Crucified Soldiers

During the retreat from Le Cateau in August 1914, rumours began circulating that the German Army had crucified members of the British Expeditionary Force. However, these accounts were never confirmed by witnesses and the British public tended to concentrate on other stories about German atrocities.

On 10th May, 1915, The Times reported: "Last week a large number of Canadian soldiers wounded in the fighting round Ypres arrived at the base hospital at Versailles. They all told the story of how one of their officers had been crucified by the Germans. He had been pinned to a wall by bayonets thrust through his hands and feet, another bayonet had then been driven through his throat, and, finally, he was riddled with bullets. The wounded Canadians said that the Dublin Fusiliers had seen this done with their own eyes, and that they had heard the officers of the Dublin Fusiliers talking about it."

The following day The Toronto Star published an interview with C. J. Clayton, who was serving with the British Red Cross. He told the story of how Captain R. A. Allen of the 5th Canadian Battalion had told him before he died of his wounds that he had witnessed the crucifixion of a Canadian sergeant by the German Army in France: "Allen went on to declare that he and a medical officer, major, and others all signed a sworn statement attesting the truth of a detailed record of the crucifixion. A Canadian sergeant was tied up by the arms and legs to a tree and pierced sixty times by German bayonets."

The Morning Post also reported this story: "Wounded Canadians here are all certain that the enemy is particularly vindictive towards them, as the Germans have been furious that the Canadians did not stay in Canada instead of coming over to help England. The Canadians are all firmly of the belief that a Canadian soldier was crucified. They assert they heard it from officers in the Dublin Fusiliers who actually came across the body nailed to a door with hands and feet pierced with bayonets. The body was riddled with bullets."

Dalton Trumbo read about the crucified Canadian soldier in newspapers in Los Angeles: "The Los Angeles newspapers carried a story of two young Canadian soldiers who had been crucified by the Germans in full view of their comrades across No Man's Land. That made the Germans nothing better than animals, and naturally you got interested and wanted Germany to get the tar kicked out of her."

The Times returned to the story on 15th May, where it identified the crucifixion taking place in Ypres in April, 1915: "The story.... of the crucifixion of a Canadian officer during the fighting at Ypres on April 22-23 is in substance true. The story was current here at the time, but, in the absence of direct evidence and absolute proof, men were unwilling to believe that a civilized foe could be guilty of an act so cruel and savage. Now, I have reason to believe, written depositions testifying to the fact of the discovery of the body are in possession of the British Headquarter Staff. The unfortunate victim was a sergeant. As the story was told to me, he was found transfixed to the wooden fence of a farm building. Bayonets were thrust through the palms of his hands and feet, pinning him to the fence. He had been repeatedly stabbed with bayonets, and there were many punctured wounds in his body."

Despite these reports the story was never verified by an official source. Brigadier-General John Charteris, the Chief Intelligence Officer at GHQ, later wrote about how the story originated: "The story... began in a report sent by a sergeant that he had seen Germans sitting round a lighted fire, and what looked like a crucified man. He worked his way closer to them, and found that it was only shadows cast by some crossed sticks on other objects. The report was transmitted back without this explanation." It is now believed that the story of the crucified Canadian soldier was part of Charteris's black propaganda campaign that also included the Angel of Mons, the German Corpse Factory and Belgian Civilian Atrocities stories.

Paul Fussell argued in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975): "Another well-known rumor imputing unique vileness to the Germans is that of the Crucified Canadian. The usual version relates that the Germans captured a Canadian soldier and in full view of his mates exhibited him in the open spread-eagled on a cross, his hands and feet pierced by bayonets. He is said to have died slowly. Maple Copse, near Sanctuary Wood in the Ypres sector, was the favorite setting... The Crucified Canadian is an especially interesting fiction both because of its original context in the insistent visual realities of the front and because of its special symbolic suggestiveness. The image of crucifixion was always accessible at the front because of the numerous real physical calvaries visible at French and Belgian crossroads, many of them named Crucifix Corner."

Primary Sources

(1) John Charteris, At GHQ (1931)

The story... began in a report sent by a sergeant that he had seen Germans sitting round a lighted fire, and what looked like a crucified man. He worked his way closer to them, and found that it was only shadows cast by some crossed sticks on other objects. The report was transmitted back without this explanation.

(2) The Times (10th May, 1915)

Last week a large number of Canadian soldiers wounded in the fighting round Ypres arrived at the base hospital at Versailles. They all told the story of how one of their officers had been crucified by the Germans. He had been pinned to a wall by bayonets thrust through his hands and feet, another bayonet had then been driven through his throat, and, finally, he was riddled with bullets. The wounded Canadians said that the Dublin Fusiliers had seen this done with their own eyes, and that they had heard the officers of the Dublin Fusiliers talking about it.

(3) Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (1939)

The Los Angeles newspapers carried a story of two young Canadian soldiers who had been crucified by the Germans in full view of their comrades across No Man's Land. That made the Germans nothing better than animals, and naturally you got interested and wanted Germany to get the tar kicked out of her.

(4) The Times (15th May, 1915)

The story.... of the crucifixion of a Canadian officer during the fighting at Ypres on April 22-23 is in substance true. The story was current here at the time, but, in the absence of direct evidence and absolute proof, men were unwilling to believe that a civilized foe could be guilty of an act so cruel and savage. Now, I have reason to believe, written depositions testifying to the fact of the discovery of the body are in possession of the British Headquarter Staff.

The unfortunate victim was a sergeant. As the story was told to me, he was found transfixed to the wooden fence of a farm building. Bayonets were thrust through the palms of his hands and feet, pinning him to the fence. He had been repeatedly stabbed with bayonets, and there were many punctured wounds in his body.

I have not heard that any of our men actually saw the crime committed. There is room for the supposition that the man was dead before he was pinned to the fence, and that the enemy in his insensate rage and hate of the English wreaked his vengeance on the lifeless body of his foe. That is the most charitable complexion that can be put upon the deed, ghastly as it is.

There is not a man in the ranks of the Canadians who fought at Ypres who is not firmly convinced that this vile thing has been done. They know, too, that the enemy bayoneted their wounded and helpless comrades in the trenches.

(5) Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975)

Another well-known rumor imputing unique vileness to the Germans is that of the Crucified Canadian. The usual version relates that the Germans captured a Canadian soldier and in full view of his mates exhibited him in the open spread-eagled on a cross, his hands and feet pierced by bayonets. He is said to have died slowly. Maple Copse, near Sanctuary Wood in the Ypres sector, was the favorite setting... The Crucified Canadian is an especially interesting fiction both because of its original context in the insistent visual realities of the front and because of its special symbolic suggestiveness. The image of crucifixion was always accessible at the front because of the numerous real physical calvaries visible at French and Belgian crossroads, many of them named Crucifix Corner.