On the night of 4th October 1914 Bavarian Infantry (Reserve Infantry Regiment Nr 10) took possession of the hill which had been left almost defenceless by the French.
For the next twelve months, the area around Notre Dame de Lorette would be hotly contested. A place of prayer and contemplation was about to be renamed—the bloody hill, the mound of death.
The northern side slopes away but to the south there are five separate fingers interspaced with narrow and very steep valleys. Driving up to the top via the back road from Ablain St-Nazaire gives you an immediate idea as to what was faced in trying to conquer the ground. Once gained, Lorette overlooks the important ridge of Vimy about five kilometres away.
Each of these spurs (éperon) had a name, starting from the west: Mathis, Grand éperon, Arabes, Blanchevoye and Souchez.
Within days of the Germans’ occupation of the ridge the French were attempting to retake it.
For French units I have used their own abbreviations: 33e = 33rd; 149e = 149th. In general a regiment consists of three battalions. A reserve regiment of two battalions is numbered by adding 200 to the parent unit.
L’attaque à l’outrance was the philosophy of the period within the French Army and this policy of outright attack was a major cause of France suffering about a quarter of its casualties for the entire four years of the war before the begining of 1915 !
On 9th October 1914 The French launched their attack against the German trenches around the chapel. For a moment it looked as though having reached their objective the French would be pushed out again but the timely arrival of the 149e Régiment d’Infanterie (RI) secured the top of the hill.
On the 10th a message was sent back stating that : “We are the uncontested masters of the ridge of Lorette”.
In fact, the French had taken the greater part of the crest but the Germans were still installed in their own trenches about 100 metres east of the chapel. From the heights it was now possible for the French to look down on the Germans in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire.
Despite all military theory about dominating the heights, the French found themselves incapable of getting into Ablain and were even subjected to irritating machine gun fire from the village—below them.
On 1st November the Germans attempted a surprise attack on the French lines. Although it failed, as did a second attempt the following day, by the evening of the 2nd November the German bombardment had become so intense that the French were forced out of the chapel at 2200 hours. It was retaken the following day and lost again on the 4th after the Germans managed to creep up in thick fog and encircle the garrison.
At this point Général de Maud’huy made the decision that retaking the chapel was not essential—for the moment. A full scale offensive would be organised in due course.
Now that the war had become static Foch was troubled that the French Artillery was insufficient to prepare the way for an advance as ambitious as previously conceived.
He decided that the 21e Corps d’Armée (CA) under Général Paul Maistre would go ahead with the assault against Aix Noulette and the ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette. Once they had achieved their objectives the 33e CA (Which included the Moroccan Division and Foreign Legion) would then strike at Carency and Berthonval Farm.
The attempt against La Targette by the 10e CA would have to be put on hold.
The famous soixante-quinze 75mm field gun was a fabulous piece of kit for hitting a standing object but was pretty useless against trenches because of its flat trajectory. Trench mortars hardly existed and the French had insufficient heavy artillery to prepare the ground for an infantry attack which was becoming more and more constrained by the barbed wire and machine gun posts of the defence.
Even when the 10e Armée did receive extra heavy artillery there was still the problem of providing the significant stocks of ammunition required.
Amongst the numerous innovatory ideas put in place a number of rigs were set up to fire grappling hooks into the enemy barbed wire with the intention of then pulling them out-of-the-way. They would prove to be a total failure, as would steel plates on wheels intended to act as mobile cover.
Général Louis Maud’huy established his Command Post in the village of Cambligneul and was joined by Général Ferdinand Foch (Commanding the Northern Group of Armies).
At 1310 hours on 17th December the 20e Bataillon de Chasseurs à Pied (BCP—Light Infantry) attempted to rush the German front line. Instantly met by very heavy fire their attack withered away in minutes.
Following them the 17e BCP met a similar fate.
Struggling across the thick mud the chasseurs advanced, only to be cut down by the German’s second line machine guns, which had been left unscathed by the preparatory bombardment.
The following day the heavy artillery switched towards the south and the front of Général Philippe Pétain’s 33e CA; which left the men on Lorette without sufficient artillery cover and the Germans succeeded in retaking much of what they had lost.
In a post battle report de Maud’huy pointed out a number of problems that had beset his soldiers. The artillery preparation had been insufficient and used up so much of the daylight available that by the time the chasseurs had gone forward night was falling.
Despite what the GQG (GHQ) might have thought, the ridge was formed of thick clay and the numerous streams that formed on its northern side made the ground far more difficult to traverse than the flat ground around it. That it had rained constantly throughout had made the conditions even worse.
Although trench ladders had been made, such was the condition of the mud in their own trenches it had been found necessary for the soldiers to help each other out of them and then, having to wade in mud which reached their knees, it was impossible for them to advance in leaps and bounds. The rifles became so clogged with mud that they no longer functioned.
Many of his men had now spent forty-eight hours in flooded, mud filled trenches and were at the limit of their endurance. Until the ground dried out any further attack would be impossible.