While the names of Vimy Ridge and the Wellington Quarry in Arras are well known to the British, Americans and Canadians, that of Notre-Dame de Lorette is less familiar. Located in northern France near Arras, it is the largest French military cemetery, with over 40,000 soldiers, both known and unknown from France and her colonies buried here. It’s unusual in that it contains both a basilica and an extraordinary lantern tower.
The three battles of Artois that took place in the autumn of 1914, and the spring and autumn of 1915, were conflicts between the French and the German troops who had seized the area. Between Vimy Ridge and Notre-Dame de Lorette, two high points on an otherwise flat plain, lay some of France’s great coalfields, vital for warfare.
For the French, the second battle between May 9th and 15th when the French were trying to take the two Artois hills, was a partial victory in that they succeeded in capturing Notre-Dame. But in human terms it was a disaster, with 102,000 French soldiers killed. For the French it was as bad as the battle of Verdun.
The French National War Cemetery Buildings
The cemetery, standing high on the windswept hill, is enormous and unusual for there are buildings here as well as graves. Park at the entrance and walk in and you come to them. Facing you to your right is the 52-metre high Lantern Tower. At night its powerful beam sends light across the surrounding plain, visible some 70 kms (43.5 miles) away. The foundations were laid by Marshal Petain on June 19th 1921 and it was finally finished in August 1925.
It’s built on a huge base, which is in fact a crypt or ossuary with the remains of around 8,000 unknown soldiers from the two world wars and other French conflicts and from the concentration camps. Other ossuaries are scattered throughout the cemetery. In all, some 20,000 unknown soldiers are buried here.
It was the fact that people could not mourn at individual graves that prompted the Bishop of Arras to request that the French government build the basilica. In France church and state are separate, and there are no religious monuments in other French military cemeteries. The church is elaborate inside with colorful mosaics and thousands of memorial plaques. Six of the windows were donated by Britain as a gesture of thanks for the land that France gave the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for British war cemeteries. The basilica was designed by Lille architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier and built between 1921 and 1927.
Plain crosses stretch out before you in military precision. In the easternmost corner there’s a large collection of Muslim graves, soldiers from the French colonies, predominantly north African, with headstones of a different shape.
40,000 French troops are buried here. Each was given a similar grave, with no distinction between general and private. The wording is less detailed than on British war graves, where the regiment’s insignia is engraved along with birth and death dates and often a few words. There are occasionally double graves; perhaps one of the saddest is a double grave for the de Sars, father and son, killed in 1914 and 1940.
The Musee Vivante 1914-1918
The Living Museum of the Great War displays photographs, uniforms and helmets as well as fascinating reconstructions of underground shelters. In addition, one room has 16 dioramas showing different aspects of life at war, from the hospitals to the Front. Finally there’s a recreated battlefield of the German and French trenches.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 45 15 80
Admission 4 euros; 2 euros for concessions
Closed Jan 1st, December 25th
French National Cemetery Information
Chemin du Mont de Lorette
Open March 8am-5pm; April, May 8am-6pm; June-September 8am-7pm; October 8:30am-5m; Nov-Feb 9am-5:30pm
Directions The cemetery is between Arras to the south and Lens to the north east. It’s signposted off the N937.
More World War I Memorials in the Region
There are endless small and large military cemeteries, their graves in precise military style. There are also French, German, American, Canadian and Polish cemeteries here.