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The other crucifixion: did German soldiers really crucify a Canadian soldier?

It was a hideous tale, told often and widely repeated. It made for great wartime propaganda, and certainly demonized the German foe, but was it actually true?

In May 1915, the New York Times broke a story about the alleged crucifixion of a Canadian officer in France by German soldiers. "The atrocity," the Times asserted, occurred April 22-23,1915 when the Canadian officer was "pinned to a wall by bayonets thrust through his hands and feet and another bayonet had been driven through his throat, and, finally he was riddled by bullets."

Three days later, several newspapers ran the same story but alleged it involved three Canadian soldiers and that the crucifixions had actually occurred during the battle of Ypres. All the accounts reported the soldiers were alive when captured by Germans who then "who nailed them with bayonets to the side of a wooden structure."

The sensational disclosures caused inquiries in the British parliament and public outrage. The British War Office advised they had received no information that gave the story any credibility. A follow-up article in the Times a week later claimed that the army headquarters staff had depositions "testifying to the fact of the discovery of the body."

The article went on to specify the single soldier was a Canadian sergeant (not an officer) who was "transfixed to the wooden fence of a farm building" but no one had seen the actual "crime committed ... [and it was possible] the man was dead before he was pinned to the fence ... and the enemy wreaked [their] vengeance on the lifeless body of [their] foe."

A few days later, a member of the British House of Commons asked the Under-Secretary of State for War if it was true that "during recent fighting, when the Canadians were temporarily driven back, they were compelled to leave about forty of their wounded comrades in a barn ... [and when recaptured they found all had been bayoneted] with the exception of a sergeant, and that the Germans had removed the figure of Christ from the large village crucifix and fastened [him] while alive to the cross ..." The Member of Parliament went on to inquire if "crucifixion ... is becoming a practice of the Germans." The Under-Secretary responded that "no official information had been received ... that inquiries were being made, and were not yet complete."

During the investigation, the credibility of several soldiers was cast in doubt when it turned out the Germans never actually occupied the area where the crucifixion(s) allegedly occurred. Factual or not, the story was good propaganda and used extensively in war bond drives in Canada and the United States after it entered the war.

The allegations of Germans crucifying Allied soldiers persisted throughout the war. A Tacoma Times article in 1917 reported: "Crucifixion [seems] to be a favorite treatment of the Germans for those in uniform ... who refuse to give them information." In June of 1918, a YMCA executive who had recently returned from France to New York City claimed American soldiers on the Toul front "found two of their comrades crucified ... [and as a result, the American soldiers would] shoot the Germans down like rats." The allegation was repeated a few days later by U.S. Congressman James W. Hustead (NY) on the floor of the House of Representatives. Other versions of the story maintained the victims were British. Robert Service's poem Joe Desprez fixed the soldier as French.

The same day, Corporal James Irving Parker--who was on a two month leave in Chicago--told the Chicago Post a story "of such horror that his bride of four days ... repeatedly lifted a handkerchief to her eyes." According to Parker, he had been driving an ammunition truck for the French Army and was billeting in a "huge French chateau ... when apoilu [French soldier] beckoned him [and his fellow drivers to come upstairs] into a room that must have been 30 feet square ... the atmosphere was tainted with the odor of putrefying human flesh [and] on the walls hung 15 crucified Canadian soldiers. Five hung on each of the three walls ... their faces lying on their breasts just as you have seen them in pictures of Christ... [they] wore the horrible, contorted look of men who had died a prolonged and agonizing death."

Parker said he and his twelve companion truck drivers "openly sobbed" at the scene. He claimed "four spikes to a man" were used "One through each wrist and ... each ankle... and the spikes in the wrist ... [which] had been driven through about four inches about the hand ... under the weight of the body had pulled longitudinally through the flesh as far up as the hand, making a long, narrow slit, such as you seen [sic] in the leg of a beef hung up in a meat market." The Canadian victims, he claimed, were comprised of thirteen privates and two officers.

Two months later, Dr. P. H. Howard, who "went to France in the uniform of the Salvation Army [and had] returned to the U.S. to recount on the lecture platform instances of bestial cruelty, told ... the story of American A.C. Cole ... who found his brother crucified with German bayonets." In the latter days of July 1918, according to Howard, Sergeant A.B. Cole's "enthusiasm somehow carried him far beyond his platoon and left him stranded ... later that day ... [U.S. troops] ensconced themselves in the courtyard of a wrecked farm [and] saw something which had once been human ... drooping unhumanly[sic] from a barn door... it was the body of Sgt. Cole ... German bayonets had been driven through his hands and feet... pegged to the barn door as farmers in the Ohio River Valley [where the Cole's were from] peg out skunk skins with hammer and nails."

The same day, General Peyton C. March, the U.S. Army's Chief of Staff, told the New York Tribune no such report had reached the War Department and he was "confident that if any such thing had occurred it would have been brought to the attention of General Pershing, who would have made a special report on it."

Notwithstanding General March's denial, an article in the Washington Evening Star reminded its readers that "there were authenticated cases in the Flanders fighting in 1915, Canadians being the victims." The Star article went on to assert "the German soldier is quite capable of an act of savagery ... of torturing of people, the infliction of the most painful forms of death, mutilations that are beyond description ... they think to frighten their enemies by cruelty [but] they only inflame a spirit of unrelenting hatred and vengeance."

In February 1919, the world's newspapers carried a story with a picture of a sculpture by British artist Francis Derwent Wood which depicted the crucifixion of a Canadian soldier. The 32" high bronze sculpture was to be permanently housed in a building in Ottawa to "stand as a memorial to those Canadians who willingly gave their most beloved for the honor of the flag and the upholding of freedom, justice and right."

The memorial, which was to be shown at Burlington Flouse before the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty, drew a protest from the German Foreign Office claiming it was "an invented outrage." Officially, the Canadian government claimed "they had sufficient evidence to believe the account was true."

Still, Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested further investigation to determine the veracity of the story. When the Germans "demanded a part in the investigation" the sculpture was withdrawn from the exhibition and was not shown again until the 1990s." It was displayed again in 2000 as an expression of creative Christianity.

One commenter suggested the stories of the crucifixions emanated from an "exaggeration and that artillery fire was responsible for the body of a soldier appearing to be nailed to a barn door." The story was determined to be nothing more than exaggerated propaganda and official inquiries concluded the same.

In April 2001, documentary filmmaker and historian Lain Overton uncovered evidence that the initial 1915 claim may have been true. Overton claimed, "This was a murder which stood out even among the horrors of the First World War. The image of a crucifixion caught people's imagination."

Overton uncovered a 1915 letter from British Red Cross nurse, Miss Ursula Violet Chaloner, which relates a story told to her by Canadian Lance Corporal C. M. Brown which "adds weight to the story that a Canadian soldier was indeed crucified with bayonets on a barn door in France by German soldiers in 1915." Brown disclosed the crucified soldier was one Sergeant Harry Band. Band was a Brit who had immigrated to Canada before the war, seeking a better future. He served with the Canadian Infantry (Central Ontario Regiment), 15th Battalion, and died, allegedly by crucifixion on April 24,1915. Overton also uncovered letters from Band's comrades in arms to his sister "revealing the terrible truth to the grieving relatives. Harry was crucified ... [related one writer] but whether he was alive at the time, I don't think anyone can say for sure," the writer concluded.

Caption: At 32 inches tall, "Canada's Golgotha" was sculpted by British artist Francis Derwent Wood in 1918 for display as part of the Canadian War Memorial Fund collection in England. The bronze sculpture was pulled from the exhibit after the story of the crucifixion was challenged at the end of the war. "Golgotha" depicts a First World War Canadian soldier crucified on a barn door, surrounded by jeering Germans. Because of the controversial nature surrounding the premise of the artwork, the bronze sculpture was not exhibited until the 1990s, when it was finally put on display at the Canadian War Museum. (OWEN BYRNE)

Caption: The British used crucifixion as a form of punishment during WWI for soldiers accused of thieving or other petty crimes. They were tied to posts resembling crosses and left for hours or days depending on the severity of their offence, (SHRINEODREAMS. WORDPRESS.COM)

Caption: A still from the 1918 movie "The Prussian Cur" depicting the crucifixion of a Canadian soldier. The veracity of the story is dubious; there is no overwhelming evidence that a Canadian soldier was crucified in that particular incident. In fact, the soldier named as the victim was alive and well long after he was supposed to have died a horrible death at the hands of the Germans. (shrineodreams.wordpress)

Caption: Poster showing German soldiers nailing a man to a tree, as American soldiers come to his rescue. "Your Liberty Bond will help stop this--Sus bonos de la Ubertad ayudaran a dar fin con esto." (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, LC-USZC4-10652)


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Title Annotation:HISTORY FEATURE
Author:Demers, Daniel J.
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:May 1, 2015
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