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Crucified Highlander?

bossi

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Nurse‘s note lends credence to story of crucified soldier
Canadian was victim: Proof elusive about horrifying tale that gripped a nation

Iain Overton
National Post [ironically, in the Saturday edition immediately before Easter - 14 April 2001, Review section, p. B7]

[illustration] - A still from Raoul Walsh‘s 1918 film The Prussian Cur showing German soldiers watching a dying soldier being pinned to a barn door.


A typewritten note by a British nurse during the First World War 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.

The note relates comments by Lance Corporal C.M. Brown to his nurse, Miss Ursula Violet Chaloner, daughter of the first Baron Gisborough. Cpl. Brown, apparently recovering from shell wounds, told Miss Chaloner about a Sergeant Harry Band, who "was crucified after a battle of Ypres on one of the doors of a barn with five bayonets in him."

The note, found in the Liddle Collection of war correspondence in Leeds University, is yet another piece in the puzzle surrounding one of the most famous, mysterious and vicious incidents of the First World War.

The story goes like this. On April 24, 1915, George Barrie, a Canadian soldier, took refuge from a gas attack in a home near the French village of St. Julien on the Western Front. The house came under enemy fire and George rushed for cover in a nearby ditch. As it grew dark he saw a group of Germans in a shed about 50 metres away. He lay still and waited for them to leave.

When they were gone, he went to take a closer look at the shed. He saw a man in British uniform leaning against a door near where the Germans had been standing. He called out, but there was no reply. Going closer, he was horrified at what he found.

The man, a young sergeant with maple leaves on his lapels, was dead. He was suspended 18 inches from the ground, crucified to the door with eight bayonets.

When it hit the Canadian press, George‘s story caused a national uproar. Thousands of recruits joined up, eager to get their own back at the Boche. A memorial, by British sculptor Derwent Wood, was cast in honour of the dead sergeant. Novels were written and a film, The Prussian Cur, was made. All revealed the horrors of the event to a shocked public.

The Germans denied the atrocity. After the war, they challenged the Allies to prove the crucifixion ever happened. The British Colonial Office launched an official inquiry under a Canadian general. After a lengthy investigation, the inquiry concluded the story was made up. Eyewitness reports were dismissed as confused and conflicting (e.g., the discrepency about how bayonets were used).

Historians have since claimed the story was little more than black propaganda. Like the stories of raped nuns and bayoneted babies reported in the early days of the war, the crucified soldier was a lie, the work of a war effort that hoped to stir up hatred for the Hun.

The story remains elusive, despite the work of several scholars. But one name keeps popping up, Sergeant Harry Band. In 1984, art historian Maria Tippett found several documents referring to the incident in the National Archives in Ottawa, but she was unable to say conclusively that it was Harry Band and that he was crucified. Two years later, history professor Seth Feldman of York University took up the story in two CBC Radio Ideas programs, even interviewing one of Harry Band‘s relatives in British Columbia. The relatives said they had wartime correspondence suggesting Sgt. Band was the victim of a crucifixion, but nothing definitive.

But now this note, dated July 11, 1915, less than three months after the alleged incident, makes it less likely the product of rumour.

British military records show Sergeant Band was reported missing, presumed dead, on April 24, 1915, the same day George Barrie reported seeing the atrocity. Harry Band‘s records even show that his regiment, the 48th Canadian Highlanders, was fighting near St. Julien on that date. True to George‘s testimony as well, Harry‘s medical report describes him as 5-foot-11 with brown hair and hazel eyes.

Another fact missed by the official investigation is a file in the Department of National Defence concerning the name of the person to whom the Derwent sculpture, the statue of a soldier being crucified with bayonets, is supposed to be dedicated to. The name is, again, that of Sergeant Harry Band, Number 27286.

Harry Band was a Scot, born in Montrose, in August, 1885. He grew up in Dundee on Springbank Terrace, before he decided to leave for Canada in search of work. He found a job in Moncton as a fireman and joined the Canadian Army soon after war was declared in 1914, quickly rising to the rank of sergeant.

He was a conscientious man and steadfastly refused to drink alcohol. After the war, the Ontario Temperance society, of which he was a member, listed him in their honour roll as having "met death by crucifixion while in the hands of the enemy."

Harry was single, but there is a suggestion of romance. Every month, he sent his wage packet to Miss Isabella Ritchie of King Street, Dundee. It was a love destined never to bloom.

Harry‘s nieces and nephews still live in B.C. They have letters sent to his sister after his death, letters written by his comrades-in-arms, testifying he was killed on April 24 and revealing the terrible truth to the grieving relatives. "Harry was crucified," says one writer, "but whether he was alive at the time, I don‘t think anyone can say for sure."

The family is still convinced their uncle was murdered on that fateful April day. Jean Walsh, Harry‘s niece, is 79 and lives in Kelowna, B.C. "I knew about the crucifixion since when I was a child. My mother told me that Harry was crucified. I am horrified still. But it happened so many years ago that I can‘t keep being angry under those circumstances of war, even Canadians and English did things that were horrible under the stress."

Harry‘s great-niece, Sarah Marty, is equally shocked at the events surrounding Harry‘s death. "We think it was such a terrible thing to happen. It still upsets me."

Why might the Germans have killed Harry in this terrible way? Possibly because two days before he died, Germany launched the first ever gas attack on the Allied lines. Without warning, 180,000 kilograms of chlorine gas were released near Langemark, France, near where Harry died.

A poisonous cloud drifted in the gentle breeze over the heads of the unsuspecting troops of the Canadian, French and Algerian army. They were having breakfast.

Caught unawares, the troops found themselves unable to breathe and were soon fighting for their lives. Mayhem and terror took over as they suffocated in broad daylight. More than 5,000 men died that morning.

The Allied nations were outraged. The attack broke the international rules of warfare. Canadians were the bitterest. Reports suggest that in retaliation, Canadian troops killed German prisoners in cold blood just as they had been killed in cold blood.

Harry Band was unlucky enough to be captured by a roving German patrol as his colleagues were avenging their friend‘s deaths. The Germans showed him no mercy. His crucifixion was probably a warning to the Allies. Keep your hands off our prisoners or this is what we will do to you, they were saying.

As the war continued, the story of the crucified soldier was to become part of the gossip of trench life. Terrified for their lives, soldiers would shock each other with tales of what the Germans would do to them if they were captured. Whispers in the trenches embellished the facts surrounding Harry Band‘s death, and the story attained myth-like status. This would explain why the government commission found so many conflicting reports at the inquiry. Rumour and second-hand accounts made it nearly impossible to find the truth.

The discovery of nurse Chaloner‘s report, heard so soon after the event, would seem to strengthen the case. Whether it is ever proved, the story brought home the cruelty of war and galvanized many into action.

When the war was over and the Derwent sculpture, named Canada‘s Golgotha, was exhibited, Germany objected and Canada, ever anxious to placate, pulled the sculpture from the exhibit and warehoused it for more than 60 years. Last fall, it was on display at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

The government that commissioned the official inquiry certainly knew the public did not want to be reminded of the hellish conditions their loved ones had fought in. They knew the public did not want its vision of the valour and heroism of war to be broken. The public didn‘t want to believe that men could act like this in war. But men do act like this, or there would never be atrocities.

Iain Overton is a freelance writer living in London.
 
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JRMACDONALD

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Interesting subject! But isn‘t this in the realm of substantuating tales of Cdn units experiencing mutinies in wartime, shooting of commanders by own troops, or shooting of POW"on the way to the rear"? nothing ever mentioned offically, but you can ,almost always, hear a tale of it!!
 

Art Johnson

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Didn‘t happen. Harry Brand was Sergeant of 9 platoon, #3 Company 15th Bn., 48th Highlanders. He was posted as missing in action in the Second Official Casualty List issued in 1915. His body was never recovered and he is remembered by a plaque on the Menin Gate. The bit about Canadians shooting German prisoners at that time is a bunch of crap too. They were too busy trying to stay alive and save thier comrades.
 
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Terry Warner

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The cruxified Canadian soldier was propaganda pure and simple. However it was so widely believed that a statue was created "Canadian Golgotha" which is embarrassingly part of the War Museum collection. If you ask the War Museum they will give the unvarnished truth about the incident and the statue.

(And you thought urban legends only existed on e-mail?)

Terry
 

bossi

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Here‘s another reply in the form of a letter to the editor, from today‘s National Post:

Calvary charge
Re: Nurse‘s Note Lends Credence to Story of Crucified Soldier, April 14. Iain Overton‘s piece misses the important questions that merit examination when we revisit the story of the "Crucified Canadian." Whether Sergeant Harry Band died from crucifixion or other means is not important. Millions died from 1914-1918 in countless ways. However, as Mr. Overton relates, the story of a wartime crucifixion spread quickly in 1915 and resonates today. In the face of death and horror, the crucifixion of a soldier, whether fact, propaganda or trench myth, would have been a powerful image. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell explores the important role of myth and superstition among solders in WWI and cites the "Crucified Canadian" as an example. He reports how soldiers in northern France and Belgium were constantly reminded of the crucifixion by the calvaries at many rural crossroads. He also describes how the story of the "crucified Canadian" repeated itself in different variations during the war and that American troops in late WWII had a story of the "Crucified American." Sgt. Band‘s family can pursue how he died. Our efforts might be better applied to understanding how soldiers reach for well-known images to try to explain their experience in war. Finally, the Regiment‘s name is 48th Highlanders of Canada, not the 48th Canadian Highlanders. B.R. Carbert, Calgary.
 

Art Johnson

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Mr. B.R. Carbert‘s letter in the National Post remarks about the name of the regiment being the 48th Highlanders of Canada is in error for the time period under discussion. In 1891 the Department of Militia gave the committee who formed the regiment the Militia number 48. In July of that year a delegate returning from a meeting in Ottawa mentioned the name 48th Highlanders while reporting to the committee. When the Order in Council was publish in the Canada Gazzet later in the year the official designation was 48th Regiment (Highlanders). It was not till the 1930s that the designation was changed to 48th Highlanders of Canada. It was not unusual for higher formations in the British Army to refer to the 48th as 48th Canadian Highlanders.
 

bossi

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Art is correct (as usual), however he has the advantage of being a couple of years older and wiser than the rest of us (chuckle).

Good point, Art - thanks from all us youngsters!

Dileas Gu Brath,
Mark
 
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