Restoring the Vimy Cross
As the 100th anniversary of Canada’s victory at Vimy Ridge approaches, the Seaforth Highlanders regiment is doing its bit to preserve a rare memorial cross that was first erected on the site of its bloody battle to take the high ground.
The wooden cross is three-metres high and was put up as a memorial on the Ersatz Crater where 206 Seaforths were killed, wounded or went missing on April 9, 1917.
For years the cross was little seen at Seaforth headquarters on Burrard Street in Vancouver, a forgotten relic from a forgotten time, worn out, rickety and tucked away in a closet.
But, in recent years, people like museum director Rod Hoffmeister — son of Second World War Major-Gen. Bert Hoffmeister — have realized the cross is one of the most valuable artifacts the regiment possesses.
“For years it was kind of ignored around the armoury. We never appreciated it for what it was — a significant artifact in our regimental history,” he said.
It has been restored to full fettle by a Surrey firm that specializes in art conservation, and was presented to the Seaforths in a ceremony at their parade ground Thursday.
“The cross is back in its real place. It’s where it should have been all along,” said Hoffmeister.
Vimy Ridge was the first time that a four-division body of Canadian troops fought together on the Western Front in the First World War; the action was part of a larger Allied offensive. It was a huge victory following a bloody stalemate.
“In those few minutes,” said Canadian Brigadier-Gen. A.E. Ross of Vimy, “I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
In the four-day struggle, 3,598 Canadians died and another 7,004 were wounded, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Casualties were horrific among the 262 Seaforths who charged the hill. Afterwards, the survivors of several Canadian formations put together memorial crosses to mark the occasion and remember their comrades. Material was cobbled together from ammunition crates, bits of wood and even a French newspaper.
Names of the fallen were inscribed in black and for several years the cross served as a sentinel on the fields of northern France. The Seaforths’ is one of the few such Canadian crosses to have survived.
Surrey art conservator Sarah Spafford-Ricci, who spent five months making sure the paint and boards will last for a long time, said it was probably the most important artifact she’s ever worked on.
“We were overwhelmed by what it represents, and it’s 100 years later,” she said. “It’s so sad. A lot of these men were probably boys 19 years old — the same age as my son. It’s not just pieces of wood. Nothing has ever been so sentimental, historical and important.”
The aim was to preserve history, not add lustre.
“The Seaforths did not want the cross to look new,” she said.
The process involved consolidating the white paint so it won’t vanish, replacing busted nails and bolstering the structure internally.
“We made it stronger and straighter. It’s definitely more healthy because we removed some mould and dead insects,” she said.
Through a technique called raking — shining light from the side — she discovered that some of the names of the deceased were covered over when a coat of white paint was added over the original varnish in the 1920s.
One mystery presented itself when three bullet holes were discovered on the base and the shells found lodged in the wood. Inspection showed it to be .22-calibre ammunition, nothing like the type that was used in northern France. The experts’ best guess is that vandals took pot shots when the cross was on display for a time at the Mountain View cemetery.
The bullets were left inside, because she said, they too are part of the cross’s history.