovered. It was over a year before their families learned that they weren't missing, but had in fact been murdered.
Among those men was my cousin. His death, sixty-six years ago today, was but one sacrifice in a war filled with them. But that death has profoundly shaped who I am, at least in part. I grew up with this story, and having been named after him I can not separate myself from it. His history is part of mine, and although I can not imagine what he felt, what he thought, in those final moments, I understand his sacrifice, and his call to service.
And I am forever grateful to him, and hope that I have carried his name well.