Whitby High School

Battlefields Tour 22nd-25th March 2013

France - Vimy Ridge, Peronne and Somme Tour - Saturday 23rd

Notre Dame de Lorette

Click to enlarge

Notre Dame de Lorette

This is by far the biggest French cemetery in what later became part of the British sector of the Western Front. Its origins lie mainly in a series of battles fought by the French in this area in 1915 known collectively as the Battle of Artois. Briefly, the Germans overran this area in October 1914 and captured two prominent areas of high ground, Vimy Ridge and the Souchez Ridge. In 1915 the French fought a series of battles to recapture them, succeeding here at Souchez but failing at Vimy. On this site on top of the Souchez Ridge are buried nearly 40,000 French troops, about half in marked graves, and about half in mass grave pits (ossuaires).

Before entering the site there was a viewing area overlooking Vimy Ridge 2 miles to the left on the other side of the motorway and the valley between. The twin pillars of the Canadian memorial (our next visit) could be seen rising from the trees. The twin towers on a hill, forward and slightly to the right, about 3km away were the ruins of the abbey at Mont St Eloi. In 1917 this was the British H.Q. for the attack on Vimy.

Within the cemetery was the the Memorial Chapel, famous for its stained glass and the crypt containing one of the mass graves. The Lighthouse (Phare) (the central tower) can be climbed to gain a stunning view of the site and the landscape for miles around. In the base of the tower was a room containing coffins holding an unknown French soldier from every major conflict of this century in which French troops have been involved (pictured). The site also contained sections dedicated to Jewish and Moslem soldiers. We then moved into the small but fascinating museum, plus the room containing around 20 viewing boxes (Dioramas) which contained series of 3D images of the war.

Moving outside there was a chance see a section of preserved trenches.

A few points to note on the map: Notre Dame is 2 miles west of Vimy. Our base, Le Chateau du Broutel, Rue, is to due west of Vimy on the coast. Our tour would continue to Vimy Ridge and the Somme.

French Military Cemeteries

i) The Style of Cemetery

The emphasis in French cemeteries is on the scale of loss that had befallen the French nation during the Great War. They tend to be large sites that are the result of many smaller cemeteries being concentrated in one place. Notre Damme de Lorette, for example, is made up of bodies from over 150 smaller battlefield cemeteries.

The style of cross and the strict geometry both tend to make the visitors look at the site as a whole rather than at individual graves. Originally there were few, if any, flowers so as not to distract the visitors from the endless rows of crosses. This has now changed and flowers and shrubs are more common. Burials are under either;

a) Crosses for Christian burials.
b) Headstones for non-Christian burials. These will commonly have;
i) A star of David denoting Jewish dead.
ii) A minaret style top with Arabic inscription denoting Moslem (usually North African) dead.
iii) A plain headstone, usually denoting non-believers.

Many French cemeteries contain an ossuaire (ossuary) a mass grave.

In the 1920's the French Government allowed individual families to re-claim the bodies of their relatives and take them home for re-burial. About 30% of French dead were taken home and given civilian burials.

ii) The Style of Cemetery

Unlike British and French cemeteries, the style of German cemetery is not constant and if you visit a cemetery in Flanders such as Langemark, and then visit one on the Somme or near Arras or Verdun you will see many differences. However they do have basic ideas in common;
1) The architects were trying to convey the waste and sorrow of warfare. German cemeteries are always sad, rather depressing places and this is quite intentional.
2) The architects had to deal with the problem of fitting sometimes quite large numbers of bodies into the relatively small area of land that their former enemies would allow them. This is why each grave marker, whether headstone or cross has several or many names on it.



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Updated April 2013 by Mike Royden