- from the War Illustrated 22nd June, 1918
- 'Sacred Ruin and Hill Sinister'
- by the Editor
Little Journeys to the Great War
French troops charging up a slope of the Loretto heights
The ardent seeker after beauty will find it everywhere. Nature is beautiful in all her moods. There is a loveliness of life and of death, a beauty of growth and of decay. Man alone is the creator of ugliness. Nature is ever trying to outwit him by throwing her kindly mantle over his ghastly handiwork.
The battlefields of France to-day abound in evidence of this struggle between the forces of beauty and of ugliness. Here and there, by some odd freak, the utter devilishness of modern destructive ingenuity has been thwarted and the ruin wrought has proved more beautiful than the completeness destroyed.
We dwellers in historic lands have a liking for old ruined fanes and strongholds that probably exceeds our love of the unbroken whole. Melrose Abbey, Holyrood, Tmtagel, Kenilworth - we should brand as vandals them who sought to restore these lovely, mouldering fragments of the past. Nay, I half believe that the vandals of ancient days who broke up "the grandeur that was Rome," may have left some things more picturesque than they found them.
There is a charm about the imperfect which the perfect often lacks. Perhaps it is character, individuality, and that comes not from faultless design, but as casually as the mountain masses of the Alps first came or the rolling downs of Sussex. The ruins of an old abbey or mediaeval keep are closer to Nature's notions of beauty than the most glorious perfection of pillared nave or crenellated tower.
In this wise even the sword of Mars, foul though it be with the blood cf slaughtered millions, has some small things of beauty among its horrific memorials on these new battlefields of the Great War. Notably the Church of Ablain St. Nazaire. This stands in a corner of France unknown to me before the war, but now more often in my mind's eye than any other.
Notre Dame de Lorette is a name that will inspire heroic memories in the French people as long as their race endures. It is the name of a hill in Artois, and its history in the war has led me to christen it Hill Sinister. In its long, lumpish outline it suggests the back of some leviathan that, sated with the blood of men, lies sleeping off its loathsome debauch. Doubtless the imagination would have seen in it no such image had its story been unknown, but knowing that this hill was soaked in the most heroic blood of France, each time my little journeys took me past its southern slopes, through Ablain to Souchez and Vimy Ridge, I found myself calling it Hill Sinister.
Ere yet I had looked upon this scene with the eye of the flesh, I had often studied it in photographs, and never have I found the camera so false an impressionist. A photographic view of the Church of Ablain St. Nazaire will show you a picturesque ruin beyond which the ground swells into a down-like mass.
But the pencil of the artist must be requisitioned to present the real scene in which Hill Sinister dominates the picture and glooms down upon the ruins of the church.
On the top of that hill there stood a chapel, Notre Dame de Lorette - Our Lady of Loretto, so named after that lovely spot on Italy's Adriatic shore where legend says the Holy House was deposited by the angels-and the hill takes its name from the chapel that was.
The Germans clung to it after their retreat from the Marne, knowing well its value as commanding the northern flank of the great Vimy Ridge, the Souchez spur, and all the northern approaches to Arras.
The chapel was turned into a fort, the ravines which scar the hump-back of the hill were trenches of Nature's making, and many new lines were excavated in the chalky soil until the once green mass was striped like some fabulous zebra.
The Lorette lies nearly due east and west, and to the south a lower hill uprises. In the glen between lay the straggling village of Ablain St. Nazaire, and, across the lower hill, Carency. Souchez, with its famous sugar factory, occupied the hollow at the east end of the glen, below the heights of Vimy. The mere mention of these names, so fraught with sad and glorious memories of this war, is enough to establish the historic background of the picture.
Looking upon the scene to-day the wonder is that any race of men were ever able to retake the hill once the Hun had been allowed to fortify himself thereon, and to turn each of the villages named into formidable strongholds. But the heroic French did this incredible thing, in the doing of which they laid down their lives by thousands on these scarred slopes.
In the war were such sights seen as the remnants of the victorious French presented when they were relieved after their indescribable combats in May, 1915. For thirteen days they had fought forward literally by inches, under incessant shelling from the German batteries on Vimy Ridge until regiments were attenuated to the strength of companies; a battalion had shrivelled to a platoon.
Day and night those heroes of the bloodiest battle in the war had to move in trenches among the ensanguined fragments of their comrades, heaped three or four atop, until each survivor was soaking in the blood of his fallen friends. The scantiest supplies were obtainable during all these ghastly days and more ghastly nights, but the miracle was achieved, and on May 21st the fortified ruin of the Chapel of Our Lady of Loretto on the top of the hill was in the hands of the men who had endured. The scriptural truth, "they who endure shall prevail," was never more gloriously vindicated, though the Hun had made the price a high one and called upon France to offer an awful sacrifice at the altar of Our Lady.
Once the hill was gained and held, the French then dominated the little towns in the glens below; but much blood had yet to flow ere Ablain and Souchez and Carency were won-those thrilling combats round the sugar factory, who can forget?
It was then that Ablain's church acquired its new picturesqueness and the existing scene" of singular beauty was wrought in the wrack of battle.
"What measure of beauty the Church of Ablain St. Nazaire may have boasted in the days when the village priest celebrated Mass at its high altar and gave the holy wafer to children of the countryside, who may have died in the fight to wrest its ruins from the invader, I do not know. But if one could think the war away, the scene now presented by the gleaming white ruin of that church, standing like some lovely landmark of monkish days, the great hill once more verdant at Nature's touch, forming a splendid background, is instinct with picturesque besmty and the peaceful passing of time.
In grey autumn and in gleaming spring have I looked upon this sacred ruin and marvelled at the soft lines of beauty which the bursting shells could have shaped from its, masonry with such curious mimicry of the gentler work of time.
Of roof there is no vestige, and only one side of the nave remains, its well-proportioned arches uniting the broken apse to the tall and dignified ruin of the tower, the former height of which is rather emphasised than diminished by a slender fragment of the topmost part still standing erect and pointing, like an accusing finger, heavenward. Under the leaden skies of autumn Hill Sinister, behind and dominant, seems to absorb into its own gloomy mass this pale and ghostly group of Gothic arches with its still aspiring fragment of a tower; but in the sunshine of spring the white stonework sparkles, and the whole airy ruin stands out luminous from its surroundings as if endowed with a radiant nimbus of martyrdom.
More likely than not they were friendly guns that wrought the ruin of Ablain's church; so may it not be that in this inevitable and unwilling destruction it assumed this new form of beauty, which enemy wantonness would not have given to it? Such, at least, is a pleasing fancy that may be permitted to the wanderer who comes upon the scene to-day.
Some day the Chapel of Our Lady on the hill-top may be rebuilt in memory of the many thousands of French heroes who laid down their lives on the Lorette, but when the builders come again with brick and mortar to remake a new village where Ablain stood, they must not touch that lovely, war-made ruin of the parish church. Let them rear a new one, if they must, but build they never so well, they will achieve nothing more beautiful than this monument of the great days when French endurance overmastered Hunnish devilry.
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