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France 1915: Notre Dame de Lorette
Notre Dame de Lorette, Cimetière et mémorial français (French cemetery and memorial)
The voice which weeps
Captain Francis Coen AIF, from Yass, New South Wales, a barrister in civilian life, landed at Marseilles, France, with his unit, the 18th Battalion (New South Wales), on 31 March 1916. For much of his service in France, before his death in action at Pozières on 28 July 1916, Coen was attached to the Headquarters Staff of the 2nd Australian Division and this probably gave him more time and opportunity than most to observe the effect of war on the French people away from the front line. In mid–April 1916 he attended mass in the Church of Saint Vincent–de–Paul in Paris and wrote these lines to his mother:
The congregation numbered some 600. I noticed only three men: the remainder consisted of women, girls and children – all in mourning. It is not on the Boulevardes or in the Cafes that one sees the grief of La Belle France, if you wish to look into the heart of the unfortunate country you must visit the churches. There you can arrive at some estimate of the grief and suffering of this hateful struggle.
Letter, Captain Francis Coen to Margaret Coen, 18 April 1916, 1DRL 203, 12/11/137, AWM
To ‘arrive at some estimate’ of that ‘grief and suffering’ take the little road north out of Ablain St Nazaire up the side of the steep Vallée de L’Eglise signposted Notre Dame de Lorette. The start point for this is easy to find in Ablain St Nazaire – the ruined church at the eastern end of the village left of the D57. Carry on up this side street then turn left for the valley road. The views back over the countryside towards the city of Arras are spectacular and one emerges finally at the top of the ridge facing a sea of crosses in the centre of which is the basilica of the French National Memorial and Cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette.
For France this is sacred ground containing the remains of more than 35,000 Frenchmen who died in action in the battles in this part of the old province of Artois in 1914 and 1915. At night this terrible loss is remembered by the flash of a 3,000 candlepower light, five times every minute, from the top of the lantern tower opposite the basilica. The graves by the standards of the British war cemeteries are austere – a simple cross with a small plaque carrying name, unit and date of death. Thousands of crosses stretch out in neat rows all around the basilica. Some carry the bleak message – ‘inconnu’ (‘unknown’). Four mass graves contain the unidentified remains of thousands more. It is sobering to realise that those buried here – approximately 35,000 soldiers – represent just 2.5 percent of the estimated 1,398,000 French war dead of World War I. After the memorial and cemetery had been established by the Association of Notre Dame de Lorette in the 1920s the Bishop of Arras wrote of this place:
She must become the voice which weeps for her youth cut down in its flower, the voice which prays for the eternal rest of their souls, the voice which talks of hope to the widows, fiancées, parents …
Bishop of Arras, quoted in Major and Mrs Holt’s The Western Front – North, Barnsley, 2004, p.50
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010