After the First Battle of the Marne in 1914 the German Army withdrew to form a strong defensive line. In the sector south of the Ypres Salient and north of the Somme, in the ancient province of Artois, there are two massifs, located between the industrial cities of Arras and Lens in the Douai region. Using modern names, these were the Colline de Notre Dame de Lorette (Hill 165 on military maps) and Vimy Ridge. The French High Command placed a top priority on dislodging the Germans from these two bastions, and between September 1914 and October 1915 they mounted three assaults on Notre Dame de Lorette and two against Vimy Ridge. They captured the top of Notre Dame de Lorette but Vimy Ridge remained in German hands until taken by Canadian forces in April 1917 (more about this in a future post). These attacks cost the French about as many men as the battle of Verdun in 1916, but the success at Notre Dame de Lorette was the greatest achievement of French arms in 1915.
The hill of Notre Dame de Lorette derives its name from a tiny Marian Shrine erected in gratitude in the eighteenth century by a local artist who was cured of lameness at the ‘Holy House’ in Loreto, Italy. His shrine was destroyed in the Revolutionary period, rebuilt thenreplaced with a larger building in the 1880’s,
which was in turn obliterated in the 1915 fighting. A new structure was raised after the war and it was designated a basilica by Pope Pius XI in 1927. As such it is one of the smallest basilicas in the world (St. Peter’s in Rome being the largest).
There is also a cemetery on the heights, which has the largest number of individual burials in any French military cemetery worldwide, slightly more than the cemetery at Douaumont in the Verdun sector, and eight ossuaries containing the remains of around 20,000 unknown dead (Douaumont Ossuary has 130,000).
The French have a different way of commemorating their missing than the Brits or Americans. At certain sites there are ‘lantern towers’ which have at the top a revolving light which symbolizes a beacon to guide the spirits of the lost to the site. The tower at Notre Dame de Lorette is about 170 feet tall and the ‘light for the dead’ can be seen as far away as 45 miles.
In the base of the tower there is a chapel of repose, with 32 individual burials, including the unknown soldiers from World War 2, Indochina and Algeria. The unknown from WW1 is buried under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Also nearby is the brand-new Ring of Remembrance, a modernistic concrete circle about 1,000 feet in circumference which bears on the inside surface stainless steel panels which list the names of 579,606 persons of all nationalities and combatant sides who are considered by their governments to have died in Northern France in WW1. This awesome structure was dedicated on November 11th, 2014 with David Cameron, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel in attendance.