During the First World War, Lorette hill which is located in the village of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire (in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region) represented a strategic point for the German forces. Indeed, the hill rises 165 metres above sea-level and overlooks the Artois region. Intense fighting took place on the hill between the French Army and the German Army from October 1914 to October 1915.
It was the focal point of three major battles :
– First Battle of Artois (27 September–10 October 1914) : an encounter battle during the Race to the Sea.
– Second Battle of Artois (9 May–15 May 1915) : French attack towards Vimy Ridge.
– Third Battle of Artois (25 September–15 October 1915) : also known as the Artois-Loos Offensive.
The Battles of Artois were as costly in French lives as the better-known Battle of Verdun.
Over 100,000 soldiers were killed. A national cemetery comprising 20,000 individual graves was erected on 13 hectares. Notre-Dame-de-Lorette is the world’s largest French military cemetery.
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On the northern side of the hill, the slope is gentle but on the southern side, there are five separate slopes interlaced with narrow and very steep valleys. The name of Lorette hill comes from the oratory raised in 1727 by the painter Florent Guilbert who had been cured of a leg illness during a pilgrimage to Loreto in Italy. He brought back from Italy a statue of the Virgin Mary and raised a small oratory in his field, located on the hill, in order to shelter it. From 1729, Lorette hill became a place of pilgrimage. Destroyed in 1794 and rebuilt in 1815, the oratory progressively transformed from 1870 to 1880 into a small chapel before getting destroyed in 1915. A stele indicates its location.
A basilica and a light-house with its ossuary were constructed according to the plans of the Lille architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier, in order to commemorate the bloody fighting of 1915. The light-house is the main ossuary (6,000 bodies) and contains the remains of Unknown Soldiers from the two World Wars, from Indo-China and Northern Africa. The first stone was laid by Marshal Pétain on 19 June 1921 and the ceremony of inauguration took place on 2 August 1925. The light-house is 52 metres high on a 12 metre square base. At night, a 3,000 candle power lamp revolves every 12 seconds and can be seen up to 70 kilometres away.
Lorette hill has seven other ossuaries, located at the corners of the cemetery, in which lie the bodies of more than 17,000 Unknown Soldiers.
The basilica is 46 metres long, 14 metres wide and 30 metres high.
There is also a museum on Notre-Dame-de-Lorette hill that presents a collection of 2,000 evocative objects recalling the soldiers’ life in the trenches, and reconstruction displays with animated laser effects (sound effects, special effects, and comments in French and English).
The light house.
Outside, on the battlefield, the visitors can see the trenches on the original sites with canons, machine guns, obus and barbed wire. The explanatory boards are in French, English and German.
The museum and battlefield visit takes place everyday from 9.00 am to 8.00 pm from February 1st to December 15th. The entrance has a small fee. Out of season visits need appointment. Ph: +33 (0)18.104.22.168.80
Click on this link to watch a video of Notre-Dame de Lorette :