Although the topic of the crucified Canadian has been discussed ad nauseum on this forum, this apparently dead horse rears its head every few years and we gleefully rush to beat it again. This article is an attempt to collect disparate parts of the discussion into a single place. While it is extensive, however, it is not exhaustive.
The broad strokes of the story are simple: In April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Germans soldiers crucified one of their Canadian opponents. Allied troops later found the body.
As Carl Sagan liked to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the case of the crucified Canadian, an investigation by the Canadian media censor, Ernest Chambers, in May 1915 found no credible proof. Furthermore, a postwar commission established by the Canadian government failed to corroborate the story. In both instances, so-called witnesses gave accounts that could either be disproved outright or whose conflicting details cast doubt on whether the incident had actually ever occurred. Yet despite this lack of evidence, the crucified soldier continues to exert a powerful hold on imaginations around the world.
Canada’s Golgotha, a 1918 bronze sculpture by Francis Derwent Wood inspired by the story of the crucified Canadian soldier
The genesis and growth of this story can be traced through newspaper articles of the time. There was no shortage of men willing to talk to the press about crucified soldiers, and the press was only too happy to give them column inches. These accounts can in turn be divided into two categories: self-proclaimed eyewitnesses and hearsay. The former is less common, and a certain prestige seems to have accrued to the men who said they had actually seen the crucified soldier. Perhaps for this reason, some soldiers who had not seen the crucified man themselves attempted to link themselves to him through shared service with others who had. As one man claimed, “This is no yarn. I myself heard the story from an officer of the Canadians who saw them.” Another said that “this information was given me by a Canadian who was in the district when the incident happened.” Newspapers were also keen to lend legitimacy to the story by providing the name, rank, and regiment of anyone who claimed to have seen the crucified man as well as anyone who was simply repeating hearsay.
While the incident is agreed to have occurred during the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915, the specific date and location vary. It has been said to have taken place on 21, 22, 23, or 24 April; at St Julien, “the blue gate at Ypres” (possibly Blauwepoort Farm), Voormezele, West Flanders, and Hill 60/Zillebeke. However, it only hit the papers in May. The earliest media mention of the crucifixion that I found was printed on 6 May 1915. The same article appeared in places as diverse as Wales and Canada, and contained information came from an unnamed lieutenant colonel who had written to the Morning Post. His succinctness would be markedly absent in later versions of the story: “The Canadians have done splendidly. But they are mad with rage because they say they have found one of their men crucified.”
The Cambria Leader, 6 May 1915. Source: https://newspapers.library.wales/view/4099140/4099141/15
Only when The Times of London printed the story on 10 May did it really take off. Several days later, British Undersecretary for War Harold Tennant fielded a question on the topic in the House of Commons. The subject was taken up again a week and a half later; Tennant replied that no official information had been received about the veracity of the incident and that inquiries were not yet finished.
Although authorities may have approached the story with caution, it quickly established itself among the troops. The Globe reported that Canadians at the front “firmly believe the story of a Canadian soldier being crucified, and assert that they heard it from officers of the Dublin Fusiliers, who actually came across the body…”
Initially, the dead man had a rank and a regiment but no name. At first he was a sergeant; occasionally a major; towards the end of 1915, he became a sergeant major. He belonged, variously, to the Princess Patricia Light Infantry, the Canadian Highlanders, “a Scots Canadian regiment,” “the Sixteenth Canadian Battalion” and “the 15th Machine Gun Battalion.” Once he was a member of the Black Watch. Usually he was Canadian — confirmed by the maple leaves on his lapel — but sometimes he was a Brit or a kilted Scot. According to a French newspaper, he was “un canadien français” — a French-Canadian.
Sometimes he wasn’t just one; he was many. Private F. Fetterington of the Irish Guards Brigade claimed that “after the boys had retaken the line, they found two young fellows who had been overcome by the gas nailed to a door.” Lieutenant O. Campbell wrote to his father in New South Wales that “Some time ago the Germans crucified three Canadians.” As more time elapsed, the number of purported victims grew with the telling. By 1917, it was said that “at the second battle of the Ypres, six Canadian sergeants were crucified by the Germans, being stuck up with six or seven bayonets in each one.”
Locations around Ypres where the crucifixion is alleged to have occurred.
Early reports only agreed that the man had been vertically affixed to a surface by means of bayonets. In the Globe’s version of 12 May 1915, the body was “nailed to a door; with hand and feet pierced with bayonets and the body riddled with bullets.” Three days later, the same newspaper reported that he had been “transfixed to the wooden fence of a farm, bayonets thrust through the palms of his hands and a few through his body pinning him to the fence. He was then repeatedly stabbed with bayonets, many of which punctured and wounded his body.” Sometimes, however, he (or they) was pinioned to a tree: “To be precise, they were crucified on two trees just behind the firing line.” In other accounts it was a post; a barn; a cowshed.
Nor could anyone agree on the number or placement of the bayonets — or whether bayonets were even used at all. On 13 May 1915, the Globe cited a letter from 26 April. The writer, Reay Grant of the 1st Canadian Ambulance, offered a straightforward summation: “The Germans crucified a sergeant in the 15th Battalion to a barn door with bayonets, one through each hand, one through the heart.” However, another early account, this time in the form of an affidavit sworn before the Mayor of Exeter in June 1915, suggested that there were no bayonets at all. “I thought that there were nails through the palms of their hands; some of the other men thought they were fastened with spikes through their hands. I do not think their legs were fastened.”
The testimony of other witnesses provided more conflicting details. Stretcher-bearer Leonard Vivian, giving evidence to the postwar commission, said, “I saw what appeared to be a Canadian sergeant crucified to the door. There was a bayonet through each hand...” Meanwhile, Private Arthur George Annetts described “Canadians being crucified by the Germans, he himself having seen two of his comrades nailed to doors by their hands and feet.” Annetts’ military records suggest that he was nowhere in the vicinity at the time of the purported crucifixion and he should be considered an unreliable witness. George Barrie asserted that he saw a man “fastened to the post by eight bayonets. He was suspended about 18 inches from the ground, the bayonets being driven through his legs, shoulders, throat and testicles.” Yet James Vaughan said that he found the body “pinned to a barn door with bayonets — German bayonets sticking through his arms and legs, and the face showing that the victim had undergone terrible agony.”
As time passed, the stories grew even more at odds with each other. An Australian serviceman wrote that the Germans “drove a bayonet through his heart and then nailed him to a barn door.” In the account of an anonymous Canadian major, “They had jabbed holes through his hands and feet with their bayonets and then thrust wooden plugs through them to sustain his weight.” Yet another version involved the infamous German sawback bayonets: “They ran one of their saw-like German bayonets through his stomach, and they pinned his wrists and legs with Ross rifle Canadian bayonets.”
Whether or not the man had been alive at the time of his crucifixion was a source of morbid fascination. Lieutenant T. Edward Jones believed the man had been crucified alive “because when we got to him he was still bleeding.” In another version, the soldier was actually alive when he was found. An invalided Canadian soldier told the Chicago Daily Journal, “The private I saw was the only one alive when rescue came. He died after they brought him to the hospital.” Alternately, the man died in the arms of his rescuers but managed to speak a few words before his demise: “Before he died he gasped out to his saviors that when the Germans were raising him to be crucified they muttered savagely in perfect English: ‘If we did not frighten you before, this time we will.’”
American Liberty Bond poster disseminated in the Philippines during WWI
The idea absolutely did frighten people. It was a propaganda gold mine and featured on patriotic posters and even spawned a movie — The Prussian Cur, which has since been lost—that highlighted the crucifixion.
The identification of the body was not straightforward at the time and remains disputed even today. As an anonymous Canadian major told a reporter, “he did not know the name of this man. He had heard it, he said, but it has passed out of his mind.” Others employed similar tactics to evade the question, along with a good dose of emotional manipulation: “Through a merciful consideration for the parents of the young Canadians crucified by the butchering Germans, the government has never permitted their names to be published.”
Of course, if the crucifixion never took place, then no victim exists to be identified. Nevertheless, speculation ran rampant and just as this man belonged to any number of regiments and ranks, so too he acquired many names. He was Sergeant-Major Deane of the Princess Pats; then Thomas Elliott of Brantford, Ontario; immediately after the war he was Sergeant Brant; eventually consensus seemed to settle on Harry Band.
These suggestions assume the crucifixion of only one man. Yet as we have seen, so-called eyewitnesses gave accounts of multiple victims at the initial crucifixion. In 1916, a newspaper article identifying the crucified man as Harry Band also referenced other soldiers who suffered the same fate but whose names have never been debated. Similarly, few names are ever put forth for victims of putative later crucifixions. One exception is the American “Sergt. A.B. Cole, crucified by the Uhlans, July 21, 1915, at the battle of Ypres” (never mind that the Second Battle of Ypres had ended in May). As the story goes, this Ohio native served with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces; his brother, who took him down from the cross, was a member of the First Canadian Tunnelling Company.
The American military strenuously denied that the Cole crucifixion had ever taken place: “March, chief of staff…said today that he had never heard of any such case…[and] added that Gen. Pershing would have made a special report of that kind of case.” Pershing also publicly disputed other accounts of German cruelty, and perhaps his firm stance on the issue made a difference: the same press that had so breathlessly and credulously reported on the anonymous crucified Canadian in 1915 treated the tale of A.B. Cole with much more skepticism three years later. However, Pershing’s denial of this specific crucifixion did not prevent papers from uncritically reprinting other such stories.
Two major events in the wake of the purported crucifixion served to make the public more credulous of the story. First, a German U-boot attacked the RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915, sinking the ship and killing nearly 1200 civilian passengers and crew. German diplomats and newspapers generally defended the sinking, while the Allied press and public saw it as a war crime. The Flintshire Observer of Wales described it thus:
The ruthless and premeditated sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine marks the climax of a series of ferocious atrocities unequalled in the darkest annals of barbarism.
Less than a week later, the report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages — also known as the Bryce Report after its chair Viscount James Bryce — made its sensational appearance. Comprising an extensive list of war crimes supposedly committed by the German army in Belgium and France, its publication on 12 May 1915 coincided with the initial news about the crucified soldier. It even contained an account of a toddler nailed to a farmhouse door in much the same style as the soldier:
At HAECHT several children had been murdered, one of two or three years old was found nailed to the door of a farmhouse by its hands and feet, a crime which seems almost incredible, but the evidence for which we feel bound to accept.
The authors of the Bryce Report anticipated pushback against these more extraordinary claims and went so far as to include the following defence:
There might be some exaggeration in one witness, possible delusion in another, inaccuracies in a third. When, however, we found that things which had at first seemed improbable were testified to by many witnesses coming from different places, having had no communication with one another, and knowing nothing of one another’s statements the points in which they all agreed became more and more evidently true. And when this concurrence of testimony, this convergence up on what were substantially the same broad facts, showed itself in hundreds of depositions, the truth of those broad facts stood out beyond question. The force of the evidence is cumulative.
This approach is problematic, not in the least because a lie repeated many times will also be full of exaggerations, delusions, and inaccuracies. Its many variations will also result in an accumulation of so-called evidence. Postwar scrutiny of the Bryce Report’s claims and methodology has now led us to see it primarily as a propaganda document. However, the public widely accepted the report at the time and the story of a crucified soldier fit neatly into its narrative.
Interestingly, the Canadian media censor Ernest Chambers believed that the crucifixion story “had been invented in a certain sector of the state of New York...for recruiting purposes.”
The progression of time produced more details. This is true not only of accounts relating to the “original” crucified Canadian but also innumerable stories that sprung up afterwards. Clearly drawing their inspiration from the purported events of April 1915, each is more lurid and grotesque than the last.
In 1916, “a member of the Second Gloucesters” described this scene:
I was glued to the spot, and my heart seemed to give one big thump…for there hung the bodies of four dead Canadians crucified to the doors and walls.Two were upon the inner side of the barn door, one on each side as they opened out towards you, and the other two were pinned to the wall inside over against you, so that when the place would be opened out a looker-on would see the whole four. Thus one bayonet was hammered through one open palm and another through the other, outstretched same as if they were on a cross, only the body hanging down a bit more — more like a letter Y than a letter T, I mean. They were bare up to their kilts, for they belonged to a Scots Canadian regiment.
Yet that gruesomeness paled in comparison to “a dirty, cunning trick” detailed by Private H. Maddern in the spring of 1916:
[The Germans] got the range with their artillery and had a lot of machine guns trained on the Canadians’ trenches. When all was ready they brought forward a Canadian sergeant whom they held a prisoner, and to a wooden cross, made like the Cross of Calvary, they nailed him alive — just as the Jews nailed Christ. Then they lifted him up above the trenches so that his countrymen might see what they had done. You may be able to guess how every man in the Canadian trenches arose mad with horror and rage. They would listen to no officer. They heard no commands; but they charged en masse towards the German trenches.Then the German machine guns and shrapnel opened fire, and, oh God ! the carnage was awful.
A year later, Henry C. Evans of Baltimore, “who is now in France with the American Field Service,” told a similar story in which the crucified man’s brother was present in the opposite trench. Upon seeing the horrific sight, “the officer took a gun and shot his brother dead to put him out of his pain.”
This genre reached its apogee in 1918. Speaking to a reporter from the Chicago Post, Corporal James Irving Parker painted the following picture of gore:
The atmosphere was tainted with the odor of putrefying human flesh, for on the walls of that room hung fifteen crucified Canadian soldiers. Five hung on each of three of the walls. Four spikes to a man were used in the crucifixion, one through each wrist and one through each ankle. The spikes in the wrists had been driven through about four inches above the hand, and 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 see in the leg of a beef up in a meat market. The victims were thirteen privates and two officers, all in full uniform.
Parker’s account is notable for its specificity of the placement of the spikes and the details of the wounds. Unlike most other “witnesses,” he realises that a man nailed to a wall through his palms will eventually succumb to gravity and sag to the ground. In order for the body to remain upright, the nails must be placed in the space between the ulna and radius bones of the lower arm. Yet despite the accuracy of these details, the story’s excesses are barely believable. Parker himself seems aware of this credibility problem; he goes on to say that if he “ were not sworn to secrecy by the French Government, like all other returning soldiers, I should be glad to give the name of that chateau and the Canadian unit involved, simply to authenticate my story for the benefit of a certain class of Americans who still are sceptical of German atrocities.” This invocation of an oath of secrecy sworn to the French government gave the story a veneer of veracity, and at the same time conveniently rendered the claims unverifiable and beyond question.
Subsequent stories about crucified Canadians could not match the audacity or scale of Parker’s. Yet it was not for lack of trying. Towards the end of the war, a brother of the crucified man suddenly appeared in the press. Newspapers portrayed him as a vengeance-crazed berserk and, of course, never mentioned his name.
He obtained the particulars [of the crucifixion] from a fellow Canadian who actually took from the body the bayonets with which it was fastened to the door. This brother, who is a sergeant in the Newfoundland regiment, lives apparently only to avenge the murder….His deeds have won for him the DCM and the Croix de Guerre, but he does not seek decorations. He lives to avenge his brother’s blood.
The armistice of November 1918 did not put an end to such stories. A New Zealander, returning home the following year, met a Canadian soldier in Manchester who “had himself been crucified and rescued, just in time. Nailed to a door with iron spikes, the man’s wrists and insteps still bore the freshly-healed wounds.”
While these stories seem to have been presented as proof of German cruelty, they also spawned tales of equally barbaric behaviour by Canadians themselves. “The crucifixion by the Germans of a sergeant and two privates of the Sixteenth Canadian battalion at the second battle of Ypres is the reason given by returning veterans why the ‘Canadians don’t take prisoners,’” according to an article in the Albuquerque Morning Journal. Private John A. Scott also said that Canadians took no prisoners “for a long time after that affair, in which three Canadian sergeants were crucified on barn doors.”
The American sisters Hilda and Ida Tweeten, who served as nurses in Europe, told their local newspaper at home in North Dakota “that in one instance a Canadian soldier was crucified by the Germans. They state that the Canadians retaliated by crucifying the next German that fell into their hands.”
According to one anonymous Canadian officer, the Canadians exacted their revenge not by crucifying one solitary German but by murdering more than twenty prisoners: “We had some prisoners, twenty-three, I think. The boys killed them and cut their bodies in pieces and strewed them in the road along which the Germans must come. On some of them we pinned the Canadian emblems from the uniforms of our dead, just so they would know how Canada takes revenge. Ever since then the Germans have been afraid of us. They believe that we do that often. They think we are savages.”
This image of Canadians as ruthless killers may surprise people who are only familiar with the modern stereotype of the mild-mannered and polite Canadian. However, German soldiers in World War I did in fact fear Canadian soldiers, whom they believed took no prisoners and killed the wounded, more than other Allied troops. For this reason, Canadians often suffered disproportionately when taken prisoner. This created a vicious circle in which soldiers of each nation tried to exact revenge on the other for the actual deaths of comrades as well as acts of aggression that were either imaginary or that had not yet occurred.
As we have seen, the story of the crucified Canadian rapidly took on the mantle of legend. Given the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the story adopts aspects of the most famous crucifixion of all — that of Jesus Christ.
The comparison was made early on. On 22 May 1915, a local English newspaper reported that “Pte. C.E Camplisson, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry writes to a friend at Winchester: ‘…Our fellows found one of our sergeants nailed to a door like Christ.’” Alternately, some versions described three soldiers and even specified their ranks: a sergeant and two privates, much like Christ and the two thieves who were crucified alongside him.
Crucifix at Zandvoorde near Ypres during the war. Source: https://nl.geneanet.org/prentbriefkaarten/view/136005#0 Licence: https://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/nl/
Each man who claimed to have seen the dead man placed himself at the centre of a transcendent event. Those who had not seen him themselves tried to establish proximity to him in other ways. Usually soldiers did so by linking themselves to someone who had “seen it with his own eyes” but occasionally the connection was made through an object rather than a person.
The case of Private Lionel Whitbread neatly demonstrates the latter. Whitbread collected souvenirs from his service and sent them home to his parents in Australia. Among the items that they received was a “splinter from the blue gate at Ypres on which it is said that Germans soldiers crucified a Canadian sergeant during the early part of the war.” This is the first and only mention of a blue gate (which may refer to Blauwepoort Farm) in the story. The splinter is, essentially, a holy relic: the wartime equivalent of a fragment of the True Cross on which Christ was crucified.
The nails that affixed Christ to the cross also became relics. A similar fate supposedly awaited one of the bayonets that was used in the crucifixion of the Canadian: “Private Scott was in a regiment, an officer of which helped to removed the body of a Canadian soldier crucified by the Germans. That officer still has one of the German saw-edge swords used in that terrible murder.”
On the whole, however, relics never became a major component of the mythology of the crucified Canadian. This is not to say that material relics would have made the event more believable, but to emphasise that the story had sufficient power to convince listeners on its own. In great part, it derived its credibility from the soldiers named in the press as witnesses; its temporal proximity (being very much a current event, as it were); and a public already primed to believe the worst of Germans.
The crucified Canadian was every soldier, as evidenced by the different ranks and regiments ascribed to him. For a long time he had no name nor did he need one; his anonymity made his story universal. Despite the terrible circumstances of his death, families wanted to believe that he was their father, son, or brother who had been reported missing or whose remains had never been recovered. Because his fellow soldiers had viewed his body, his death could no longer be doubted. Their act of witnessing meant that his death was properly accounted for and transformed it from a pointless waste into purposeful sacrifice. He became, in other words, a martyr.
The hagiographies that ensued were just as muddled, contradictory, and fantastical as those of actual saints. Yet the specific details mattered less than his suffering. His pain redeemed the cause of the war and the men fighting in it: the brutality of his death allowed them to justify their own actions against the Germans. On the home front, he became a stalwart of recruitment drives and propaganda, making appearances whenever the public had to be reassured of the righteousness of the war.
And yet for all that, he probably wasn’t real—but nor did he need to be in order to serve his purpose.
Edited by knittinganddeath