This Remembrance Day we’re all creating new traditions to make sure we can pay our respects safely. During operations in Afghanistan, REME personnel innovated a meaningful way of honour those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice: creating what has become known as a Vigil Cross.

Close-up of a gold cross standing in a glass cabinet. The walls of the cabinet are dark blue and have a painting and poster on them.

A Vigil Cross, on display in the Museum’s Remembrance Gallery.

From Op Herrick 4 in mid-2006, crosses were constructed to adorn the tops of temporary memorials, made in the memory of the fallen. Crafted from spent ammunition shells, it became customary to present these crosses to families of the deceased. They show the skill of the REME Metalsmiths who made them and the Corps’ commitment to remembering those it has lost.

The difficult task of constructing a vigil cross fell to the Master Welders in the Theatre Equipment Support Battalion. Each cross took around 24 hours to produce. Work would be started immediately after the sombre telephone call, reporting that a soldier had been killed in action. Metalsmiths remember working through the night to finish. The process has been described as follows:

‘After taking delivery of the 105mm cartridge and 30mm shells, the first task is to ensure that the shells are of a standard that can be used for the construction of the cross. Many will be inspected and fail due to dents and scratches that cannot be polished out. Prior to machining and fabrication, the shells will be pre buffed to ease in the final polishing. One shell may take in excess of 40 minutes to get to a workable standard; no mean feat considering there are 6 shells that make up each cross.

‘The fabrication starts by machining the 105mm shell to the correct height and an internal hole bored to accept the spine of the cross. The painstaking task of hand filing 2 of the 30mm shells then starts, which form the cross members, to ensure that they produce a seamless fit in the middle of the cross. The remaining 3 x 30mm shells are drilled and tapped to form the spine.

‘Once the preparation of the individual shells is complete, the complex task of assembly begins. Laid in a jig, the 5 x 30mm shells take the shape of the cross for the first time. Using silver soldering techniques the centre of the cross is joined together. This process takes considerable skill on the part of the Master Welder; too much solder could result in hours of filing to remove the excess, too little and the cross will break.

‘The final polish on the buffing wheel gives the cross its shine. Great care is taken at this point; one slip can result in the cross being dragged into the buffing wheel and ruined. Final adjustments are made to ensure the cross sits straight and true, ready to receive the regimental insignia and cap badge. Given the vast array of shapes and sizes there is no set format and a certain amount of artistic licence is needed to create the best effect.

‘Once the mounting plate is set the final hand polishing begins. After hours with a rag and small circles, a task soldiers will be all too familiar with, the scratches begin to disappear.’

Once finished a unit representative, normally the Quartermaster or Regimental Sergeant Major, was invited to inspect the Vigil Cross. If deemed suitable, the cross would be placed in a carriage box for transport, inscribed with the fallen soldier’s name, rank and service number. May of the crosses would travel through the then RAF Lyneham, now MOD Lyneham; repatriated with the fallen.

Painting of a man in a blue jumpsuit wearing goggles and gloves, holding a blowtorch and another tool in a workshop. Part of a gold cross is in a clamp and other gold crosses are on the table in front of him.

This oil on canvas painting by war artist Graham Lothian shows a Metalsmith constructing Vigil Crosses. A:2011.5309. © Graham Lothian.

Close-up of a man in goggles and facemask holding a blowtorch and another tool over a gold cross in a clamp.

Image first published in a May 2013 issue of The Craftsman, showing the process of making a Vigil Cross. E:15.0569. © Unknown.

A wooden cross shape with metal parts inside and clamps to hold materials in.

A jig, used to assemble Vigil Crosses in Afghanistan, now in the Museum’s collection.

Initially the crosses bore no insignia but later some had cap badges cloth from berets added, dependent on the wishes of the unit the soldier came from. Others were decorated with belts, fixed around the base, or unit patches. Each Vigil Cross was unique and none were pre-made.

Staff Sergeant Andrew Hawes, who was Master Welder on Op Herrick 16, explains the intention behind creating these moving memorials:

‘All that the Theatre Equipment Support Battalion Metalsmiths Section can hope for is that in some small way, the receiving of a Vigil Cross can help the family through these difficult times.  We take great pride and always will do, in producing a Vigil Cross to the highest of standards.  It is our way of saying thank you to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.’

Hundreds of Vigil Crosses were made for some of the 362 British Army fatalities that occurred in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2015, including the eight REME personnel who were killed in action. 

Close-up of six gold crosses standing in a line inside a workshop.

Vigil Crosses for six soldiers from 3 Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment and The 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment who lost their lives in March 2012. © Unknown.

The Museum’s Vigil Cross, on display in our Remembrance gallery, was not made for a soldier. It was made by 4 Battalion REME during Op Herrick 18 (2013) and shipped back to the UK.

A gold cross with the REME logo and Belgian flag at the intersection. Paintings on museum walls in the background.

The Museum’s Vigil Cross is a replica of those given to the families of fallen soldiers. A:2013.5788.

Three soldiers in camouflage uniform. Two on the right hold between them a large gold cross. All look at camera. In the background is a wall of military medals

The Cross was presented to the Museum when we were located in Arborfield, near Reading. The display in the background is the Museum’s old Medal Room. E:15.0569. © Unknown.