From 1918 on, Wood was professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art and one of his commissions was to model the wreaths for Sir Edwin Lutyens' Centotaph. Lord Beaverbrook decided to document Canada's huge contribution to WW1 by commissioning 116 English and Canadian artists to produce 800 art objects. One of 116 artists was Francis Dervent Wood.
This post is going to concentrate on Canada's Golgotha, a half life-size bronze sculpture by Wood that depicted a crucified WW1 soldier. It illustrated the story of an unknown man from the Battle of Ypres in April 1915. We know only that he was a Canadian (from the maple leaf insignias) and that he was surrounded by jeering Germans as he died on the makeshift cross. You can see the tatty barn door in the background. Appropriately for a war casualty, this young man had baynets in each wrist and ankle, not nails. And he was in heavy army clothing: a great coat and boots, rather than a mere loin cloth.
The sculpture was first displayed in an exhibition for the Canadian War Memorials Fund 1919, at Burlington House in London. But the sculpture was withdrawn from the exhibit after protest. The Allies were disgusted at German barbarity and they were particularly horrified that a Christian symbol be used to kill a young Canadian soldier. The Germans, on the other hand, were outraged that an atrocity story could be publicised without any evidence of it having been historically accurate. They assumed it was more Allied propaganda.
But why was the sculpture, controversial though it might have been in 1919, hidden away for the rest of the century? Whose interests were being served?
Wood, Canadian Golgotha, 1919, 83 cm high x 64 cm wide
After the end of the war, the Germans formally requested the Canadian government provide proof of a crucifixion. But there were two insurmountable problems: the written eyewitness accounts were unclear and contradictory, and no crucified body was ever found.
BEST FREE DOCUMENTARIES described new historical evidence which identified the crucified soldier as Sergeant Harry Band. He was from the Central Ontario Regiment of the Canadian Infantry. Based on letters from other soldiers in Band’s unit to Band's sister Elizabeth Petrie, and her letters back, the family in Canada eventually discovered that the horror stories about a crucified Canadian soldier were true. Like other soldiers without a proper grave, Band was commemorated only on the Menin Gate memorial.
It is interesting to me that when the sculpture was displayed in 2000 at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation, it again provoked controversy. People are still very angry about German atrocities, assuming that crucifixion of the old Canadia soldier was the most barbaric of all atrocities. I, a non-Christian, personally think the massacre of thousands of French and Canadian soldiers in Belgium by poisonous gas to be far more barbaric. But I might be missing the critical symbolism here. In any case, note the name of the 2000 exhibition: "Under the Sign of the Cross: Creative Expressions of Christianity in Canada".
In 1921 the entire War Memorials Collection was donated to the National Gallery in Ottawa, but the Gallery was not in a hurry to display any of these precious art objects. Particularly Canada's Golgotha.
Canadian War Museum, Ottawa