Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette French National Cemetery is located in the town of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire (view location) and is home to the remains of soldiers who died for France during battle in the Artois region from 1915 to 1918. It is situated on top of a 165 metre high ridge that was fought over continuously during the First World War due to the vital high ground position and its dominance over the town of Arras below. This cemetery covers an area of 25 hectares and contains over 40,000 bodies, half of which are in individual graves with the unidentified remainder distributed throughout 8 ossuaries. It is the largest national cemetery in France and contains two imposing monuments of intricate beauty: the chapel basilica and the lantern tower.

Notre Dame de Lorette French Military Cemetery

Notre Dame de Lorette French National Cemetery | La Nécropole Nationale de Notre Dame de Lorette

History

At the entrance to the cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette, the following words are carved into a rectangular stone memorial that chronicle the origin and development of this site:-

En ce lieu s’élevait la chapelle de pèlerinage à Notre-Dame de Lorette. F. Guilbert l’érigea _1727_ A. Dethilloy la rétablit _1816_ Me. Pingrenon l’agrandit _1880_ Me. Warendeuf la vit, enjeu de combats opiniâtres, réduite a néant 1915. Les larmes des femmes de France ont fait surgir la nouvelle au centre de la nécropole nationale _1923 _1927_ la garde d’honneur a voulu ériger et inaugurer ce mémorial 1965.

Notre-Dame de Lorette protégez nos foyers et nos patries.

Memorial at the Entrance to Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette | The Origins of Notre Dame de Lorette

Translated to English, it means:-

In this place rose the pilgrimage chapel of Our Lady of Lorette. F. Guilbert erected it in 1727. A. Dethilloy restored it in 1816. M. Pingrenon extended it in 1880. Me Warendeuf witnessed it, a stake stubbornly fought over, reduced to nothing in 1915. The tears of the women of France gave rise to the new one in the centre of the National Necropolis 1923-1927. The Guard of Honour called for (literally ‘willed’ or ‘required’) this memorial to be erected and inaugurated in 1965.

Our Lady of Lorette, protect our homes and our homelands.

The first lines refer to a local painter, Nicolas Florent Guilbert, who raised an oratory at this site in 1727 following a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto, Italy, where his ailing leg was cured miraculously of disease. The Holy House was said to be the Nazareth home where the Virgin Mary had conceived and raised Jesus as a child, and that it had been transported to Italy by two angels during the late thirteenth century when it came under threat from the Crusades. It was in Guilbert’s oratory that he protected a statue of the Virgin Mary that he had brought back from Italy. The statue, Our Lady of Loreto was interpreted by the French as Notre Dame de Lorette.

The oratory was destroyed in 1794 during the French Revolution, rebuilt in 1816 and expanded to a small chapel in 1880.

During the First World War, this area was contested fiercely by the opposing French and German armies for a year during three notable battles;-

The chapel, which had been fortified by the Germans during these campaigns, was destroyed completely in 1915 during heavy fighting.

First world war graves at Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette | WW1 Graves of French Soldiers

In 1919, the site emerged as a symbolic location to inter the bodies of French soldiers killed in the Artois region and the Flanders regions of France and Belgium. Burials had begun here during the war in 1915 but by 1920 the site had grown to accommodate the bodies of French soldiers from more than 150 cemeteries from Artois, Yser and the Belgian fronts.

Basilica Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette | Chapel Basilica

On 19 June 1921, foundation stones for a new chapel and the lantern tower were laid by the Bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Eugène Julien and  Maréchal Philippe Pétain respectively.

Known as the bishop of reconstruction, Julien was the catalyst behind the rebuilding of many churches in northern France during the interwar period. In recognition of the tremendous loss of life that had occurred on this bloody hill (comparable in number to the losses incurred at the more well known Verdun), Julien campaigned to have impressive architectural memorials erected here that would be worthy of that sacrifice and at the same time promote the lessons of this tragedy for future generations.

Maréchal Pétain was chosen to lay the foundation stone for the lantern tower because of his outstanding military leadership in World War One, particularly during the battle of Verdun where he earned his nickname The Lion of Verdun.

The chapel basilica and lantern tower were designed in the Neo-Byzantine style by the Lille architect, Louis-Marie Cordonnier and his son Jacques and built between 1923 and 1927.

Many of the stain glass windows in the chapel basilica are the work of master glass artist Charles Lorin and based on the drawings of Henri Pinta, Prix de Rome.

On 12 May 1922, His Majesty, King George V and Queen Mary of the United Kingdom concluded their tour of the battlefields of Belgium and France at the cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette. There, King George V listened to Maréchal Ferdinand Foch and Earl Douglas Haig describing various famous points and explaining details of the enormous battles that had occurred in this place. He laid a wreath of red roses and laurels in an act of remembrance.

[Restored – Public domain photographs sourced from: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France]

Shortly after this event, on 21 May 1922, Monseigneur Ceretti, Apostolic Nuncio, blessed the lantern tower’s main ossuary in the presence of Monseigneur Julien and  Maréchal Foch. A newspaper report estimated that the service drew in the region of 30,000 spectators.

[Restored – Public domain photographs sourced from: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France]

On 2 August 1925, the Prime Minister of France, Paul Painlevé inaugurated the lantern tower by lighting the lantern of the dead.

[Restored – Public domain photographs sourced from: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France]

The chapel basilica of Notre Dame de Lorette was blessed by the Bishop of Arras, Eugène Julien in the presence of Maréchal Pétain on 26 May 1927. The consecration of the high altar took place on 7 October 1931. The chapel basilica itself was consecrated on 5 September 1937 by the successor of Monseigneur Julien, Henri Edouard Dutoit.

Notre Dame de Lorette French National Cemetery (La Nécropole Nationale)

Notre Dame de Lorette Chapel

Notre Dame de Lorette | Cemetery and Chapel Basilica

Upon entering this cemetery, it becomes immediately obvious that the French commemorate their war dead in a very different way to those nations of the Commonwealth.  Unlike the Portland stone headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that are purposefully designed to look uniform, irrespective of rank, race, creed and religion, the French have chosen to make the religious distinction between their fallen. With a cemetery dominated with a basilica and row upon row of white crosses, remembrance in the Christian context here is apparent. That is, except for the Muslim and Jewish plots that are located towards the west of the cemetery and are kept separate, with headstones of a different design from the cross.

Sadly, in recent times, it has made these graves easy targets for racial abuse, despite these colonial north Africans volunteering to fight for their motherland: desecration of the Muslim and Jewish graves at Notre Dame de Lorette.

That aside, the cemetery here is a sea of white crosses, each made from cement and affixed with a plaque that records name, rank, regiment and Morts Pour La France le  and date of death. These crosses replaced the original wooden crosses that marked each grave, in 1933.

Général Barbot, Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette | Grave of Général Ernest Barbot. One of the 42 French Generals who Died in Combat During WW1

Buried close to the main entrance of Notre Dame de Lorette is the grave of Général Barbot of the Alpine Corps Chasseurs Alpins who was mortally wounded on 10 May 1915 at the battle of Souchez at a place called Cabaret-Rouge. He was one of 42 Generals killed in action during the First World War.

Chapel Basilica

An exterior altar that stands in front of the chapel entrance has a quotation from the Second Book of Samuel {1:18} carved into it in Latin:-

Considera, Israel, pro his qui mortui sunt super excelsa tua vulnerati.

Translated, this means:-

Consider, O Israel, on those who are dead, wounded upon your heights.

Vénère o Israël, ceux-là qui sont tombes immolés sur tes collines.

Basilica de Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette | Chapel Basilica

And, carved above the entrance to the chapel are these words in French:-

À toi qui du sein des douleurs enfantas la sainte espérance, a toi ce temple, des pleurs offerts par les femmes de France.

Fête de l’ascension 16 Mai 1927.

À toi qui du sein des douleurs enfantas la sainte espérance, a toi ce temple, né des pleurs offerts par les femmes de France.

Notre Dame de Lorette | Inscription Above the Chapel Entrance

Translated to English, the inscription means:-

To you, from whose bosom of suffering holy hope is born, to you is given this temple, from the tears offered up by the women of France.

Ascension Day, 16 May 1927.

The interior of the chapel is strikingly beautiful. The upper walls and ceilings are adorned with the tiniest, colourful mosaic tiles. Memorial plaques and Rolls of Honour are fixed to the lower walls, recording the details of individuals killed in action and the deeds of regimental units.

Above the altar, in mosaic and illuminated by two stain glass windows, is a depiction of Christ resurrected, surrounded by the four apostles.

Mosiac of Chirst at Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette | Above the Altar: Christ Resurrected and the Four Apostles

To the left of the altar, in the southern transept of the chapel, is the tomb of the Bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Eugène Julien, who campaigned to have this chapel rebuilt when the First World War had ended. Following his death on 14 March 1930, he was laid here in accordance with his wishes. A memorial to him stands on top of his tomb. Sculptured by Félix-Alexandre Desruelles, the memorial depicts the Bishop himself looking down upon the grave of a French soldier.

Sculpture by Félix Desruelle on top of the tomb of the Bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Eugène Julien, at Notre Dame de Lorette.

Notre Dame de Lorette | The Tomb of the Bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Eugène Julien

To the right of this tomb is the Carency calvaire; a portrayal of Christ at Calvary, that once stood at the entrance to the nearby commune of Carency, some 2 Km south of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire. It was damaged during the Great War and brought to Notre Dame de Lorette on 11 November 1948 for pilgrims to visit. Originally, it was placed in an outdoor shrine on the southern side of the chapel but later brought inside to protect it from the elements.

Wide angle image of the south end interior of Notre Dame de Lorette.

Notre Dame de Lorette | The Tomb of Monseigneur Julien and the Carency Calvaire

The northern transept features a sculpture of Notre Dame de Lorette – ‘Our Lady of Lorette‘, sculptured by Adolphe Masselot. It depicts the transportation of the Holy House from Nazareth to Italy by two angels.

Statue of Notre Dame de Lorette by the sculptor Adolphe Masselot.

Notre Dame de Lorette | Statue of Notre Dame de Lorette by the Sculptor Adolphe Masselot.

The six stain glass windows above the chapel transepts (north and south) were donated by the people of the British Empire in gratitude for the land donated by France for British Cemeteries. They were designed and manufactured by Henry Payne and unveiled on 4 August 1929. They were restored in 1947 having been damaged in 1940.

Lantern Tower

Lantern Tower monumnet at Notre Dame de Lorette

Notre Dame de Lorette | External Altar and Lantern Tower

The lantern tower is the main ossuary at Notre Dame de Lorette, containing the remains of approximately 6,000 people in the form of ash and bone. Upon entering the crypt, a French inscription on the floor attests to this with the simple statement: here lie the remains of thousands of soldiers. There are 7 other ossuaries to be found at the ends of the cemetery.

On public display in the lantern tower crypt are the coffins of:-

  • Unknown soldier of 1939-1945 (burial 16 July 1950)
  • Concentration camp victims (burial 25 May 1955)
  • Unknown soldier North Africa 1952-1962 (burial 16 October 1977)
  • Unknown soldier from Indochina 1945-1954 (burial 7 June 1980)

As a matter of respect, photography is not permitted inside the crypt. Silence is also requested.

Above the crypt, on the exterior west face of the lantern tower are carved the following words:

À nos glorieux morts des champs de bataille de l’Artois et des Flandres.

Translated, means:-

To our glorious dead of the battlefields of the Artois and Flanders.

The lantern tower at Notre Dame de Lorette, France.

Notre Dame de Lorette | Lantern Tower West Face (Crypt)

The remaining three faces of the lantern tower also contain inscriptions. They were written by the Bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Eugène Julien as lessons for future generations.

Inscription on the east face of the lantern tower (above the entrance to the tomb)

C’est la lampe attentive à garder leur mémoire contre la nuit qui tombe, oublieuse, dessus; le phare qui s’allume aux rayons de leur gloire et met au ciel de France, une étoile de plus!

Translated to English, means:-

This is the vigilant lamp watching over their memory against the darkening night, oblivious above; the beacon whose rays light their glory and place in the sky of France, one more star!

Inscription on the north face of the lantern tower

Ossements qu’animait un fier souffle naguère membres épars, débris sans nom, humain chaos, pêle-mêle sacré d’un vaste reliquaire, Dieu vous reconnaîtra, poussière de héros.

Translated to English, means:-

Bones, enlivened by a proud breath a short time ago, scattered limbs, nameless remains, human chaos, sacred jumble of a vast reliquary. God will know you, dust of heroes.

Notre Dame de Lorette - Inscription on south face of tower lantern memorial.

Notre Dame de Lorette | Lantern Tower Inscription South Face

Inscription on the south face of the lantern tower

Vous qui passez en pèlerins près de leurs tombes gravissant leur calvaire et ses sanglants chemins écoutez la clameur qui sort des hécatombes.

Peuples soyez unis; hommes, soyez humains!

Translated to English, means:-

You, who pass in pilgrimage by their tombs, ascending their Calvary and their bloodstained paths, hear the clamour coming from the hecatombs (great slaughter).

Peoples be united; mankind be human (can also mean ‘humane’)!

The lantern tower is 52 metres high and stands on a 12 metre square base. The lamp power is equivalent to the light of 3,000 candles and  casts a light beam of up to 70km. It rotates at 5 revolutions per minute – or once every 12 seconds.

Hommes en Bérets

The necropolis, chapel basilica and lantern tower are supervised daily by the Lorette Honour Guards Association, also known as the hommes en bérets. The aim of these volunteers is to maintain the memory of the soldiers who fell here for France, welcome visitors and assist with information.

Hommes en bérets, Notre Dame de Lorette

Volunteers of the Lorette Guards Association (hommes en bérets)

Statue of Général Paul Maistre

Across from the main parking area at Notre Dame de Lorette is a memorial to Général Paul Maistre, the commander of the 21e Corps d’ Armée who took the hill in 1915.

Général Paul Maistre War Memorial, Notre Dame de Lorette

Statue of Général Paul Maistre, Notre Dame de Lorette

Ring of Remembrance (L’Anneau de la Mémoire)

Behind the statue of Général Paul Maistre is the Ring of Remembrance (L’Anneau de la Mémoire) that was designed by Phillipe Prost and opened on Armistice Day, 11 November 2014. It is situated on the hillside overlooking Ablain-Saint-Nazaire. A tunnel leads into the elliptical ring from a path opposite the cemetery gates.

Ring of Remembrance (L’Anneau de la Mémoire)

Ring of Remembrance (L’Anneau de la Mémoire), Notre Dame de Lorette

A metal plaque, affixed to the tunnel wall explains, in four different languages, that this memorial pays tribute to the memory of soldiers who fell in the Nord and in the Pas-de-Calais between 1914 and 1918. The 580,000 names are listed in alphabetical order, without any distinction made between rank or nationality, former enemies and friends side by side.

L’Anneau de la Mémoire, Notre Dame de Lorette

Names on the Ring of Remembrance, Notre Dame de Lorette

The list is comprised of 294,000 soldiers from the British Empire buried or commemorated in the Nord and in the Pas-de-Calais. It was provided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and includes English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians.

Ring of Remembrance, Notre Dame de Lorette

Ring of Remembrance, Notre Dame de Lorette

The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War graves Commission) provided the names of 174,000 Germans buried in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais in individual or shared graves. It does not include the names of missing soldiers, which number in the tens of thousands.

L’Anneau de la Mémoire lists former enemies and friends together.

The Ring of Remembrance Lists Former Enemies and Friends Side by Side

The records of French soldiers who died in the Nord and in the Pas-de-Calais was issued by the Ministry of Defence from the list: ‘Morts pour la France’ (Soldiers who died for France). It contains approximately 106,000 names, including the names of several hundred soldiers who fought for the Foreign Legion.

The names of 2,300 Belgian soldiers was supplied by the Flanders Fields museum in Ypres. The Portuguese Ministry of Defence provided the names of 2,300 soldiers.

The list also includes Russian and Romanian soldiers who died as prisoners of war.

The plaque notes that this memorial was erected in a peaceful Europe in memory of a terrible tragedy which devastated a generation of young men and their families.

Graves and Ring of Remembrance, Notre Dame de Lorette.

Looking South From the Chapel Basilica Towards the Ring of Remembrance and Arras


If you are planning a visit to Notre Dame de Lorette, be aware that there is more to see than what is covered in this article.

There is a museum that contains artifacts and more information on the battle for this hill, north west of the chapel basilica, slightly hidden from view by the trees. Next to that is a series of reconstructed trenches on the crater-marked landscape.

The Muslim and Jewish graves at the west end of the cemetery.

In the chapel basilica, the memorial and references to Louise de Bettignies, a French secret agent who spied on the Germans during the First World War.

The observation post, next to the Ring of Remembrance. This vantage point provides views of the Vimy Ridge Memorial and the ruined abbey of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire that was partially destroyed during the fight for this hill.


References and Notes:-

 

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