This month will see the 101st anniversary of a wartime atrocity that shook the world and came to represent the overarching evil of German aggression and brutality in the First World War.
And although consigned to the realms of myth during and after the war, and dismissed by the German Government as an example of ‘black propaganda’, the story of The Crucified Soldier has a very local connection.
On May 12 1915, The Times printed a story, attributed to its Paris correspondent, entitled “Torture of a Canadian Officer”. According to the article, Canadian soldiers wounded at the second battle of Ypres had told how one of their officers had been crucified to a wall “by bayonets thrust through his hands and feet” before having another bayonet driven through his throat and, finally, “riddled with bullets”.
It was taken seriously enough for questions to be asked in Parliament although initial inquiries turned up no information to substantiate the story.
On May 15, the newspaper followed up the article by publishing a letter from a member of the army, according to which the crucified soldier was sergeant, who had been found transfixed with bayonets to the wooden fence of a farm building.
Although no material evidence could be found, inevitably rumour took over and the story gained currency among the ranks, with several variations being told and embroidered along the way. It was also seized upon and used by the allies for propaganda purposes throughout the conflict - every time the story was resurrected it provoked outrage and galvanised public opinion.
In 1919 the Canadian war memorials exhibition opened at London’s Royal Academy which displayed a wide range of work illustrating the contribution of Canada’s forces in the front lines.
Among the exhibits was a three feet high bronze sculpture called “Canada’s Golgotha”, by British sculptor Francis Derwent Wood, which depicted the horror of the alleged events. Exhibited just before the start of the Versailles Conference, it reinforced universal calls for Germany to be made to be held accountable and made to pay for its actions.
The Germans, meanwhile, challenged the Canadian and British Governments to prove once and for all that such an incident had actually happened.
An investigation was launched but after a year only a few reported eye-witnesses could be found who supplied at best inconclusive and at worst inaccurate accounts. By the end of the inquiry there was still no firm evidence found.
It was British researcher Iain Overton who, decades later, established that the murder did seem to have taken place and named The Crucified Soldier as Harry Band, originally from Montrose and a Sergeant of the 48th Highlanders of Canada.
Band was born on August 12, 1885 in 46 Castle Street and, aged one-year-old, moved to 31 Dura Street, Dundee, where he lived until sailing on March 9, 1911 to Nova Scotia. He enlisted in the army in 1914.
The evidence was discovered among the papers of Ursula Chaloner, a British nurse who had been tasked with finding out what had happened to soldiers reported as missing in action after the Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Her notes included a statement by a Lance Corporal Clement Brown who told her that Sergeant Band, who had been declared missing on April 24, was “crucified after a battle of Ypres on one of the doors of a barn with five bayonets in him.” The account tallied with dates the three most reliable witnesses had given the inquiry and Lance Corporal Brown’s assertion that it was Sergeant Band may have been corroborated by correspondence held by his family.
A member of Band’s unit wrote to his sister, Elizabeth Petrie, to express his condolences but, convinced there was more to discover, Mrs Petrie wrote back asking for more detail. It was finally confirmed, in letters from two members of Sergeant Band’s platoon, that her brother had been ‘The crucified soldier’.
Although the evidence could still be considered sketchy, it is generally agreed that such an incident does seem to have happened. What is undoubtedly true is that, regardless of circumstances, Sergeant Harry Band made the ultimate sacrifice. His body was never recovered, and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres.