from the memoirs of a Finnish volunteer in the German army
'Notre Dame de La Lorette'
by Arne Sommer
Unteroffizier of Hussars, German Army

A German View

the Loretto heights


(Sommer had been in patrol at Lorette in autumn 1915 and brought back a wooden statuette he found in the No Man's land. A little later a friend came to visit in Sommer's dugout.)


Lt. N. stopped and took a pensive look at my statuette. "Toi qui tiens la victoire en main..." he said slowly, then with emphasis he asked how the statuette had come into my possession.

I was sitting on a crate of stick grenades, the coal-heated stove was radiating warmth and I held a glass of cognac in my hand. I told him about my adventure. My friend listened with a serious look and as I had finished he asked whether I knew about the Virgin of Loretto. I informed him that I did not have the honour.

"Your trophy is far superior to a poor Frenchman's rifle."

"The stone chapel that used to stand on the top of the Loretto had been dedicated to the Wonder Creating Virgin Mary - Notre Dame de La Lorette. Since time immemorial pilgrims had visited her, since she was reputed to have the power to heal the sick and comfort the grieving. But the ancient folk tale tells something more miraculous: Notre Dame de La Lorette would grant victory to the one who held her. As we took the chapel the French population was devastated by the deepest despair, because they believed that now their country was defeated. As the battles for the Chapel hill were at the heaviest in Spring 1915 the people in the Lens region used to assemble in their churches to pray the Virgin of Loretto for France. "Toi qui tiens la victoire en main..."

The chapel became a sacred symbol for victory, and battles for it were harder than in any other place in the Western front. One day the Loretto was again French - but the chapel was utterly destroyed. The French have excavated the ruins - in vain. The altar had been destroyed - and now the wooden image of the Virgin Mary is - yours."

Where else could she be from, if not from the destroyed chapel? Virgin Mary had left her desecrecated abode. Maybe an unknown soldier, now lying dead in a shell-hole, had pitied her and taken her along in the rumble of the great battle. But he had been killed and the helpless holy Virgin had to lie in the mud, sinking deeper by the day. Or maybe her gilded cloak had provoked greed in a simple soul and the Virgin had mercilessly avenged him her desecrecation ...

Be it how it may...The Virgin possessed a secret power. Shells would explode right and left to my dugout, large aerial torpedoes (Luftmine) came wobbling in the air, struck the trench and erupted fire and smoke like volcanoes. The positions collapsed and flattened out, but the dugout of the Virgin was not hit. Catholic soldiers crossed themselves when passing the sacred image.


the village of Lorette seen from atop the heights


Some days later Lt. L. continued his story as we were in an observation post.

"As my 110th Grenadier Regiment arrived at Loretto the chapel was already a ruin. It was between the front lines as the fronts coagulated in 1914. The French took it and fortified it , then it became the object of furious battles. In November we took it, lost it, retook it. In December 1914 the first great battle of the Chapel hill was fought, last March (1915) we improved our first line, the gravel heap of the Chapel was left in our rear. But there was a storm rising.

My 110th Regiment and the 109th Life Grenadiers took the positions on the Chapel hill on March 10, 1915. The front line extended to the southern slope, not seen here, to the Pulpit, which is a bulge of the ridge of Loretto above the village Ablain. Ablain and Carency, south of it, were then ours. It was a complicated situation. The Pulpit commanded Ablain, Loretto - Ablain and Carency, but the only protected approach to Loretto and Carency was the road in a gully from Souchez to Ablain. In this chain, every link mattered.

March 13 heavy fire commenced, continuing for the next day. Then the French stormed the Pulpit and took it. None of the defenders returned... Our counterattack, participated by my battalion, lasted six days and nights. Both sides took horrible losses: the taken trenches were full of bodies. But we had to take the Pulpit. Meter by meter we climbed up the hillside abd ib March 20 the line was finally ours.

Three calm weeks followed. But on April 15, 1915 something horrible happened. At dawn the entire front line at the Pulpit was blown up and the occupants were buried. Mine explosion! Help was sent but then steel rain hit the hapless positon, it was completely covered by explosion clouds.

Unable to help from Ablain the two isolated battalions, we saw the French storm them and our comrades were killed to the last man.

It was not even attempted to retake the positions, although life in Ablain became Hell. The enemy could observe from the Pulpit every street and courtyard, we suffered heavy losses daily. But we endured, due to Loretto and Carency !

Again there was a lull, but on May 1, 1915 began the most intense battle of this front. Artillery fire began in the morning with exceptional intensity, growing during the day without respite. The drum fire went on for several days and nights - for the first time in military history.

My Battalion was holding the Chapel position. For nine days and nights we were lying in steel showers, which killed three fourths of the battalion. On May 9 the French stormed in dense ranks. We fought like devils, stopping them at our second trench without support. But the 8th company - honour to their memory - without flinching holding the ruins of the chapel - were surrounded.

We on the Chapel hill had no information about the catastrophe to the south. Ablain and Carency were held - our Baden division, the 28th, was of steel! But on the left flank the front was broken for several kilometers. The enemy rolled in like a flood wave toward Souchez, past it to Givenchy, threatening Lens.

So the French were in our rear and our division was in a bag, the mouth of which from the Chapel to Souchez comprising less than 2000m

None of the survivors can forget the next 48 hours. In Givenchy transport column men, batmen, wounded and headquarters men were assembled and thrown against the French. Two field guns took positions in the middle of a highway and fired canister at the enemy rushing in waves. Recruit battalions were express marched from Lens. A miracle happened. The enemy attack was stopped in front of the village.

Then - Souchez! It was desperately defended by the 1st Bavarian Jaeger Battalion. Negroes had taken the chateau, they sat in the treetops and kept firing at the village. Step by step the edges of the village were cleaned and then the Jaegers launched an attack at the chateau. The negroes were expulsed but they retreated only to the Malon mill, mid-way between Carency and Ablain, cutting the contact to the unhappy Carency. They fought like beasts and did not retreat any more.

Our situation on the Chapel hill was most desperate. We were strafed from three directions and all communications were cut. Yet our neighbour - 111th rgt. made a counter-attack. It was successful and all positions a little right to the Chapel ruin was ours again.

The next day two Divisions sent to assist launched a great counter-attack south of Carency. In bloody hand-to-hand battle the blacks were destroyed at the mill. Late in the night some squads managed to push as far as Carency. The troops there were nearly fatigued out, every street was covered by heaps of bodies.

In the night between May 10 and 11 one rgt. tried to reach us on the Chapel hill, but they were beaten back to Angres by morning. We were lying in shell holes, about to perish for thirst. We no longer believed in getting saved.

In the morning of May 11 we were strafed by terrible artillery fire. At 4 o'clock PM the French stormed again. I can't understand how we repelled them, but after a savage fight we still stood among heaps of bodies. 9 out of 10 of us were killed, the rest wounded. Two hours later another storm - and we could not resist. The enemy rolled on up to the eastern slope where we survivors dug in.

But we heard the signal bugle in the Chapel position. The desperate remains of the 8th co. were requesting assistance. Now was the crucial moment. The French could have marched to Souchez, which they could observe from the hillside, and which was under their rifle fire. Our division would have been doomed. But they did not come - were they, too, at the end of their strength ?

The next night (May 12) was long as eternity. Every one of us had multiple wounds, one after the other succumbed to bleeding. But to the very end every man would load and shoot, load and shoot until the rifle fell from his hands and the corpse began to stiffen... The signal bugle still went on in the Chapel ruin.

Salvation came just at the morning dusk. One Battalion had broken through the French line from Ablain, then they smashed the first, second, third French line on the Chapel hill, the piles of bodies accumulating higher. To the left of the Chapel position they even continued over the old trench line... But then they were stopped by enfilading fire from both flanks. The last officer of the battalion had been killed long ago and the survivors were at the end of their endurance. Another battalion threw the French from the right of the Chapel position.

But the enemy did not retreat from the Chapel ruin, although taking terrible flank fire. They preferred dying to yielding. And the tragic bugle signals of the 8th co. could still be heard from behind the enemy.

At dawn dusk of 13 May - the black day at Loretto - an unprecedented artillery fire swept over our troops. All officers and most of the rank and file were killed by the time the French stormed in the evening. They were bloodily beaten back. The 8th co. had fallen silent... The night on the Chapel hill was spent waiting for death.

That night a sapper found a trench leading in the Chapel position through the French lines. He arrived at the ruin of the Chapel..

There, amongst heaps of bodies, were sitting some 20 men - the remains of 8th co. - without any information about the presence of own troops, dull, waiting for the end. The had been without water for days, out of ammunition, dead tired. The signal bugle was riddled by bullets. There were also 20 French POWs, ignorant of being surrounded by their own troops.

The heroes of the 8th co. crept, led by the sapper, to our lines, bringing the French with them. It was the last time that German feet trod the ground at Loretto Chapel!

At the same time in Carency the last defender was killed. Six companies found their graves there. It was as if losing the Chapel would have decided the battle. The same night Ablain had to be evacuated.

Yet the battle continued with undiminished rage. Without respite the French stormed at our troops on the slopes of the Chapel hill. In one week it cost us nine regiments. We withdrew, then the battle raged on in front of Souchez.

In June the sugar factory was lost. Two regiments were sacrificed in an unhappy counter attack. We had no success any more. The north slope of Loretto was lost, and our counter-attacks petered out into terrible losses.

It was not until July 1915 tha the front quieted down.

What about now? (Autumn 1915) We have repelled these attacks. 100 000 of our men sleep for ever there in front of us. The enemy is standing on the Vimy ridge. Another 500 meters and Artois is exposed!


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