Both Departements of Nord and of Pas-de-Calais were respectively, by late 1918, the areas in France which had been most devastated by fighting, with the death of 580 000 soldiers on the ground and the destruction of almost 300 villages and towns. Arras like Reims and Verdun has been declared a martyr city.
The Nord-Pas-de-Calais was, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, amongst those regions which had suffered the worst devastation ; reporters talked of the “ Hell in the North “.
On November 11, 2014, in the framework of the centenary commemoration of the Great War, the international Memorial at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, near Arras, will be inaugurated. The Memorial, erected on the Plateau, on the South-East of the national necropolis, the biggest French military cimetery, is designed by the architect Philippe Prost : a large ring on which 580 000 names of soldiers who died in the French Flanders and in the Artois region between 1914 and 1918 are engraved, regardless of nationality, rank or religion and in alphabetical order.
The Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, located in the north of France, bordering on Belgium was, one of the main stages for the first world war on the western front. This was the stage for many bloody combats between, firstly, the French and Germans (1914-1915), and then following spring 1915 troops of the German empire and those from the UK; with the latters bringing together troops from the UK (English, Scots, Welsh and Irish) as well as from further afield from Commonwealth countries: Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India.
Men came here from across the world and fought on the Flanders and Artois and many perished.
An innovative project carried by the Nord-Pas de Calais Region
In the framework of an agreement signed with the French State (Ministry of Defence) in 2011, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais Regional Council initiated a major programme in the framework of the Centenary Commemorations of the Great War: the establishment of an international memorial paying respect to fighters of all nationalities who perished in this land between 1914 and 1918, friends and foes of yesteryear together, listed simply in alphabetical order. This is a truly unique initiative as it falls outside the scope of the national framework which was at the core of the conflict in the 20th Century. It falls within a more general reflection which does not celebrate the claimed victory of some or stigmatise those who were defeated. Instead, it focuses on the shared suffering, that was experienced by all soldiers, the mass death which characterised the wars of the industrial era and which, between 1914 and 1918, struck down a generation of young men, as well as the grief which affected millions of families.
The International Memorial at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette will also allow it to be underlined that peace has reigned for the first time, in a sustainable manner, on the European continent.
An exceptional building
The Memorial, which is erected on the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette Plateau, is an exceptional work in many aspects :
- It is, first of all, unique in today’s world to bring together men in a single memorial and to pay a single homage to those who clashed in a terrible, bloody conflict. The list of 580 000 names of soldiers appears in alphabetical order, regardless of nationality, rank or religion. This is a gesture rich in dignity and respect.
- a real monument, with wonderful aesthetic and symbolic value, at a time when an increasing amount of immaterial forms of memorials are appearing with the constitution of databases
- a major tourist site and meeting point for the “ Memorial trails “ of the Great War, accessible by the general public who are lucky enough to live in times of peace.
A magnificent architectural project signed by Philippe Prost
The Memorial is erected on a plot spanning 2.2 hectares, granted by the State to the Regional Council in the Nord-Pas de Calais for a token amount. The inclusion of the Memorial in a “ sacred perimeter “, that of the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette national necropolis (a listed site pursuant to the 1930 Act) imposed some major aesthetic and architectural requirements during the competition during appointment of the contracting party : Respecting the French national necropolis located nearby, the need to retain the vision of the large landscape overlooking Artois, the obligation to design a striking work with a universal scope.
Following the competition which brought together five French and foreign teams, the project by the Parisian architect Philippe Prost was successful. This is a remarkable design, both sober and impressive, respectful and powerful, which perfectly meets the requirements set out by the project manager. A large ellipse is placed on the slope of the plateau; One third of the circumference is installed off-centre in order to symbolise the fragile nature of peace. You can enter into the memorial through a trench which then gives access to a footbridge along which plaques are installed each bearing the names of soldiers like the pages of a book. The structure, in steel fibre, is held by a suspended cable. The ring, a simple and striking symbol, symbolises a circle; this is synonymous of unity and eternity.
Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, a major site of the Great War
Notre-Dame-de-Lorette hill, located a dozen kilometres to the north of Arras, was the stage in 1914 and 1915, of bloody combat between the French and German armies. In March 1916, this sector on the front line was handled by the British troops following the transfer of French troops to Verdun. In April 1917, the Vimy Summit, located some 5 km to the south east of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette hill, was stormed by the Canadians following a blistering attack, carefully prepared.
On 16 January 1924, a decree by the President of the French Republic decided on the creation of a national necropolis on the summit of the “bloody plateau“ at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. With a total surface area of 27 hectares, it houses some 40,000 bodies of French soldiers killed in Flanders and Artois during the Great War.
The cemetery was constituted from a small temporary cemetery, developed in 1915 close to the ruins of an 18th Century chapel , destroyed during the fighting. During the 1920s, bodies from across the 150 temporary cemeteries between the Somme and the North Sea were collected and buried here. 19,998 unidentified bodies were buried in seven graves; the remains of 20,000 identified bodies were buried individually; a special grave was constructed to bury the bodies of Muslim and Jewish soldiers. At the very centre of the cemetery was a 52 metre high lantern tower with a lighthouse at the summit, as well as a Neo-Byzantine style basilica.
Neglected for a long time, the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette site has undergone redevelopment thanks to a joint programme led by the State and the Local authorities (Pas-de-Calais Department and the Lens-Liévin Conglomeration) in the framework of the Centenary celebrations: This includes the development of an access road from Souchez and a redevelopment of the entry to the Necropolis (creation of a large esplanade for the cemetery and sectioning off of the parking areas).
Notre-Dame-de-Lorette is at the very centre of a collection of memorial locations, which are particularly remarkable up close and across the western front. There are indeed, within a radius of 10km, three major sites of interest: The Canadian National Memorial at Vimy, without any doubt one of the most beautiful monuments erected between the First and Second World Wars, welcomes no fewer than 500,000 visitors each year; The German cemetery at Maison-Blanche, in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, is the largest German necropolis in France ; And finally, the British cemetery at Cabaret Rouge, in Souchez, is one of the most beautiful amongst the hundreds which are admirably looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The international Memorial at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette is supported by the State (Ministery délégué aux Anciens Combattants), the Conseil Général du Nord, the Conseil régional Nord-Pas de Calais and the Lens-Liévin Conglomeration. It’ s erected on land given to the Nord-Pas de Calais Region by the Ministry for Defence.