Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, May 9, 2015

100 Years Ago Today: The Final Fight for Notre Dame de Lorette Begins

Notre Dame de Lorette Today: Site of the Largest French Cemetery on the Western Front
The Visitors Are Examining the Ring of Remembrance Memorial Listing 580,000 of All Nations Killed in the Region

On the night of 4 October 1914 Bavarian Infantry had taken possession of Hill 165, which had been left almost defenseless by the French during the "Race to the Sea". The chapel built when the hill was a site of sacred oratorios was turned into a bastion. The surrounding villages were well fortified by the Germans and were connected via underground passageways. There were three subsequent distinct battles around Notre Dame de Lorette identified as the Battles of Artois though accounts of their precise dates and results differ between the French and British versions. The first which began on 26 October 1914 was a series of German attacks and French counterattacks which left Notre Dame in German hands. 

The second, an attack by the French which opened on 9 May 1915, lasted until 24 June and re-took the heights of Notre Dame. It would not be until the third battle in the sector that the slopes of Hill 165 were secured.  Preliminary attacks in late 1914 and early 1915 had yielded up half of the ridge. The local commander was ordered by Ferdinand Foch, the sector commander, to seize the remainder of the ridge including what was now the formidable fortress of the chapel, which was surrounded by six lines of well-constructed German trenches with concrete machine gun posts and a forest of barbed wire and other obstacles. 

Scenes of the 1915 Fighting

Three Regiments of Infantry and three Battalions of Chasseurs advanced against the German lines at 10:00 hours on 9 May. Their charges took the first of five lines of German defenses 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. 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 some of the sweeping up left a lot to be desired. Some of the German dugouts had been very deep and machine gun batteries had been missed in the fighting. 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 22 May that the French could safely say that they held Lorette and the key village of Ablain St-Nazaire, but they still had the remainder of the descent down into the valley to take, and that would  be done only in September during the Third Battle of Artois. One secondary result of the 1915 battles in the region was the strengthening of the reputations of two men who became the key French commanders in the later stages of the war, Ferdinand Foch and 33rd Corps Commander Philippe Pétain.

The French Offensive of May 1915 Was from the Top and Left of the Plateau

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