The great war of movement, dash and regiments of mounted troops to carry the day was, if not already dead, burying itself in the soggy remnants of shattered fields turned not by the plough but by artillery shells.
The war would not be over by Christmas; the war was going to last much longer.
The two sides dug in but it should be remembered that this is the beginning of the war. Well planned trench systems are still months in the future. For the moment, digging in means making use of shell holes and the rudiments of a trench system.
A visit to the museum at Notre Dame de Lorette offers numerous photos of the fighting here.
In January 1915 Général Paul Maistre’s 21e Corps d’Armée (CA) managed to gain a foothold on the éperon de Mathis, the most westerly of the ridges projecting from the southern side of the hill.
On 15th March 1915 further attacks by the 21e CA were met by stubborn resistance and bloody counter-attacks but the French managed to gain the Grand éperon and hang on to it.
After these preliminary attacks had yielded up half of the ridge Maistre was ordered, during the offensive planned for May, to take the remainder of the ridge including what was now, the formidable fortress of the chapel.
The six lines of German trenches were well constructed, in depth and situated around the chapel. The small park in the museum area behind the cemetery is situated on ground fought over by the two sides (though the trenches themselves are not original).
The Germans had taken every opportunity over the previous six months to reinforce their position with concrete, machine gun posts and a forest of barbed wire and other obstacles.
Behind them, beyond Vimy Ridge, the Germans were supported by a formidable array of artillery with observers well placed on the Vimy Ridge to direct counter barrages.
Three Regiments of Infantry and three battalions of Chasseurs advanced against the German lines at 1000 hours on 9th May. Their charges took the first of five lines of German defences but were forced to ground in the face of continuous machine gun fire. Companies were cut to shreds and many reduced to being led by sergeants.
In the face of such fire the French soldiers scrambled forward from shell hole to shell hole, fighting with bayonets and their hands. Despite their losses the Chasseurs hung on for the infantry to catch them up.
The attacks were pressed night and day until finally on the 12th the chapel—or what was left of it—fell to the French. Their ordeal had not finished though as they were still an easy target for the German artillery on the far side of the Vimy Ridge, and mopping-up had been difficult. Some of the German dugouts had been very deep and machine gun batteries had been missed in the fighting.
In front of them the Germans still controlled the Blanchevoie Spur (Which is the one you drive up if you approach by the ruined church in Ablain St Nazaire). As can be seen in the photograph taken from the opposite ridge, the further the French advanced the easier it was to put down an accurate counter bombardment.
The encroaching tide of French soldiers slowly swept around the sides of the hill despite the most tenacious of struggles by the German defenders for every house and basement in the villages.
It would not be until the 22nd May that the French could safely say that they held Lorette and Ablain St-Nazaire, but they still had the remainder of the descent down into the valley to take and that would only be done in September during the 3rd Battle of Artois.
As you drive up from Souchez towards the chapel and General Maistre’s statue, look at the fields, in particular if the season is right and they are freshly ploughed. Then try to consider the state of this pastoral drive after almost a year of fighting and the one and a half million shells that the French rained onto this gentle slope as they forced their way down into the valley in September.
From the general’s statue you can see the two great crassiers of the Loos-Lens mining fields—Europe’s largest spoil heaps—scene of the Battle of Loos in 1915 and part of the British effort to help secure Lorette.
To the right is the Canadian Memorial at Vimy and below you the village of Souchez—completely destroyed by the fighting. Rather ironically the situation was reversed in May 1940 when the French defended the town against the Germans approaching from Mont St Eloi.
If you haven’t already used it (and you are in a car—not a camper van) return to Ablain via the narrow descent at the corner of the Muslim Plot. It gives a good view of just how difficult the terrain was for the French to conquer.