Rendez-vous at French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette - Ablain-Saint-Nazaire
In October 1914, Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria failed to take the town of Arras from the French led by General Barbot. Pushed back to the north, the German forces installed themselves on Vimy Ridge and Lorette Spur which stand either side of the town of Souchez and the road which links Arras to Lens. These commanding positions gave the Germans a major strategic advantage because their rear was protected by the Pas-de-Calais Coal Basin, which they occupied, and below them were the Plains of Artois where any Allied movements could be easily fired upon.
On 9th May 1915, after six days of preliminary shelling, the French Army launched an offensive against the German positions in the Artois Hills. Although they were successful in retaking the Lorette Plateau and Neuville-Saint-Vaast, they failed to secure Vimy Ridge and consolidate the gains made by the Moroccan Division.
After the war, France built vast national cemeteries so that visitors could appreciate size of the sacrifice that had been made for their nation. In the aftermath of the battle of May 1915, French troops established a small cemetery on a plateau near Ablain-Saint-Nazaire where a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto stood before the war. This site was chosen as the final resting place of those soldiers who fell on the Western Front in Artois, Flanders, Yser and on the Belgian Coast. 20,000 bodies were identified and given an individual grave; however the remaining 22,000 unknown soldiers were placed in eight ossuaries, making Lorette Spur the largest war cemetery in France.
A Neo-Byzantine basilica, designed by the architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier, was later added to the cemetery at the request of the Bishop of Arras. The light on the lantern tower built above one of the ossuaries is visible for many miles around.
Since 1920 a Voluntary Guard of Honour welcomes visitors to the site and rekindles the Eternal Flame every Sunday.