The largest French military cemetery in the world, Notre Dame de Lorette is the resting place of over 40,000 casualties, almost all of which died during World War I. A sobering thought is that these 40,000 soldiers represent only 2.5% of the estimated 1.4 million French dead from that war.
Thousands of simple crosses, with only a small plaque with the soldier’s name, unit, and date of death, are lined up in hundreds of rows around the chapel and the Lantern Tower. In addition to the crosses there is a plot of Muslim graves that face east with headstones instead of crosses. They are for the soldiers that died in the battles of 1915 for the ridges of Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy.
Also on the site are seven ossuaries that contain the remains of almost 20,000 soldiers that died in WWI from the Artois battlefields. The ossuaries are named after military commanders with some at the western end of the cemetery, a couple at the eastern side of the Lantern Tower, and one at the base of the Lantern Tower. This was our first stop on the grounds.
The Lantern Tower was started in June 1921 with an inauguration ceremony in August 1925. At the base is an ossuary with 32 coffins containing the remains of 6,000 soldiers along with a small container, placed there in 1955, with soil and ashes from concentration camps of WWII. On our visit there were some nice gentlemen standing watch over the coffins and the Chapel of Rest. They told us that up a short flight a stairs we’d find a little museum which we visited for a few minutes. At 150 metres high, there are 200 steps to climb to the top of the tower but that isn’t open to the public any longer. At the top of the tower is a beacon that shines its light as far away as 70 km five times each minute.
From the Lantern Tower we then wandered in to the church that was so different than many other churches I’ve seen. It is designed in a Romano-Byzantine style and while the plaques covering the walls in memory of the soldiers was similar to that of St. George’s Memorial Church in Ypres, it was the colours that caught my attention and made me stand in awe.
There has been a small chapel on the grounds since 1815 but it was destroyed in WWI. Now there is a marker on the ground to pinpoint its original location. The current church, although very grand, is still called a chapel and was built starting in 1921 and consecrated in 1937. In addition to the altar inside, there is also one outside the entrance to the east door. The interior is designed with frescoes and beautiful stained glass windows that portray events from WWI and the religious and political history of France.
Services are still held in the chapel at 11:00 am from May through November. There is also a museum behind the cemetery but we didn’t go inside on our visit.
After visiting the chapel we wandered across the street because there was an intriguing looking curved pathway that looked like it went in to the ground and we wanted to know what it was. We were so glad we did because it opened up into an amazing memorial called the Ring of Remembrance.
Unveiled on November 11, 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, the memorial is an elliptical ring of 500 sheets of bronzed stainless steel engraved with the names of 580,000 soldiers killed on the battlefields of Flanders and Artois. The names are of all the soldiers of all nationalities. They are engraved in alphabetical order without distinction to nationality, rank, or religion. We walked the complete 345 metre path stopping occasionally to read particular names- surnames we might know, and those that just stopped us due to the sheer number of soldiers with the same name that died on those fields.
The soldiers called the area of Flanders and Artois the “cemetery” and reporters called it “Hell in the North“. After seeing the names of those 580,000 soldiers it is easy to see why the area earned that name.
After the memorial, cemetery and chapel had been established at Notre Dame de Lorette the Bishop of Arras wrote this important reminder for us about this place-
“She must become the voice which weeps for her youth cut down in its flower, the voice which prays for the eternal rest of their souls, the voice which talks of hope to the widows, fiancées, parents…”
Open daily from 0900 to 1900
Address: Colline de Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, 62153 Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, France
Parking: There is ample parking at the site for cars and coaches.