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Webmatters : Memorial cross to the 15th Battalion CEF at Écurie : The dead

15th Bn Canadian Infantry

The dead

Map: Salvage areas, 3rd Canadian Brigade

3rd Canadian Brigade’s Salvage areas
CA 35 was created by the 13th battalion, Nine Elms by the 14th Battalion and CA 39 by the 15th Battalion

In preparation for the assault, units were assigned specific locations for the collection and burial of their dead. The majority of the 15th Battalion men who fell during the attack were buried at locations coded as CA 35 and CA 39, with 23 in the former and 39 in the latter. CA 35 was located close to the exit of the Douai Tunnel while CA 39 was located close to the main Arras Road, in what is now a small wood opposite the CWGC Nine Elms Military Cemetery.

13th Bn Order 94 of April 1917

Part of the 13th Battalion’s Order 94 showing details of the burial officer and the salvage area up near the front line

The 15th Battalion’s War Diary states that a battalion cemetery was created and the Regimental History suggests that a wooden cross was erected at CA 39. As to who created the cross, nobody knows for certain, but it is presumed that he was the battalion carpenter at that moment.

The original 15th Bn CEF Vimy Cross
The cross in the Regimental Museum

The cross is a simple affair made from wood that was to hand — basic planks — formed into a Celtic cross. A list of names was then inscribed upon it, in order of seniority.

The question then imposes, where was the cross installed ?

It might be thought that it was placed, as is suggested by the History, in the battalion cemetery at CA 39, however, this burial site was almost completely destroyed by subsequent shelling, causing the loss of most of its graves.

We now know that although CA 39 contained more 15th Battalion graves than CA 35, only the latter is referred to as a regimental cemetery containing, as it did, nothing but 15th Battalion graves.

Further confusion can be had from the fact that the Regimental History states that by the evening of the 9th April sixty bodies had been recovered for burial.

CA 39, however, only contained thirty-nine casualties from the 15th Battalion (plus seven other soldiers from other units). Three of those were killed in late April and one (Lieutenant Munro) was buried in May.

As CA 35 was further to the rear, the battalion carpenter would have been able to work in relative safety.

The fact that CA 35 and all its graves survived the war intact and the cross is unmarked by shellfire would further suggest that the only surviving photograph is of CA 35.

Following the 1918 Armistice, the twenty-three graves from CA 35 were exhumed and reburied in Plot II of Nine Elms Military Cemetery — originally created by the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment. Only three graves from CA 39 remained identifiable and these can be found in Plot IV.

Robert Lindsay visiting his great-uncle's memorial

Robert Lindsay visiting his great-uncle’s memorial headstone on the hundredth anniversary of his death

The other burials in CA 39 were lost and are now commemorated in a special memorial along the front of the cemetery. It should be noted that CA 39 was originally known as the Arras Road Cemetery ; it should not be confused with the modern Arras Road British Cemetery.

Nine Elms Military Cemetery in 1919

The 15th Battalion cross third from the left in the foreground. It was far from being a unique tribute.
NB. The caption British Cemetery is an error.

A 1919 French photographic postcard clearly shows that the 15th Battalion’s Vimy cross had been moved to Nine Elms Military Cemetery at the same time as the relocation of the graves.

Subsequently, between 1919 and 1923, the CWGC reconstructed Nine Elms Military Cemetery into the permanent pattern seen there today and all the wartime memorial crosses were removed. In 1923 the 48th Highlanders acquired the 15th Battalion’s Vimy cross and brought it home to the unit’s Armoury in Toronto. The cross was installed on the wall above the main parade square and unveiled in a ceremony on 30th October 1925.

When the Armoury was demolished in 1963, the Vimy cross was moved to the regimental museum which was located in the 48th Highlanders’ Memorial Hall. The regimental museum had to be moved again, in 1997, to its current location at St Andrew’s Church on Simcoe Street in Toronto and the Vimy cross has been on permanent display there ever since.