Have you seen Paul Gross' movie Passchendaele? Well, if you have, you're familiar with the scene where a shell lands on David, the young man from Alberta, and throws him up onto a cross of duckboards, essentially crucifying him.
Paul Gross didn't make this story up. During the Great War, there was a rampant rumour that German soldiers had purposely crucified a Canadian soldier to a barn door. After the war it was a major controversy, and it all started with a sculpture done by Captain F. Derwent Wood for the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition.
The German authorities heard about the sculpture and the exhibition. They said that the Canadian government didn't have enough proof to confirm the event and categorically denied that it happened. The German government told the Canadian government to take the sculpture out of the exhibition, which they did. But, Sir A. Edward Kemp, Minister of Overseas Military Forces of Canada, wanted to prove whether or not it happened. Spoiler: he was convinced from the start that the allegations were true. General Sir Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps was furious because he had already investigated and could not “obtain the slightest evidence to lead him to the belief that such an incident had occurred.”
Despite Currie’s opinion, Kemp launched an investigation. His department ran articles in newspapers in Canada and Great Britain asking for witnesses to come forward. Responses soon poured into the department. Some were from civilians who had heard about the event from someone, but the majority came from former soldiers who believed they had seen a Canadian crucified in Belgium.
For example, Corporal W.H. Metcalfe, VC, MM swore that he was heading down the St. Jeanne Road on April 23, 1915 when he saw a “soldier pinned to a barn door with bayonets” through each wrist and ankles. Despite the fact that the department received dozens of letters and statements, no two was the same. Lieutenant George Carvell of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry believed the event happened on April 25 near Polygon Wood and Private George Barrie thought the crucifixion took place on April 24 and happened near to St. Julien.
Amidst the confusion and terror of the Great War, it is understandable that some details may be unclear; however, there was very little consensus about any of the aspects of the alleged event. That didn’t matter to Kemp, who said in the House of Commons that there could be no doubt that “the Germans were guilty of this atrocity.”
Several more testimonies rolled in, each as different as the one before it, but nothing convinced the government. They were forced to back down from Kemp’s position and accept the fact that they could not prove if anything had happened.
But what happened to that sculpture? Eventually, the Canadian War Museum acquired it and it is currently on display at in the First World War Gallery with a panel that reads
During the Second Battle of Ypres, rumours circulated that a Canadian soldier had been crucified on a Belgian barn door, a story the Germans denounced as propaganda. Whether truth or fiction, Canada’s Golgotha illustrates the intensity of wartime myths and imagery. The crucifixion remains unproven.
Did it happen? Likely not. But the story certainly adds to the list of wartime fears and the ardent fear of what the Germans were doing overseas.
Thomas Littlewood is finishing his MA in Public History at the University of Western Ontario. Thomas has been a guide at the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site in France and at the Parliament of Canada. His research interests focus on war, memory, and public commemoration, as well as how history can be made accessible to the general public.