Notre-Dame de Lorette National Cemetery
Source : MINDEF/SGA/DMPA-ONACVG
Located in the commune of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, this national cemetery contains the remains of French soldiers killed in the battles of Artois and Flanders during the First World War. In 1919, the site was chosen as the symbolic resting place for all those who died for France in this sector. The small cemetery created in 1915 was then enlarged in 1920, receiving the bodies of French soldiers from over 150 cemeteries along the fronts of Artois and Yser.
Spanning an area of 25 hectares, the cemetery is home to more than 40 000 bodies, the first half of them buried in individual graves, the other half divided between seven ossuaries. It is the largest national military cemetery in France. A small number of foreign soldiers – Belgian, Romanian and Russian – are also laid to rest here. Later, the bodies of French soldiers killed in the Second World War were buried here. Among the graves is that of a father and son killed in battle in 1915 and 1918. There are also six graves containing a father killed in the First World War and a son killed in the Second.
The battles of Artois
Following the Allied advance on the Marne in early September 1914, British and French troops were unable to drive the enemy back to the borders. In a last-ditch attempt, each of the belligerents sought to catch the other off guard. But without success, so that in late October, the front became dug in as far as the North Sea coast. So began a conflict in the trenches that was to last four years, until the Allied victory in November 1918.
After briefly occupying the town of Arras, the Germans installed themselves on the ridges that dominate this mining area. During the winter of 1915, the French launched a number of attacks against these solidly fortified positions. In the spring, Joffre planned a major operation to break through enemy lines.
Equipped with 1 000 heavy guns, General d’Urbal’s 10th Army attacked over a ten-kilometre front, between Lens and Arras. After an artillery bombardment lasting several hours, the offensive was launched on 9 May 1915. At ten o’clock, the infantry advanced. At the centre of the formation, the 33rd Army Corps made rapid progress. Within a few hours, the Algerian tirailleurs and the Legionnaires of the Moroccan Division had reached Hill 119, on Vimy Ridge. The breakthrough was successful, but it could not be exploited, as German reinforcements quickly closed the gap.
On 10 May, at Carency, Neuville-Saint-Vaast (“The Labyrinth”), La Targette and Ablain-Saint-Nazaire – where the artist Georges Braque, co-inventor of cubism with Picasso, was seriously wounded – the fighting continued. In these villages in ruins, every cellar became a stronghold that had to be cleared one after the other. During this hand-to-hand fighting, the French suffered major losses. That day, General Barbot, commander of the 77th Chasseurs Division, was killed by shellfire. Due to a lack of tangible results, the offensive was called off in June. From 9 May to 25 June 1915, 102 500 French soldiers were killed, wounded, went missing or were taken prisoner, to take 20 km².
In summer 1915, the artillery of each camp was unleashed. On 25 September, Joffre resumed operations, supported by the British First Army. In March 1916, to relieve the threatened French troops at Verdun, the British replaced the 10th Army. On 9 April 1917, the Canadians took Vimy Ridge. On 3 October 1918, the ruins of Lens were liberated by the British.
The fighting on the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette
Called “Hill 165” by the French command, Notre Dame de Lorette, a pilgrimage site before the war, rapidly became known as the “bloody hill”. This strategic site was captured by the Bavarians in October 1914. During the winter of 1914-15, it was partly occupied by the 21st Army Corps, but the French made no headway before the enemy positions, organised into five successive lines of trenches bristling with obstacles. Yet the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette was one of the key objectives of the spring offensive in Artois. On 9 May, three infantry regiments and three battalions of chasseurs mounted an assault. After fierce fighting resulting in heavy losses, the French occupied the ruins of the chapel and the summit of the ridge. Despite this success, they were unable to reach the plain of Lens, and came under fire from German batteries in Angres and Liévin.
Like so many others, the writer and soldier Henri Barbusse saw action here. In his 1916 Prix Goncourt award-winning novel Le Feu (English title: Under Fire), Barbusse tells of his experience and what everyday life was like on the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette. In his war diaries, published in 1977, Corporal Louis Barthas similarly recalls the fighting and suffering endured in this sector, one of the most dangerous on the front.
The hill of Notre Dame de Lorette, iconic First World War remembrance heritage
Click here to view the cemetery’s information panel
In response to the grief of families in mourning, the Bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Julien, organised the collection of the bodies and had built on this site, with the aid of a public subscription, a major architectural complex consisting of a neo-Byzantine basilica and a 52 metre-tall lantern tower. The first stone of the basilica was laid on 19 June 1921, and it was officially opened by French prime minister Paul Painlevé on 2 August 1925. Today, the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette is one of the First World War’s most iconic sites.
Two large avenues, bordered with rows of individual graves, meet to form a vast esplanade where the ceremonies take place. On either side are the basilica and lantern tower. The cemetery is a rectangle, 646 metres long and 208 metres wide. To the northwest, the hedge bordering the national cemetery marks the furthermost point of the German advance.
Designed by Louis Cordonnier, the basilica, in the neo-Byzantine style, recalls the religious tradition of the site, which was an important pilgrimage place for local people in the 19th century. It is in fact built on the site of a former oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The new structure is organised around a basilica design, with prominent transept arms at the end of which are low chapels. It was officially opened on 2 August 1925 by prime minister Paul Painlevé. .
Inside the basilica, the stained-glass windows are the work of master glazier Charles Lorin, after designs by Henri Pinta, Prix de Rome. Six of them were donated by the British, to recall the entente between France and Great Britain, which sent a large number of soldiers to fight in Artois and Flanders. The iconography of these memorial windows gives a religious sense to the sacrifice they made. It also develops a patriotic narrative with windows dedicated to “Combatant France”, “Triumphant France” and peace, in the chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Peace. The cul-de-four vault is covered with a mosaic created by Gaudin of Paris. It depicts a Christ figure in his aureola of glory, the mandorla. On the left of the transept lies the tomb of Monseigneur Julien. Close by is a side altar topped with the mutilated calvary of the village of Carency. On the right-hand side of the transept stands the statue of Our Lady of Lorette. Another side altar, topped with a triptych of Our Lady of Czestochowa, was installed by the mining area’s Polish community.
In memory of the soldiers killed in the Great War, a large number of plaques were laid on the interior walls of the basilica, at the request of families. They bear witness to the grief of the mourners, recalling their attachment to the soldiers’ memory. At the entrance to the choir, one plaque recalls the death of the Luxembourger François Faber, winner of the 1909 Tour de France, who enlisted in the Foreign Legion in August 1914. Also preserved in the basilica is the wooden cross that marked the temporary grave of Louise de Bettignies, who, in October 1914, aged 34, played an active part in the defence of Lille, then went on to run a highly effective intelligence network for the British Army. Bettignies was arrested in October 1915 and sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted to forced labour for life. She died in captivity, in September 1918, in Cologne.
A lantern tower, reminiscent of the lanterns of the dead that used to be found in cemeteries, was also built at the centre of the cemetery by Louis Cordonnier. The first stone was laid by Marshal Pétain, on 19 June 1921. Within its foundations is an ossuary containing nearly 6 000 unidentified bodies. A chapelle ardente was installed there to accommodate 32 coffins, 29 of which held the bodies of unknown soldiers of the Great War. In 1950, an “Unknown Soldier of the Second World War” was placed in the crypt, then, in 1955, an urn containing the ashes of deportees who died in the Nazi concentration camps. Since 1977, this crypt has also contained the body of the Unknown Soldier of the Algerian War and the fighting in Morocco and Tunisia and, since 1980, that of the Unknown Soldier of the First Indochina War.
Chemin de la Chapelle 62153
Closed from 16 December to 31 January
Fermé du 16 décembre au 31 janvier
Au sud d’Arras . D 937
Ossuaires (7) . 1 crypte: 19 998