The towering stone monument has stood for 86 years in downtown Fredericton, with names added over the decades to honour the dead of Canada's wars.
But only days before Remembrance Day, when crowds typically gather around the cenotaph, vandals toppled part of the monument. They vanished into the night late Sunday or early yesterday, leaving behind shattered pieces of granite and a profound sense of unease.
"I almost fell to my knees and I said, 'What went wrong?' " said Jean-Guy Perreault, president of the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. "I was devastated. I don't see the motive. I don't know the motive. It's really hard to explain. What is the cause of that? What are they trying to prove?"
Mr. Perreault found the damage as he arrived yesterday morning to plan for tomorrow's Remembrance Day ceremony. A three-metre-high stone cross that makes up part of the monument had been knocked over in spite of steel reinforcement designed to keep it upright.
"It's not only one person," he said. "It's a big heavy, heavy, heavy cross. I mean, it's humongous."
The damage, under investigation by the Fredericton police, follows other high-profile cases of war-memorial desecration.
In one of the most notorious incidents, nationwide outrage was sparked by a photograph of a young man in Ottawa urinating on the capital's cenotaph in 2006. Two teenagers and Montrealer Stephen Fernandes apologized and were ordered to perform community service.
Also in 2006, a Winnipeg man received a 60-day sentence for relieving himself on a Naval League monument at Memorial Park in Sudbury, Ont. Police said Shawn Morris put his beer bottle on the monument while urinating and attempted to flee when spotted by officers.
Veterans have called for strict punishment of anyone defiling or damaging a war memorial.
"There's a few young people out there who get their kicks by desecrating things," Legion spokesman Bob Butt said yesterday. "You can't look beyond it. You need to find these people and punish them to the fullest of the law."
An organizer with the Fredericton Peace Coalition denounced the damage but said the outrage is misplaced.
"Although what happened is, of course, tragic, the real tragedy is the endless war that a majority of Canadians oppose and has killed tens of thousands of Afghans and over 100 Canadian soldiers," Alex Corey said in an e-mailed statement.
In Fredericton, Mr. Perreault said people will gather as usual at the cenotaph tomorrow to honour Canada's war dead. Then the Legion will consider how to repair the damaged cross. It is not known how much it will cost to restore the monument - built in the 1920s for $20,000 - to its original condition.
Mr. Perreault urged the vandals to give themselves up.
"As long as I live I will never forget them," he said. "You can't let that go, if you let that go it'll be something else. They have to be punished severely. You cannot touch a memorial or a cemetery."