We had never been to the First World War monuments and graves in northern France. As a young man, I considered them part of a national mindset that glorified war. But, over the decades, that view was moderated and I realised that such places are the result of something much deeper in the national psyche.
And not just national. Like a vast whirlpool, WW1 drew in polarising forces from across the world as the British Commonwealth and its allies faced the might of the armies of Wilhelm, the last Kaiser and Emperor of Prussia. The opening picture is from the deeply moving Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge – to which the second post in this series will be dedicated.
But the first part of our journey was the road up the hill from the small town of Amblain St. Nazaire to the French monument of Notre Dame de Lorette. As we climbed the hill the mist thickened. It was fitting weather to come face to face with a part of France that has been the focus of such intense emotion and international remembrance.
Notre Dame de Lorette is the name of the French Military Cemetery on top of the ridge which was the scene of so much conflict and death in the ‘Great War’. The name applies to the ridge, the basilica and the French national cemetery building. The hump-backed ridge stands nearly 170 metres above the surrounding land and the nearby town of Arras, which I wrote about in the last blog. This hill and Vimy ridge are the most dominant features of this otherwise flat part of northern France.
Two buildings appear on the left-hand side of the road as you approach the cemetery. First the basilica of Notre Dame de Lorette, then, behind it, a tall tower, known as the Lantern Tower. They form an odd pair… until you stand in the space between them and something dramatic happens.
This part of the ridge has long been consecrated ground. Centuries ago, it was the site of a miraculous cure and gained the name of Notre Dame de Lorette because of the association of the miracle with the Virgin Mary. The present building is really a basilica built in the Romano-Byzantine style but retained the name of ‘chapel’ to honour the older tradition. It is unusual in that the small altar of the chapel is located outside the building at the entrance to the east door. The Notre Dame de Lorette statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus stands next to the main altar inside the chapel.
Sadly, the basilica was closed for maintenance during our visit, so we had to be content with a tour of the exterior and the space between chapel and tower. But this did give us time to consider several of the beautiful inscriptions on the walls of both buildings.
Between the Chapel/Basilica and its associated tower is what can only be described as vast ‘plain’ paved in the same sandstone as the entrance walkway. Nearer the chapel, but dividing the two structures is what appears to be mausoleum which draws the eye from both in a way reminiscent of Egyptian temples..
The ‘red plain’ – whose symbolism is later obvious, but not immediately grasped, is a completely flat surface and draws the eye outside of a human frame of reference and into the ‘spiritual’ world, beyond. Before turning to look at the tower, a larger context needs to be held in the mind and heart: that given on the side of the basilica in the photo below. Bearing in mind its religious link with the Virgin Mary; no stranger, herself, to suffering…
My French is limited, but Sue has lent a hand: “To thee who from the heart of pain gave birth to Holy Hope, to thee this temple born of tears… Offered by the women of France…”
It just gets to you… In the freezing fog, with tears in my eyes, having grasped some of the import of the inscription and with my un-gloved hands hurting with cold while I held the camera, I turned, in order to look across the ‘red plain’ to grasp the importance of the Lantern Tower. But my eyes were captured by the ‘mausoleum’ building next to where I was standing.
The significance of the supposed mausoleum becomes apparent at this point. The sheathed crossed-swords of valour are stationed outside this portico, whose purpose is solely to house the external altar of the ‘Mother Mary’. The relationship is to the words written on the facing walls of the ‘chapel’.
The Lantern Tower has, as its name suggests, a light at the top. Louis Cordonnier designed it to revolve five times each minute, once darkness falls… It’s a very poignant monument, and sits 150 feet high, above what is already the highest point on the ridge. The Lantern Tower was inaugurated in August 1925. Until recently, the 200 internal steps could be climbed by visitors, but the viewing gallery at the top has been closed for security reasons.
The light from the Lantern Tower can be seen for 45 miles – encompassing all the local battlefields at the time of WW1. The base of the tower is a 25 metre square which frames a crypt containing the remains of 6,000 soldiers and a chapel of rest.
A container for relics was placed in the tower in April 1955. It contains soil and ashes from the concentration camps of World War II.
But the left-hand side of the road does not encompass the whole of the monument. Across the way, and only opened in 2014, is a vivid reminder of the horrors of war, and a moving memorial to all those who died in WW1. The French government decided that a monument of total inclusion was appropriate. This means that the names of the fallen among the ‘enemy’ were included in the monument’s role to the casualties of WW1.
Such an inclusive approach may be our only hope to prevent such catastrophes in the future: to regard all people involved in wars as victims, and thereby point back along the chain of causality to the real causes… ego, power and bullying in human nature.
Written on the entrance to the circular monument is written this:
“The 580,000 names are listed in alphabetical order, without distinction between rank or nationality, former enemies and friends side by side……. This memorial was erected in a peaceful Europe in memory of a terrible tragedy which devastated a generation of young men, who for the most part could read and write.
L’Anneau de la Memoire”“Who for the most part could read and write…” a poignant and telling end to the dedication to an entire generation.
Our time had run out. We were due in Calais in a few hours. But we had found out that, nearby, was another major memorial site: that of the Canadian Monument at Vimy Ridge – the site of one of the major battles of WW1. We decided to steal some time and make the short journey.
It was to be one of the best decisions we could have made… and brought us face to face with what I’ve come to think of as one of the most dramatic of monumental sculptures in the world.
To be concluded in Part Two.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.