By the spring of 1915, the front line formed a double salient with the ridges of Notre-Dame de Lorette, Vimy, and Monchy-le-Preux in German hands. From these heights artillery observers and hidden batteries dominated French positions. Front line villages were transformed into fortresses, the cellars of the stone houses connected by underground passages. Armor plate and concrete reinforced critical positions. Général de division Ferdinand Foch, commander of Army Group of the North, organized the first grand French offensive with the objective of recovering the ridges. Success would open the way for a French advance across the open Douai plain into important mining centers around Lens as well as threaten the important German supply line using the Lille-Douai-Cambrai railway.
A ‘Virtual Battlefield Tour’ from Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium
Summary: On 9 May 1915, a four-hour bombardment preceded the French attack along a 10-km front from Roclincourt to Notre-Dame de Lorette. The troops left their trenches at 10:00, entering a maelstrom of German artillery fire. They advanced rapidly in the center, where général Pétain’s XXXIII Corps caught the defenders unprepared. The Ouvrages Blanc and Sucrerie strongpoints were taken, and Souchez was entered. The Moroccan Division reached crest of Vimy Ridge but their exhaustion and loss of officers made them vulnerable to counterattack. A temporary panic hit the German headquarters at Lille, where there were discussions of a mass withdrawal. Unprepared for the rapid advance, French reserves were slow to advance, meanwhile the superior German artillery pounded the regiments from atop the ridge and nine fresh divisions arrived to fill the gaps in the German front. Slowly the French troops were forced to withdraw and by 10 May they were back in the valley.
Progress was significantly slower on the flanks, where the ridge of Notre-Dame de Lorette in the north and the fortified villages of la Targette and Neuville-St-Vaast to the south proved to be difficult targets, even though each position had been deluged with artillery shells. The German wire remained intact in many places, especially in front of X Corps, XVII Corps, and the right of XX Corps. The left units of XX Corps slowly cleared La Targette, where grenade and bayonet were the weapons of choice in clearing each house. XXI Corps came under dense machine-gun fire from the Lorette, enfilade fire from Ablain, and artillery fire from Angres. The French took Ablain-St-Nazaire on 29 May and northern Neuville-St-Vaast on 9 June. Later assaults upon Souchez failed. After five weeks of continuous fighting, the one-square kilometer German stronghold known as ‘the Labyrinth’ was finally captured on 17 June. Minor trench engagements continued to consolidate positions, but the offensive was effectively over.
The tour passes along the battlefront of 1914 to 1917, the scene of so much hardship and death, and arrives at Notre-Dame de Lorette. The modern, tree-lined D937 highway passes through the Artois battlefield, with only the high-speed traffic breaking the pastoral prewar image.
The enormous Maison Blanche German Military Cemetery, with 44,833 bodies the largest German cemetery in France, occupies the ground of the ‘Labyrinth’ defense system. The cemetery was established after the war under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. The bodies were exhumed from small grave plots across the Pas-de-Calais. Most of the dead fought in the Artois fighting. The cemetery was planted with scores of trees which have now reached full maturity. The stone monument in the center of the grounds carries the words of Ludwig Uhland’s poem, ‘I had a Comrade.’ (50.343335, 2.751899)
Neuville-St-Vaast was extensively fortified with four defense lines and each of the 150 homes holding cannon or machine guns. The approach to the village was a labyrinth of trenches, underground tunnels, and dugouts anchored by machine-gun laden blockhouses. French troops gradually conquered the site during the Second Battle of Artois but at a tragically high cost. (50.345419, 2.758016)
Augustin Leuregans was a 18-year-old junior officer in the French 236th Infantry Regiment who died on 30 May 1915 attacking the Labyrinth. His body was never located. The granite stele carries an inscription to Leuregans, his regiment, the 53rd Division, and XX Corps. The hillside upon which is stands overlooks the farm fields and German cemetery that once held the Labyrinth. (50.346005, 2.764966)
The La Targette British Cemetery and French Nécropole Militaire stand side by side as the allied soldiers once did in fighting against their common enemy.
The La Targette British Cemetery, known until recently as Aux-Rietz Military Cemetery, holds 638 dead from fighting after the British Army assumed responsibility for the sector; many died during the capture and subsequent defense of Vimy Ridge after April 1917. Used by ambulance services and with over one third of the dead from artillery units, only 41 bodied are unidentified. (50.350547, 2.748777)
The French Nécropole Militaire La Targette holds 11,443 troops who died during the First World War. Included in that number are 3,883 unidentified soldiers buried in two mass graves at the rear of the cemetery. The Second World War added 593 Frenchmen, 170 Belgians and 4 Poles to the total; that war’s unidentified are buried in a third mass grave. (50.34958, 2.747727)
The La Targette Museum is in the center of La Targette, a fortified village that was completely destroyed during the Second Battle of Artois. The two-story museum holds thousands contains thousands of glass-encased artifacts from the local fighting. Open daily from 09:00 to 20:00. Fee. (50.354402, 2.747993)
The Torch of Peace was constructed in 1930 to represent the hand of a dead soldier carrying a torch as it rises from the ruins of the village of Neuville-St-Vaast, of which La Targette is a part. (50.354661, 2.748577)
Twenty-year-old Lieutenant Henri Millevoye belonged to the French 74th Regiment d’Infanterie who moved forward with his regiment during the Third Battle of Artois on 25 September 1915. Millevoye was killed attacking the German front line. His body was recovered and temporarily buried in a remote site on the north side of the village. He was reburied in Abbeville in 1920. (50.354709, 2.748439)
Also twenty-years old, Sous-Lieutenant Henry Nouette-d'Andrezel, a section commander in the French 36th Infantry Regiment, attacked near what is now the back road to the Canadian Vimy Memorial on 25 September 1915. Nouette-d'Andrezel was killed sometime during the next days as French troops repelled two days of German counterattacks. The regiment suffered 1,100 casualties in the fighting. (50.354587, 2.748637)
The 2nd Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Regiment of the French Foreign Legion was formed by Polish volunteers. The unit was attached to the Moroccan Division and participated in the attack upon Vimy Ridge on 9 May 1915 during the Second Battle of Artois passing across the highway at roughly this location. The Polish Monument bears the inscription ‘For our liberty, and yours.’ The monument was destroyed by the Germans in 1940, but later rebuilt. (50.365605, 2.744999)
Czech and Slovak volunteers fought with the ranks of the French Foreign Legion during the attack upon Vimy Ridge on 9 May 1915. During the attack, their company suffered 200 casualties of the 250 men in the unit. The tree-shaded Czechoslovakian Memorial and Cemetery accumulated bodies after the war and now holds seventy dead from the First World War and 136 from the Second World War. A Bohemia Cross at the rear of the cemetery is similar to the one that stands upon the battlefield at Crecy, and commemorates the participation of King Jean of Bohemia in that Hundred Years War battle. (50.365925, 2.744625)
The huge British Cabaret Rouge Cemetery was started in March 1916 and greatly enlarged after the war. The grounds now hold 7,655 bodies over one half of which are unidentified. Numerous Canadians who died in the attack upon Vimy Ridge were buried here and on 25 May 2000 one such unidentified Canadian soldier was removed from the cemetery to be reburied in Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, Canada. A headstone still marks his original grave. (50.380567, 2.741584)
A red tile-roofed café known as le Cabaret Rouge was destroyed by shelling in May 1915, but the name for the location, nearby communications trench, and eventually the British Cemetery held. The actually location is now marked with a commemorative stele bearing a plaque stating, ‘On this spot was located le Cabaret Rouge - so often cited in the day orders of the year 1915 - countless French and German soldiers have fallen in this sector. Passer-by do not forget.’ (50.382576, 2.743193)
At the entrance to the town stands a Monument to général Ernest Barbot, who was the savior of Arras during the Race to the Sea and who was wounded near this spot and died on 10 May 1915 commanding the French 77th Infantry Division. The memorial shows the general preparing to direct his troops to leave their trenches. The monument is dominated by the Winged Statue of Liberty holding laurels aloft. General Bardot holds the honor of being buried in the first grave in the first row at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. He was 60 years old. (50.386219, 2.744209)
Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium