A ‘Virtual Battlefield Tour’ from Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium
Summary: Général Maistre’s XXI Corps had been battering German defenses on Notre-Dame de Lorette in a succession of assaults since December 1914. The flat-topped ridge’s southern slopes had five steep, finger-like spurs, and each had to be taken in its turn. The western-most spur was captured after fighting from December 1914 to January 1915; the second on 15 March 1915, after carrying three trench lines and beating back strong counterattacks; the third spur was taken the next month in preparation for the larger May offensive. Casualties were high when compared to the ground gained, and the Germans began to call the ridge ‘Totenhilgel,’ or the Hill of Death.
On 9 May during the Second Battle of Artois, three infantry regiments supported by chasseurs fought through five lines of trenches to close the last 1,000 meters to a small chapel that gave the ridge its name. The battle pitted grenades against machine guns, while the chasseurs leapt from shell crater to shell crater until the attack broke down under the intense fire. Huddling in an enormous mine crater, the attackers remained under German fire from 10 May to 12 May. During the night of 12 May, they crept forward, with enemy guns firing just above their heads, and stuffed sacks of earth into the loopholes to silence the machine guns temporarily while other troops climbed the parapet to capture the trenches. Once inside the chapel, the opponents engaged in hand-to-hand fighting in a darkness punctuated by grenade blasts. Each crater, tunnel, and underground shelter was cleared. By the time the fighting ended, the grounds were left littered with dead and dying soldiers, and the small rural chapel was but a low pile of broken stones. Ten more days of attacks were required to take the fourth spur.
A Memorial to général Paul Maistre, commander of the French XXI Corps, stands amid a small cluster of trees near the top of the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette plateau at the approximate location of Maistre’s command post. The statue shows Maistre sympathetically considering the plight of the infantry soldiers standing be him. (50.399567, 2.721859)
Adjacent to the parking area, an overlook with a table of orientation provides views into the valley and of the steep hillsides that were conquered by the French during the Second Battle of Artois. To the east, the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge on the heights across Vallée des Zouave can be seen through an opening cut in the trees. (50.399719, 2.718929)
Nécropole Nationale de Notre-Dame-de-Lorette is one of the three major French National Memorials and Cemeteries of the First World War of which it is the largest. The cemetery contains 19,987 individual graves with their white crosses neatly divided into large plots — occasionally punctuated by a Jewish or Muslim headstone. Eight ossuaries hold an additional 22,970 unidentified bodies. When entering the cemetery, the first grave encountered on the left is that of général Ernest Barbot. Two large plots at the rear of the cemetery are reserved for Muslin soldiers from Algerian and Moroccan Regiments. (50.400182, 2.719313)
The ossuaries are named after leading French Generals of the First World War. Near the Lanterne des Morts are the Ossuary Barbot with 5,649 unidentified soldiers and Ossuary Foch with 4,563. Across the rear of the cemetery are Ossuary Fayolle 1,006 dead, Ossuary Franchet d’Esperey 1,892 unidentified, Ossuary Joffre 1,874 soldiers, Ossuary Lyautey with 957 unknowns, and Ossuary Pétain with 1,029 unknowns.
The simple 1816 chapel, which replaced an earlier shrine to the Virgin, has been replaced by the enormous Byzantine-style Basilique de Notre-Dame-de-Lorette which forms the centerpiece of the memorial and cemetery. A colorful mosaic of the Risen Christ fills the rear interior wall, and the side walls are covered with memorial plaques to individuals and military units. Open 1 January through 15 December from 09:00 to 20:00. (50.401047, 2.718336)
Facing the basilica is a 52-meter Lanterne des Morts, whose light can be seen 70 km away at night. Its crypt holds 32 ceremonial coffins of the First World War in addition to an unidentified Second World War soldier, one from the North African conflict, an unidentified from the French IndoChina War, and an urn with the ashes of a concentration camp deportee. 3,028 additional unidentified bodies lie under the floor. (50.401151, 2.719488)
An Eternal Flame, which is lighted every Sunday by volunteers who form the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette honor guard, sits between the Basilica and the Lantern Tower. (50.401109, 2.71911)
Behind the cemetery is the Musée Vivant 1914-1918, which contains displays of French and German equipment and five full-sized dioramas of life in the trenches described in multilingual narrations. Open every day 1 February through 15 December from 09:00 to 20:00. Fee. (50.401807, 2.715873)
Memorial to sous-Lieutenant Henri Merlin, who, on 3 March 1915, killed himself rather than be overcome by German troops. (50.401761, 2.7165)
For a small extra fee, one can enter the battlefield behind the museum, which is the actual location of the fighting for the final section of the crest. Shell craters identify No Man’s Land with the reconstructed German trenches to the east and similarly French trenches to the west. Both trench lines hold numerous firing positions and wire obstacles. The proximity of the front lines is startling. Scattered about the grounds are examples of large equipment, including a rusted German 245-mm trench mortar, French 155-mm Schneider artillery piece, and a nearly operational German 77-mm gun. (50.402089, 2.713756)
Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium