Today our itinerary reads like this:
DAY 6 – FRI JULY 11, 2014 – YPRES – ARRAS
Today we explore the Vimy Ridge battlefield, from the rear areas at Mt-St-Eloi and Notre Dame de Lorette, to the stunning monument on Hill 145 and the tunnels under the ridge itself. In the evening, we enjoy a local authentic dinner.
On the road south from Ypres in a light rain, again, by 10:00 a.m. we are on ridges about 10 km. north-east of Arras, France, at the largest French military cemetery in the world. Ablain St.-Nazaire French Military Cemetery, also known as “Notre Dame de Lorette”, is the final resting place for 40,057 mostly French soldiers from the First World War. Of this total nearly half have individual graves marked with crosses, but the remaining 20,000 are buried in 7 mass ossuaries for the unknown. At the western end of the cemetery are graves marked by headstones, each positioned so that it faces east. These are for North African muslim soldiers of the 1st Moroccan Division who died in this area during battles for the ridges of Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy.
Nearby is the Commonwealth cemetery at Mont-St. Eloi. This cemetery includes the graves of both French and British Commonwealth troops, including 830 Canadians. Interestingly, because a French rail system was used to bring the dead to the cemetery, burials here were made almost exactly in the order of the date of death. This cemetery also includes the graves of 4 soldiers, two of whom are Canadian, who were shot at dawn for cowardice and desertion.
Leaving Mont St. Eloi, it wasn’t long until we spotted two towers on a hill overlooking Arras. The remains of the abbey of Mont-Saint-Eloi, they bear silent testament not only to the once-powerful abbey that stood here, but also to the savage fighting that took place in the area during the Great War. Built in the 7th century, the towers were used by French troops to observe German positions on Lorette Spur and nearby Vimy Ridge until they were heavily shelled and nearly destroyed in 1915.
Next up is lunch, and this afternoon we will be visiting the Vimy Ridge National Historic site.