A celebrated wooden cross, which miraculously survived a raging inferno during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, has been stolen from the battlefield. Fears were expressed yesterday that the 400-year-old cross, about 6ft high and 6ft wide, might have been stolen for a wealthy collector obsessed by Waterloo or Napoleon.
The battlefield curator and a retired British general appealed for the return of the "irreplaceable" but "unsaleable" historic object. Interpol has circulated photographs of the oak crucifix to antique dealers all over the world.
The Hougoumont Cross was wrenched from a locked commemorative chapel on the battlefield site, south of Brussels, some time in the past two weeks. It originally stood in the chapel of the château at Hougoumont which was burned during fighting between French soldiers and the Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards on 18 June 1815.
Apart from the feet of the statue of Christ which were severely charred, the crucifix inexplicably survived the flames. The cross, described in Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, has become one of the most emblematic mementoes of Waterloo. Its disappearance has outraged the battlefield's curator and historians.
"We know that the cross must have been seriously damaged by these wicked people," the battlefield's curator, Yves Van der Cruysen, said. "We found large splinters of wood which must have come from the figure of Christ itself."
To break into the alarmed chapel, the thieves dismantled stonework around the door and removed the bolt. They then restored the lock and masonry, disguising the theft for several days. At about the same time, a commemorative stone to the Allied troops at Quatre-Bras farm, in another part of the battlefield, was also stolen.
"The cross has no particular value, except infinite value as a memorial of the battle," Mr Van der Cruysen said. "To sell such a well-known artefact would be impossible. This is not the work of art thieves but of vandals – people who just want to draw attention to themselves."
Belgian police have alerted Interpol in case an attempt is made to smuggle the huge cross – which weighs 200kg (31st) – to another country. Major-General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter, the chairman of Waterloo 200, an Anglo-Belgian group planning bicentenary commemorations in 2015, said yesterday that he suspected that the cross had fallen victim to a "targeted theft".
"Enormous trouble was taken by these people," he said. "The cross is unsaleable publicly but there are some very strange people out there, who are obsessed with the battle of Waterloo. I fear that the cross may have been stolen on the orders of some very rich person who fancied having it in his own possession." If so, General Webb-Carter said, the "chances of ever seeing the cross again are very slender indeed".
The fighting around Hougoumont was "an iconic battle within an iconic battle", General Webb-Carter said.
The Duke of Wellington said that his "near-run" success had hinged on the defence of Hougoumont by the three British Guards regiments. If they had failed, he said, the French army could have outflanked his position.
"The cross has come to symbolise a site which is, to many people, the most memorable part of the whole battle. Its loss would be an enormous blow," General Webb-Carter said.Reuse content