More background info:
Originally an oratory of the name Notre Dame de Lorette was constructed atop this 540 foot (165m) high hill. The name comes from the place name Loretto in Italy
that the original founder of the site had made a pilgrimage to and brought back a statue of the Virgin Mary. This became the centrepiece of the oratory. Destroyed at the end of the 18th century it was rebuilt in 1815/16 and in 1880 transformed into a chapel.
This prominent hill overlooking the plains of Artois, Vimy Ridge
and the slag heaps of the mining area of Lens, became a strategic vantage point in World War One
. It was taken early on in the war by the advancing Germans who met little resistance at first. That changed in the following 12 months, in a series of battles taking place between October 1914 and October 1915.
In December, a large-scale counter-attack by the French was launched but achieved very little gain of ground, and the losses were terrible – movement was made difficult because of the extremely muddy conditions. In the end, both sides just dug in – in comparatively primitive trenches.
More attacks and counter-attacks were launched in January and March 1915, and the French managed to take hold of a part of the hill. The greatest efforts were then made in May 1915. By then, the Germans had fortified their lines fairly well. Nevertheless, in ferocious fighting the French eventually held the top of Lorette but it took them until September/October to also take control of the slopes behind. Part of the plan had been to take the strategically equally important Vimy Ridge
, located just a few miles to the south-east, from the Germans as well, but that effort failed (it wasn’t until 1917 that Canadian Corps managed to conquer it).
After the war, this contested battlefield, cleared from battle debris and bodies, would become not only a large cemetery but a French National Memorial, a ‘Necropolis’ even. In addition to the individual graves of some 20,000 dead soldiers, a few mass graves were added too, including a section for Muslims (from the colonial troops). In total some 40,000 soldiers are buried at the Necropolis of Notre Dame de Lorette (compare that to the 12,000 at the largest Commonwealth war cemetery, Tyne Cot
Moreover, an ossuary was constructed between 1921 and 1925 to house the remains of about 6000 bodies that could not be identified. Atop the ossuary stands a 170 feet (52m) high ‘lantern’ or lighthouse tower with a powerful rotating lamp at the top that after dark can allegedly be seen every 12 seconds as far as over 40 miles (70km) away. (Since I was there only during daylight, I never saw it – see also Douaumont ossuary
.) The sea of crosses around it covers an area of over 30 acres.
From 1921 the chapel right in the middle of the Necropolis was also rebuilt to a Byzantine basilica design and consecrated in 1937. Inside are numerous individual plaques and other references to the war. One is to a certain Louise de Bettignies, a French secret agent who on behalf of the Allies spied on the Germans in occupied Lille but was caught and arrested. She died before the end of the war and was initially buried in Cologne
. Her body was repatriated to France in 1920 and posthumously she was awarded various medals.
Since 1996, a ca. 7.5 acre field of trenches to the north-west of the Necropolis has been made accessible to the public, as part of a museum about the the battles fought here (see below
To coincide with the centenary of the start of WW1, a new memorial was constructed just south of the Notre Dame de Lorette Necropolis, simply called “L’Anneau de la Mémoire” (‘Ring of Memory/Remembrance’) and inaugurated on 11 November 2014. It is dedicated to the nearly 580,000 soldiers of all nationalities who died between 1914 and 1918 in this region of French Flanders and Artois.
What there is to see:
You can see the tower and basilica from far away, not just from nearby Vimy Ridge
, but even when driving along the A26 motorway. But it is only when you get to the top that you can see the sea of crosses that make up this ‘Necropolis
The main part of the four sectors spread around the basilica and tower in the centre are named graves, but there are also unnamed mass graves especially towards the rear, in the western plots. The remains of yet more unnamed war dead are housed in the ossuary at the base of the tall tower, which is actually a kind of symbolic lighthouse that after dark shines a beacon of light rotating every 12 seconds.
is richly decorated with mosaics and statues and has numerous plaques with various references to the war or serving as memorials for individuals. Look out for the little shrine for French spy Louise de Bettignies (see above
), which features her original grave’s wooden cross from Cologne
Just south of the Necropolis is the more recent (opened 2014) “Ring of Memory
” monument. It consists of an oval ring wall on the insides of which (i.e. facing inwards) are large metal plates on which are inscribed the names of the almost 580,000 soldiers who had died in this region in WW1
. What sets this monument apart from others is that these names are ordered purely alphabetically, regardless of nationality, rank or regiment, so often friends and foes next to each other. The sheer number of names is quite overwhelming. When you visit you can search for your own surname to see if any/how many of the same name gave their lives here (my wife found several with hers, I did not find any for mine).
There are a couple of info plaques, some in French only, some multilingual (at the Ring of Memory), but what I had been totally unaware of at the time of my visit was that there is also a museum
next to the Necoprolis, namely behind its north-western corner. As it is hidden from view by trees from inside the cemetery I did not notice it, and since I only slotted in my visit spontaneously, in between the Center d'Histoire du Mémorial '14-18
and dashing down to Auchonvillers
in The Somme
, I wasn’t pre-prepared as much as I mostly try to be on my travels. So I did not see the museum and hence can’t say anything about it from first-hand experience. But I’ve read the accounts by others and seen photos, so here’s a short indication:
It’s called “Musée Vivant 14-18 Notre-Dame de Lorette” and has both an indoor exhibition and an open-air part. The latter features various stretches of simple trenches and gun positions from the time of the battles for this hill, so from early in the war. There are both French and German trenches and they’re mostly much more primitive and makeshift in nature than the later, more elaborate trench systems and dugouts. There are also a number of rusty cannons and mortars outside. Trilingual (French, English and German) info plaques provide some information.
The indoor exhibition has various life-size dioramas of various scenes: French soldiers at a communications post, a dressing station, the interrogation of a German POW
, and so on. Apparently there is also a kind of “laser animation”, and it’s all in French and English. On display in the exhibition are also a couple of thousand ‘collector’s items’, i.e. mostly war relics and such artefacts (much like at the Hooge Crater Museum
or the Somme 1916 Museum
). Apparently this museum also has a large collection of stereoscopic photos from the time (like at the Sanctuary Wood / Hill 62 Museum
), which may have been interesting to see.
All in all, the Necropolis is certainly a sobering sight to behold, as is the large Ring of Memory. The museum would have added more war insights, but to be perfectly honest I don’t regret having missed out on it all that much. By that point I had already seen so many trenches and war relics, and so many more still lay ahead of me on that trip, that not having seen this museum as well isn’t really such a tragedy. But of course anybody with a keener interest in this particular part of the war should definitely go and see it.
some five miles (8 km) from the centre of Lens, ca. 3 miles (5 km) from Vimy Ridge
, or 8 miles (13 km) from Arras
(all as the crow flies – road distances are generally greater), in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: By your own means of transport only (best by car); main sites free, the museum charges a relatively small admission fee.
Details: To get to the Necropolis of Notre Dame de Lorette, you have to have your own means of transport, ideally a (hire) car or motorbike. Coming by bicycle would require a long uphill climb! There is no public transport.
The main access road to the site branches off the D937 through road directly opposite the Center d'Histoire du Mémorial '14-18
at the northern end of the village of Souchez. The D937 runs more or less parallel to the main Paris-Calais motorway (A26), but there is no dedicated exit for Notre Dame de Lorette. So you’d have to get out at exit 6.2 to the north, get on the D301/A21 heading west and immediately get off again at the next exit and take the first exit at the roundabout to get onto the D937 going south (Route de Béthune). The access road to Notre Dame de Lorette branches off to the right after ca. 3 miles (5 km).
There are three free car parks at the site: the first one at the south-eastern corner of the cemetery, another further on closer to the entrance and the Ring of Memory, and yet another near the museum round the back to the north-west of the cemetery.
The Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery, basilica and ossuary are normally open from 9 a.m. to at least 4.15 p.m., in summer to 5.30 or 6.30 p.m. (June-August). Entrance is free. The same holds for the Ring of Memory monument.
The Musée Vivant 14-18 has the following opening times: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., daily (allegedly without any closing days at any point of the year … but I wouldn’t bank on it e.g. at Christmas or New Year); admission: 5 EUR (children 3 EUR); an extra 1 EUR is charged for visiting the battlefield/trenches (having an extra pair of boots is recommended for that in wet weather).
Time required: very much depends. My own visit was rather rushed, I didn’t walk around the entirety of the cemetery, popped into the basilica only briefly and did one lap around the Ring of Memory, which in total took me only a good 20 minutes. But of course others may want to spend longer at all these sites, and perhaps also want to see the museum. On the museum’s own website it says that it takes a good hour to see it all. So for a comprehensive visit allocate a total of perhaps two hours.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Right opposite the end of the main access road from Souchez is the modern Center d'Histoire du Mémorial '14-18
(formerly Lens’14-18 Museum), which thus makes the prefect combination.
The museum at Notre Dame de Lorette has another branch called Musée Militaire de la Targette
in the first village south of Souchez on the D937 road. This is basically just a jumble of war relics, medals, tankards, helmets, guns, uniforms and mannequin soldiers (a bit like the Sanctuary Wood / Hill 62 Museum
). Open daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., 4 EUR.
For more yet further afield see under France
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
See under Vimy Ridge
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 1 - largest French war cemetery
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 2 - tower
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 3 - inside the chapel
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 4 - commemoration inside the chapel
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 5 - a little Bettignies shrine
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 6 - view over the former battlefields
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 7 - new memorial listing names
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 8 - plenty of Smiths
- Notre-Dame-de-Lorette 9 - evidence of mining activities near Lens in the distance