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‘I owe him my life’: How German soldier ignored battlefield orders and saved Norfolk man’s life

PUBLISHED: 11:23 01 November 2018 | UPDATED: 11:07 07 November 2018

A German soldier writes a poignant letter to Harry Crouchen, from Norwich, who he helped to save during the First World War. PA Wire

A German soldier writes a poignant letter to Harry Crouchen, from Norwich, who he helped to save during the First World War. PA Wire

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The horrors of war are all too well known. But acts of humanity are less common.

First World War letter to Harry Crouchen by Anonymous UxMRv7Nb on Scribd

So the story of the extraordinary gesture of mercy that saved the life of a Norwich soldier 100 years ago stands out like a scarlet poppy in a muddy Flanders field.

The goodwill is revealed in a poignant First World War letter - penned by a German soldier known simply as Wilhem to “dear pal” Harry Crouchen, of Lincoln Street, Norwich, shortly after the war ended.

It describes the moment he found Mr Crouchen wounded on the battlefield in France in 1918, where he had been lying for three nights and three days.

Instead of following orders to kill his enemy, the soldier picked up Mr Crouchen and carried him to a dressing station for first aid.

Lincoln Street, Norwich, where Harry Crouch and his family lived during the First World War. Photo : Steve AdamsLincoln Street, Norwich, where Harry Crouch and his family lived during the First World War. Photo : Steve Adams

The letter goes on to describe how he had reunited with his wife and three children and the difficulty his country faced with homelessness and starvation.

“Let’s hope we shall never have such a manslaughter and murderous war again,” he said.

The soldier, from Wurttemberg, asked Mr Crouchen for a photograph of his family and sent his best wishes to his parents and his people.

Harry was only 18 when he enlisted and his younger brother Stanley followed shortly after.

Stanley’s daughter Monica MacDonnell, who now lives in Bramhall, Greater Manchester, said the two brothers were captured as prisoners of war.

“My father didn’t want to be separated from his brother: he was 17,” she added.

She said the original letter had become lost in time, with only an old newspaper clipping left as a remnant of her uncle’s past.

Although not dated, Mrs MacDonnell believed the letter was published in a Norfolk newspaper shortly after the war ended while Harry was recovering in a hospital in Kent.

In the newspaper clipping, Mr Crouchen describes his surprise at receiving the letter but also his gratitude to the German soldier for saving his life. “To this man I owe my life and I am pleased to think at last I shall be able to thank him for his great kindness and noble act,” he said.

Mrs MacDonnell said her uncle, who sustained a wound in his leg, which later had to be amputated, wrote back to the German soldier but was unsure whether they had stayed in touch.

“All of my family treasure this letter,” she said. “We were all excited about this, and very pleased the German saved my uncle’s life.”

Newspaper clipping and letter

A BATTLEFIELD INCIDENT AT ROSIERES.

Mr. H. Crouchen, jun, 130, Lincoln Street, Norwich, is at present in a Kent Hospital undergoing treatment for injuries received in the war. Writing to a friend in Norwich, he says:-

“I had a great surprise the other day in receiving a letter from the German soldier who carried me off the battlefield.

“To this man I owe my life, and I am pleased to think that at last I shall be able to thank him for his great kindness and noble act.

“He did everything in his power to make me comfortable and relieve my pain even to giving me his last bit of food and cigarettes.

“I am enclosing a copy of the letter. I had a bit of a job to get it translated as it was written in German.
“I have also just sent him a letter off in English. I hope he will be able to read it.”

The letter from the German is as follows:-

“My Dear Pal: You will be surprised to receive a letter from me from Germany. Your wish that I should write to you. We could not even understand to speak to one another as I only speak German and you only English.

“I shall never forget when England and Germany called all her sons to war; it does not do for me to think of it.

“In France, on the 26th of March, 1918, at Rosieres, when for three nights and three days you were lying on the battlefield wounded I did bring you with a friend of mine to a dressing station at Rosieres.

“Do you remember me now? How is your foot? Is it quite better? When did you get home to your people, from whom I should like a little photograph?

“I myself have had such a lot of trouble, but at last got home safely to my dear little children, and found them all in the best of health. The oldest of my sons is 13, my daughter 10, and my youngest 7 years old.

“Let’s hope we shall never have such a manslaughter and murderous war again. Let’s hope the Prussian militarism will now stop for ever.

“Everything here is terribly dear, and we can hardly live. Clothing is too dear to buy, and more than often we have had to starve.

“We German workmen are all very busy. I myself am a builder and there is plenty to do in this way as a lot of people are homeless, and a lot of houses have got to be built. 
“We are all glad the war is finished. Only a small part of the Germans are not, and they are very dangerous people - the Prussians.

“Now I must close, and wish you and all your people the best in the world, and should you parents be still alive will you give them my best wishes from an unknown friend from Wurttemberg.

“For yourself my best wishes from myself, wife and children, and I would be so glad to hear from you in exchange of this letter.

“Yours sincerely, Wilhem.”

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