Back in 2012 when I was organising the memorial plaque to the 15th Battalion CEF at Hill 70 I was dealing with not only the village of Bénifontaine but also the Agglomeration of Lens-Liévin. The gentleman with whom I was working mentioned a grand project to be created next to the French Military Cemetery at Notre-Dame de Lorette (France’s largest). It was going to take the form of an enormous ring on which would be inscribed all the names of those who had died in the Region of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Two years later this enormous memorial has come into being.
The idea for the project came from Daniel Percheron the Region’s President. He had spent much of his youth staying at his grandmother’s home and there he would see the photo of his twenty-six year-old grandfather, killed in the early fighting in the Argonne on 22nd October 1914. His body would never be recovered, or at least never identified as was the case for between 35-40% of the French casualties.
Later on in his life as a young teacher M. Percheron realised that the Canadian Monument at Vimy had become a route marker on his travels, and he became a frequent visitor to the numerous CWGC cemeteries scattered across the countryside. The north of France is like nowhere else in the country, and Lorette was conceived to commemorate that suffering. For Daniel Percheron, Lorette was the ideal location for a memorial that commemorated the dead of both sides and in particular those who had no known grave (There are no French or German equivalents to Vimy, Villers-Bretonneux or Thiepval).
For a symbolic fee the French state provided 24,500 square metres of ground on the hillside opposite the cemetery gates. Although the site is of enormous importance to the French, not far away are a dozen Commonwealth cemeteries as well as the largest German Military Cemetery in France, reminding us of the participation of all three major belligerents in this corner of Artois. They are not alone however, and the presence of the French Foreign Legion during the battles of 1915 ensures that (amongst others) Italians, Poles, Russians and Czechoslovakians are also represented as are French Colonial soldiers from Africa and Indochina and the beleaguered Portuguese, ignored and forgotten about by their own government.
Charged with creating the new memorial the French architect Philippe Prost sought to use the time honoured and pan-cultural symbol of a ring to represent friendship. Unity and eternity formed by the thousands of names that continue endlessly around what eventually became a gigantic ellipse.
Of course, this being northern France the first thing that had to be organised before any construction work could commence was a sweep of the site. This not only brought out dozens of unexploded shells but also the remains of eight French soldiers and two Germans. Two of the Frenchmen could be identified by their ID tags : Soldat Pierre Sorhaïts (174e RI) killed on 21st May 1915 and Sergent Léon Senet (282e RI) killed on 23rd May 1915.
Whereas the lantern tower in the cemetery is rigidly vertical Phillipe Prost decided to keep his ellipse horizontal which meant that at its furthest point away from the lantern it overhangs the steeply sloping hillside. A visual sign of the fragility of friendship.
The outside of the ‘ring’ is formed by a specially created weather-resistant concrete wall, 328 metres long. Within are 500 brushed metal plaques on which are engraved, in alphabetical order, without distinction of rank or nationality, the names of the 579,606 casualties who fell during the Great War on the Region’s soil.
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In approximate figures : 100,000 French, 175,000 Germans and 200,000 from the British Empire. It is a surprise to the French that they are outnumbered by the British, but it should be remembered that by early 1916 this entire front had been handed over to the British, as the French moved east to Verdun.
In order to create panels that are easily readable a new font, ‘Lorette’ was created. At the beginning of each group of names a single letter, visible from twenty metres, helps you find your way. As each panel progresses three-letter markers alongside the names give additional guidance; rather like flicking through a dictionary. To further assist in following the names the font only uses large and small capitals.
Each letter of the alphabet has a different number of panels with ‘I’ getting just two, ‘W’ has twenty-eight and ‘B’ wins the prize at fifty-four. Likewise some names are more common than others and ‘SMITH’ requires four panels to itself.
With an average of eighteen letters per inscription there are approximately ten and a half million letters making up the roll of honour which covers a surface area of 1,350 square metres.
The memorial was inaugurated on 11th November 2014 by the President of the French Republic François Hollande. The site was opened to the public later that evening and I had the chance to visit whilst the ring was illuminated.
Part of the problem in creating the panels was making them equally legible in sunlight and from the ground level lighting. I feel that the result has been successful though the surfaces do make trying to photograph a panel difficult as there is invariably a reflection.
A short tunnel takes you down from the car park and you could almost be entering a stadium with the central lawn surrounded by this wall. If you look carefully as you go down the walkway you will notice that some of the plates carry the word ‘Peace’ in a variety of languages. At the bottom a plaque in French, English, German and Flemish explains the origins of the memorial and how the names were obtained — in our case from the CWGC.
Therein lies perhaps my only complaint. Many of our soldiers are referenced solely by their initials, because the CWGC records do not contain the full name — something which could have been obtained from the Soldiers Died database. Perhaps the French team did not realise that the forenames could be compiled or it is possible that the CWGC did not alert them to that possibility. Another point to be considered is that there are only names, no other indicators such as his last three numbers, so if you are looking for a common name you will not be able to tell which individual entry is ‘yours’.
The panels are organised clockwise and it is only after that you have been walking for a few minutes that you realise that you are still at ‘B’. Although the listing is in pure alphabetical order certain blocks of names are particular to one nationality or another stressing a national loss. Here are Chinese, these must be Muslims from French North Africa, dozens of Singhs, a panel of Martins, some of them French some British. Too many consonants and a plethora of Zs and Ks mark those of a Polish descent and often it is only their forename that hints as to whether or not they were French miners, German soldiers or members of the Foreign Legion in the service of France.
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You start to think of people. Wilfred Owen the British poet is here, so is General Ernest Barbot the saviour of Arras in 1914. Whilst looking for Albert Ingham, the only soldier, Shot at Dawn, who has his fate mentioned on his gravestone, I came across Max Immelmann the German pilot who is complimented by Albert Ball dozens of panels previous. Walter Tull professional footballer and the British Army’s first black officer is present. Simon Fraser, the subject of the Australian Cobber Memorial at Fromelles is mentioned. As you reach particular areas strange ideas come into your head, I wonder if ? And yes ! there actually is a ‘Harry Potter’.
Of course it is not just the great and famous who are here. Oscar Green a young soldier from the 15th Bn CEF was instrumental in saving the life of L-Col Bent during the battle for Hill 70. He died of his wounds and is buried in Béthune, having left behind in the tunnels of Loos-en-Gohelle an inscription and a carving of his 48th Highlander’s cap badge.
And the names just keep on coming. Then the penny drops; immense as this memorial is, it only represents a fraction of those who died. Here are the names of only those who fell in these two Départements. You won’t find the Red Baron, killed on the Somme; you wont find Canada’s last soldier to be killed because George Price died in Belgium; nor will you find Germain Foch or Paul Becourt, the son and son-in-law of Maréchal Ferdinand Foch who were both killed on France’s bloodiest day of the war, 22nd August 1914 in Lorraine.
A simple, formidable and thought provoking memorial it should be on your list of things to visit the next time you are in Artois. In Daniel Percheron’s own words it will remind you of the massive scale of death, of the hundreds of thousands of young men who were conscripted en-masse or in the case of the Empire volunteered. Today, ancient enemies have become friends in a greater Europe that is intent on living in peace, but as the memorial indicates : peace is a fragile thing.
The memorial is open every day from approximately 0900 to 1600 hours in winter or 1730 in summer.
|Every Day||Tous les jours|
|January — March
0830 — 1615
|Janvier — Mars
8h30 — 16h15
|April — May
0900 — 1730
|Avril — Mai
9h — 17h30
|June — August
0900 — 1830
|Juin — Août
9h — 18h30
|September — October
0900 — 1730
|Septembre — Octobre
9h — 17h30
|November — December
0830 — 1615
|Novembre — Décembre
8h30 — 16h15
You should also note that the cemetery opposite also closes at about the same time.
An App is available which gives practical information and a search facility to help locate a name.