Arras is a beautiful old town with Flemish style buildings, imposing squares, great shops, quirky cafes and there is lots to do and see. Many of the beautiful buildings are surprisingly not quite what they seem. The town and all around saw fierce fighting, dreadful battles and suffered horrendous loss of life and destruction during the Great War. Much of the town was rebuilt after the war though it is very hard to tell which of the houses are original and which are not. There are so many war cemeteries and memorials, plaques, statues and reminders of those terrible days that you might think another memorial will simply blend into the rather flat landscape of the area.
“Have you seen the Doughnut yet?” my friend Gary, a tour guide asked and when I told him I hadn’t in fact been to see the newly inaugurated memorial to the lost of WWI at Notre Dame de Lorette, he was keen to show me. Gary is a historian and expert on northern French history and battles from Agincourt to WWII and so we set off for Arras in Nord-Pas de Calais, about an hour’s drive from Calais.
We arrived at the Ablain-Saint-Nazaire French Military Cemetery, also known as Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French military cemetery in the world. 39,985 French casualties from WWI are buried here and it is an immense site, hard to take in when you see so many thousands of crosses laid out. There is a beautiful church with an impressive and colourful Romano-Byzantine style interior. Across the car park, on top of a small hill is the new memorial which has been dubbed the “doughnut” thanks to its round shape.
There were lots of people visiting when I was there and the beret wearing guard of honour who mind the place and help visitors were kept busy answering questions. The memorial, designed by French architect Philippe Prost was inaugurated on 11 November 2014. It consists of a giant elliptical ring that floats over the site of one of the bloodiest conflicts of the five-year long war. Tall bronze plaques, like grave stones are lined up in a circle and on them are inscribed the names of every soldier who died in the region of Nord-Pas de Calais in the Great War. Whatever nationality, whatever side they were on, whatever their rank – their names are inscribed alphabetically, side by side, united, a ring of remembrance.
It is an incredible memorial and incredibly moving. As I stood there looking I heard someone say that it was odd that the names did not carry the regiment or rank of the soldier named. To me it was the whole point. They were men who had sacrificed their lives in the name of war. They were all in a previous life, somebody’s son, father, brother, friend. In death their rank and regiment, nationality and beliefs were irrelevant, and, after all was said and done, they were simply men.
In the welcoming and charming café on the site (don’t miss it, it’s so worth a visit) we sat thoughtfully drinking our coffee as members of a visiting French army regiment filed in for their lunch and school children warmed up in front of the roaring fire. Trench art, coffee pots, family portraits and the trappings of home filled the shelves and lined the walls. In the garden chickens, peacocks and goats watched the comings and goings. It was more like a huge sitting room than a café – a touch of homeliness against the awful wretchedness that we had just been reminded of.
More info: www.tourism-lenslievin.co.uk