In May of 1915, a brief news story appeared in the London Times reporting that some Dublin Fusiliers had seen a Canadian soldier crucified with bayonets before being “riddled with bullets”. The story was reprinted in Canada and was brought up in the UK Parliament. Before long, various versions of the story were circulating: the soldier was one of a number of wounded left by retreating troops in a barn, the Germans bayoneted all except a sergeant who was tied to the large cross from a village church before being killed; the sergeant was pinned to a church wall with four bayonets before a fifth went through his throat; it was eight bayonets; it was many bayonets; he was dead when pinned to the wall/fence/tree/barn door; he was alive, and so on. The soldier’s name was given as Thomas Elliott of Brantford, Ontario. Elliott himself wrote to his pastor to say that he had not been crucified. Canada set Albert Kemp, Minister for Overseas Military Forces, to investigate and he found three soldiers, one of them a Victoria Cross winner, ready to testify. But: One claimed to have seen three soldiers, all crucified to a church wall; one was not in Europe at the time of the alleged crucifixion; and one claimed to have seen the crucifixion in a place that the Germans did not occupy. Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps said that he could find no evidence of the event.
But Allied propagandists jumped on the story, printing posters and including the incident in a propaganda movie, The Prussian Cur. There is speculation that General John Charteris, chief of “Black Propaganda” and author of the German Corpse Factory myth and possibly the Angel of Mons story, may have been involved in promoting the story of the Crucified Canadian.
The Canadian soldier was said to have been crucified April 22-24 in the Ypres salient, perhaps at, or near, St. Julien. This was the extreme allied flank and the Germans meant to break through the defense and, perhaps, turn the Allied flank. But a direct assault seemed impossible of success until the German High Command came up with a new tactic: gas. On the 22nd, the Germans let loose a cloud of chlorine gas toward the Allied lines. Many troops ran from this new horror, but some 4000 Canadians stood their ground and kept the assault from victory. Some say that the Canadians may have killed Germans, including prisoners, after that as payback for the gas attack. Some say that the Crucified Soldier was German revenge for Canadian war crimes. Few speak of the crime of chemical warfare, possibly because the Allies were developing that very same weapon, using it for the first time in September, 1915. Crucifixion was an atrocity with more resonance for people — not many have been gassed but everyone has seen a crucifix.
In 1918, Francis Derwent Wood cast a bronze image, less than a meter high, titled Canada’s Golgotha that depicted the incident. The bronze was to be exhibited in January, 1919, but Germany protested, demanding to see evidence that the event had occurred. There was none and the sculpture was withdrawn. Germany also requested that they have a representative on the Canadian commission under Albert Kemp investigating the claim. Shortly afterward, Canadian authorities pronounced that the story was “not proven”.
But while all this was going on, a nurse in France heard a wounded man tell her of a Canadian soldier whose body he had seen bayoneted to a barn door. He identified the man as Sergeant Harry Band. Band’s family, then living in Kelowna, B.C., had received letters from members of his outfit that also claimed that he had been crucified by German troops. Iain Overton investigated the incident and became convinced that Harry Band had indeed been crucified by German troops. [see a documentary here].
Band was born in Scotland and had seen service in the British Army before moving to Canada. In September, 1914, he signed up with the 48th Highlanders, an Ontario unit composed largely of Scots immigrants and people of Scots ancestry. A thousand strong, the unit was reduced to 300 men after the fighting at Ypres. Band listed his father in Kelowna as next of kin and directed that his pay be sent to a Miss Isabella Ritchie in Dundee, of whom nothing is known. Band was well-thought of by the men who served with him.
Many who studied this story mention that Belgium, around Ypres, is full of crucifixion imagery. There are statues by the roadside everywhere, not just churches. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory: “The image of crucifixion was always accessible at the front because of the numerous real physical calvaries visible at French and Belgian crossroads, many of them named Crucifix Corner.” Fussell and others think that exhausted men fed their imagination with the everpresent imagery. But British soldiers hardly needed hallucination to see one of their own crucified, it was a rather common event.
Crucifixion was the name given by British troops to Field Punishment No. 1. Men who were accused of petty crimes — losing a piece of equipment, for instance — would be bound to a post or caisson for hours at a time over a period of days, sometimes under conditions which resulted in fatalities. The War Office instructed that the post was to “look entirely unlike the cross” but the troops could see a resemblance. The Canadian War Museum helpfully notes that military punishment had little to do with justice but was intended to instill discipline. This concept of “pour encourage les autres” was carried to the extreme during the War as British officers ordered more than 300 troops to be executed for various infractions without any meaningful investigation. Canada honored its twenty-three executed soldiers in 2001, England gave a posthumous pardon to these executed soldiers in 2006.
One vet, at the age of 105, recalled the War and said he doesn’t know if posthumous pardons for those executed was a good idea, but he did remember feeling sorry for one man who was crucified:
One day I was ordered to stand guard over a chap who had been tied to a wheel, without food or water, as a punishment for something. I can’t remember what he’d done. But I felt sorry for him so I put my fag up to his lips so he could have a smoke. It was a very risky thing to do because if anyone had seen me they’d have tied me to the wheel as well!
After the War, German artist George Grosz produced a drawing which summed up the experience of all those men who had served in the Great War: “Ecce Homo”, subtitled “Shut Up and Do Your Duty”. Other artists echoed this theme. William Faulkner’s A Fable has a Christ-like doughboy as central character who winds up interred as The Unknown Soldier. Paul Gross’ film Passchendaele references the Crucified Canadian several times and has its hero undergo his own Calvary.
Many men died at Ypres. Some are buried in marked graves but other corpses simply disappeared in the mud. Those whose bodies were not recovered are memorialized at Menin, their names inscribed on the walls of the Gate. Occasionally a farmer will turn up bones in his field and, once in a while, these can be identified. When that happens, the remains are interred in a proper cemetery and a name is removed from the wall. More than 54000 names remain on that wall; one of them is Band, H.
The evidence that Harry Band was crucified is presented in this documentary.
Story from The Ottawa Citizen with Iain Overton’s remarks.