A recent post at the 18th Battalion Facebook Group pointed to a Vimeo video “The Crucified Soldier” was posted in the context that it “may be offensive and can be reported as such.” The concern, one can surmise, that the content of this video was not related to the subject matter the Facebook Group focuses on.
As it turned out, the post was viewed 121 times by the members of the group. No statistics indicate the number of members that clicked through and viewed a portion or all of the video. As it is a Channel 4 production it was available to a wide audience and the video is available at Cosmo Learning and has garnered 2,492 visits.
One of the concerns of content like this is its applicability to the 18th Battalion. As such, after transcribing the War Diaries (1915-1919) and over 200 blog posts about the 18th Battalion no mention, to this author’s knowledge, directly mentions this incident. A story generated during the 2nd Battle of Ypres told of a Canadian Sergeant, Harry Rand, who was told to have been captured by German soldiers on April 24, 1915, and was nailed to a barn door in an act of crucifixion. Further, many letters present in contemporary news clippings by members of the 18th Battalion make no mention of this incident.
This event got worldwide attention. The San Pedro News Pilot from April 17, 1918, a newspaper from Californian USA give an account a full 3-years after the initial event that relates of a different experience with similar results:
“Mr. Scovell’s[i] brother who was a captain in the Canadian army was wounded and captured hy the Germans, during the early part of the war. The Germans after much ill treatment crucified him to a barn door.”
The psychic impact of such an atrocity, real or imagined, had an impact on the social culture of the audience of such stories to the point that the story is being adapted and morphed by attribution to other soldier’s and their experiences during the war.
This story was so apocryphal that on September 11, 1918, the Californian newspaper Sacrament Daily Union reports the following:
“Sergeant I. R. Welsh of the Second Ontario Battalion and Private A. Stanley of the Eighth Battalion (Little Black Devils) of Winnipeg went overseas with the first Canadian contingent who left in September, 1914. They were in France at the beginning of 19l5 and were at Ypres when the Germans actually crucified two Canadians, whom they had taken prisoners, and it was there that Fritz first used his poison gas.”
These two news stories illustrate the psychic energy of this story. If it was being reported 3-years after the event in a foreign, albeit ally, newspaper one can imagine the strength of this myth with the men and women that faced the Germans.
It is important to note that one of the strongest propaganda themes that the British promulgated during the Great War was that of the battle for “Kultur”. This theme encompassed the differentiating values of the British Empire against that of the German Empire. One was full of Christian positive values and the other was the antithesis of these values. Numerous examples of German “Kultur” were presented as expressions of what could be expected upon a German victory. Submarine warfare, the shooting of Belgian civilians, the execution of Edith Cavell, and others examples were all presented as how German values were consistently applied towards those that were the “others” to the Germans.
It is in this backdrop that one needs to consider the impact of this story on, not only the soldiers of the CEF and other Imperial forces, but that of the wider civilian population. With a secular perspective we forget that the Great War was viewed by many as a holy war.[ii]
The power of this story must have been part of the conversation of the soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and by extension, the men of the 18th Battalion.
The theme of religion and crucifixion was so prevalent that it was used in a letter relating the death and funeral of Major Charles E. Sale. Captain Newton relates in his letter:
“He was an example of what a weak body can accomplish when blessed with a strong mind. He died for King and country. He was crucified on the iron cross of Kaiser Wilhelm II., and he gave up his life for the greatest principles which the blood of man has bought since Calvary. God bless him and may his soul rest in peace.” [emphasis mine]
This excerpt of one letter shows in strong relief the religious themes that existed as part of these men’s life force and motivation. In this case, the crucifixion of an officer is the result of his wounds leading to his death.
It can only be imagined what and how the myth of the crucified soldier presented itself throughout the life of the 18th Battalion during its front-line service from September 1915 to November 1918. The common soldier and the officers can be imagined sharing the story in dugouts in the front-line and rear area billets. The myth would be rekindled at some piece of war news or the addition of new replacements, who may be aware of the myth, but be curious in their new surroundings to ask after its veracity by asking the veterans at the Battalion about it.
Even aspects of their recreation would remind them of this event. Robert Service wrote a poem “Jean Deprez” in which the following is related:
“He laughed with joy: “Ah! here is where I settle ere I die.”
He clutched his rifle once again, and long he aimed and well. . . .
A shot! Beside his victims ten the Uhlan Captain fell.
They dragged the wounded Zouave out; their rage was like a flame.
With bayonets they pinned him down, until their Major came.
A blonde, full-blooded man he was, and arrogant of eye;
He stared to see with shattered skull his favourite Captain lie.
“Nay, do not finish him so quick, this foreign swine,” he cried;
“Go nail him to the big church door: he shall be crucified.”
With bayonets through hands and feet they nailed the Zouave there,
And there was anguish in his eyes, and horror in his stare;
“Water! A single drop!” he moaned; but how they jeered at him,
And mocked him with an empty cup, and saw his sight grow dim;
And as in agony of death with blood his lips were wet,
The Prussian Major gaily laughed, and lit a cigarette.”
The similarities of these stanzas cannot be unseen. Service’s book, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, was published in 1916 and would have seen a wide audience of not only Canadians but other peoples of the British Empire. His poem evokes similar themes of the German propensity to pursue atrocity as a matter of, not policy, but that is the way they are built – they simply know no other way.
As there is no direct evidence to date how the myth of the crucified soldier was experienced by the men of the 18th Battalion no direct observation or conclusion can be made as to its impact. Given the apparent tenacity that this myth presented in the poem by Robert Service and by two examples from the American Press it can be said that the myth of the crucified Canadian soldier was part of the popular culture for many people of the English-speaking members of the Entente. If that is the case, it must have been part of the many conversations between soldiers as the served in the Canadian Army during the Great War.
[i] There are five soldiers with the surname “Scovell” in the LAC database. None of them achieve the rank of an officer.
[ii] Morris, N. (2014). WW1 and the Myth of the Crucified Soldier. Canadian Literature of World War One Conference, Paper, 3-4.