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The story of the Battle of Hill 70, fought in August 1917, is a notable one because it represented the first time that the Canadian Corps fought under a Canadian commander. That commander was the subject of last week’s episode, Sir Arthur Currie.

Currie had taken command of the Corps in June 1917 after Vimy Ridge had been fought. He replaced General Julian Byng, becoming the first Canadian to oversee the Canadians fighting on the Western Front.

Almost as soon as he took command, Currie received orders from Commander in Chief Douglas Haig to capture the French city of Lens. It was the hope of Haig that the Canadians could divert the German military resources from the battle raging at Passchendaele.

General Henry Horne told Currie to inflict mass casualties on the Germans through raids, bombardments and gas attacks to give the impression a major attack was coming.

Located not far from Vimy Ridge, Lens was a coal-mining city and it had suffered badly throughout the First World War. Half the city was in ruins by the time the Canadians were tasked with taking it.

Currie, looking at the area around Lens, believed that Hill 70 was the most important location strategically. Its name simply came because it was 70 metres above sea level. Currie believed, rightly, that a frontal assault on Lens and an occupation of the city was useless if the Germans could just shoot at the Canadians from the hills.

As a result, Currie convinced Haig to change the battle plan and to make Hill 70 the main objective for the Canadian troops.

Once he had approval, he began planning for weeks to take the hill.

The attack would involve the First, Second and Fourth Canadian Divisions taking part in the attack, while the Third Canadian Division was in reserve.

The First and Second Divisions were to attack on the front along a 3.7 kilometre line and capture the defensive positions of the Germans on the slope of Hill 70. The Third Infantry Brigade of the First Canadian Division would attack north of Hill 70, and the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade would attack the summit. Meanwhile, the Fourth and Fifth Brigades of the Second Division would attack the ruins of the suburbs south of the hill.

The plan was for 204 eighteen-pounders and 48 4.5-inch howitzers to fire a creeping barrage at the Germans.

In the air, the Royal Flying Corps would do high patrols over the battlefield and scout out positions of Germans on the hill.

The plan was originally to have the battle take place at the end of July but weather conditions delayed the capture of the hill and Lens until mid-August. This extra time gave the Canadians more preparation time before the battle. These included wire cutting, destroying German artillery positions and gas shelling. In all, 40 of 102 German batteries were destroyed.

On Aug. 15, 1917 at 4:25 a.m., the Canadian Corps launched their attack on Hill 70, heading out from their jumping off points.

Things began with the Royal Engineers firing drums of burning oil into the German positions on the hill. This was followed by heavy artillery fire to create a creeping barrage, moving at 91 metre increments in front of the troops. The Fourth Division conducted a simulated attack in front of Lens as a diversion for the First and Second Divisions to advance up the hill.

After 20 minutes, the Canadian infantry had progressed 549 metres and paused to dig in and then advance to their next objective at 6 a.m.

One stretcher-bearer named Watson said,

“At 4:20 a.m., you’d have thought the earth had cracked open. My god, it was marvelous. I don’t know how many guns we have, some say one to every three men. With the first roar we manned the trench and began to move. No power on Earth could keep us from getting on the parapet to have a look.”

With their position on the hill, the Germans were able to see the attack coming and they hunkered down with defensive fire.

An unnamed soldier with the Fifth wrote,

“The whole area was heavily strafed with every sort of shell in the Hun repertoire.”

The burning oil created a smoke screen that allowed the Canadians to capture several early goals by 6 a.m. that day.

As the Canadians moved up the hill, the Germans increased their defensive attack. The four attacking Canadian brigades began to consolidate as they reached their various objectives,

As the morning went on, the smoke screen began to drift away, giving the Germans a clear view of the Canadians.

At this point, the machine guns of the Germans inflicted heavy casualties on the Canadians and many soldiers ran from shell hole to shell hole as they advanced up the hill.

A war correspondent said,

“I saw a great spread of gunfire in the early morning after the thin crescent moon had faded and when there was a grey mist lying over the city and fields.”

With each steady advance up the hill, the Canadians captured German machine-gun posts.

To help the Canadians, Currie ordered 200 gas bombs fired into the German positions south of Lens as a diversion during the assault on Hill 70.

Between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Aug. 15, the Germans executed four local attacks against the Canadian positions. Each attack was pushed back thanks to the forward artillery who had a clear view of the German positions. At least one attack made it through to the Canadians, resulting in hand-to-hand fighting.

The Canadians had taken Hill 70, but the attack on Lens continued.

One Brigadier General stated,

“I wish to report that the fighting which took place from the crest of Hill 70 forward on this brigade frontage was the fiercest and most bitter which the Battalions of this brigade have experienced or ever seen.”

Back home, the Montreal Gazette reported,

“Save in the hard struggle to the east of Hill 70, our losses have been relatively small when the far reaching effect of the victory gained is taken into account. A very large proportion of those hit have shrapnel wounds that are not serious.”

A war correspondent wrote in a wire to Canada,

“A fair number of prisoners have been taken and some of the enemy’s troops were seen running away from the wreckage of the houses in the suburbs of Lens as soon as Hill 70 was taken.”

Back in Canada, the victory was plastered across the front pages. The Vancouver Daily World,

“The capture of Hill 70 ranks in importance with the biggest military operations of this year. It was the last dominating position in this section which remained in the hands of the Germans and from it a wide territory can be controlled.”

On Aug. 16 at 9 a.m., the Germans began to counterattack to regain positions on the hill but the Canadians were able to repel them each time.

The Germans were said to be met with,

“fountains of earth sent up by the heavy shells and a hail of shrapnel and machine-gun bullets.”

The Second Canadian Infantry Brigade relieved the attacking battalions with the Fifth and 10th Canadian Battalions that morning.

The Germans launched a major counter attack at 7:15 p.m. resulting in hand-to-hand combat once again. The Fifth Battalion eventually retired from the final objective due to shell holes, being short of ammunition and suffering major casualties. The Second Brigade suffered 249 men killed, 1,177 men wounded and 225 men missing.

On Aug. 17, the Fourth and 11th Infantry Brigades attempted to eliminate German positions but failed, as the German counter attacks continued against the Canadians.

As the Canadians approached closer to capturing the hill, the Germans launched 15,000 to 20,000 of their Yellow Cross gas shells, which contained sulphur mustard. The First and Second Canadian Artillery Field Brigades and the Canadian front line were hit by the gas. The First Canadian Division suffered 183 casualties in these counter attacks.

Through the night of August 17 and 18, the Germans attempted to recapture the chalk quarry and Chicory Trench using the cover of the gas, but these failed as the Canadians pushed back the attempts. At one point, German troops used flamethrowers to push into the Canadian lines but they were driven back.

For the next two days, the things were quiet as both sides consolidated their lines. The front line was drawn back 270 metres, halfway between their intermediate and final objectives.

In the morning of Aug. 21, the Sixth Canadian Infantry Brigade and the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade attacked at 4:35 a.m. but the Germans were ready, beginning their shelling at 4 a.m.

The Sixth Brigade met the German Fourth Guard Division, resulting in hand-to-hand combat. The Brigade was pushed back in the attack and communication between the forward units and brigade headquarters had broken down.

One soldier wrote home,

“Our grand old battalion carried themselves in the same steady daring manner that they have done in every action.”

The Tenth Canadian Infantry Brigade suffered heavy casualties from German artillery while getting ready to attack. Only three small parties reached their goal.

The attack officially ended on Aug. 25, and while the Germans still held Lens, it was seen as a huge success for the taking of Hill 70.

Even though Germans held Lens, it was still a terrible battle for them. One German wrote home,

“It is growing always more miserable here. No outlook for peace.”

Sir Arthur Currie sent a letter to Captain J.H. Burnham, a Member of Parliament, stating,

“I know you will rejoice with me over the recent success of our corps. The fighting for Hill 70 was the hardest and most successful in which we have ever been engaged.”

The cost of that battle was extremely high. The First Canadian Division suffered 881 dead and 3,035 total casualties, while the Second Canadian Division had 763 men dead and 2,724 total casualties. The Fourth Canadian Division had 381 dead and 1,432 total casualties. Total casualty counts vary it should be noted. The Attack on Hill 70 resulted in 3,527 casualties, while the total battle and attacks on Lens resulted in 5,671 casualties. In all, nearly 10,000 men were listed as casualties over the course of 11 days.  Of those, 1,300 have no known grave.

There was another cost that is often overlooked, the financial cost. The shelling alone of Hill 70 resulted in a cost of $3 million, or $62 million today. In all, an estimated 140,000 shells were used.

Haig wrote in his diary on Aug. 15 after Hill 70 was taken, that it was an unqualified success.

Hill 70 is overshadowed by Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, but historians consider it to be the most important battle fought by the Canadians during the First World War.

Arthur Currie said of the battle,

“It was altogether the hardest battle in which the Corps has participated. It was a great and wonderful victory. General Headquarters regard it as one of the finest performances of the war.”

The battle ensured a diversion of German resources, and it boosted the pride of Canada on the world stage.

It also made legends out of several soldiers.

With such an important battle, with so many dead and wounded, there were many Canadian heroes who gave their lives, and saved lives.

One was Lancelot Joseph Bertrand. Born in Grenada, he was one of the first Black volunteers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Enlisting in September 1914, he served in many battles including the Battle of Festubert where he was wounded.

In 1916, he was promoted to sergeant, and then to lieutenant, becoming one of only seven Black officers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. At Vimy Ridge, his bravery earned him the Military Cross.

He was killed on Aug. 15, 1917 during the Battle of Hill 70.

During the battle, five Canadians received the Victoria Cross.

Private Michael O’Rourke was an Irish-born Canadian soldier who served as a stretcher bearer. Already honoured with the Military Medal for his heroism during the Battle of the Somme, he would earn the Victoria Cross for his actions at Hill 70. Over the course of three days and three nights, he gathered the wounded, dressed their wounds, gave them food and water and went back to find more wounded soldiers. Through all of this, he was fired upon and nearly killed many times by enemy shells. His actions saved many lives during the battle.

Filip Konowal was born in Austria-Hungary and came to Canada in 1913. On July 12, 1915, he enlisted with the 77th Canadian Infantry Battalion and left for Europe in June of 1916.

In April 1917, he would take part in Vimy Ridge, and from Aug. 22 to 24, 1917, he fought at the Battle of Hill 70. During that time, he bayonetted three Germans in a cellar, followed by attacking seven others in a crater, killing them all. He also rushed a machine-gun encampment, killed the crew and brought the gun back to the Canadian lines. The next day, he attacked another machine gun encampment, killed the crew and destroyed the gun. During his three days of fighting, he killed 16 Germans.

His Victoria Cross was personally presented to him by King George V.

Harry Brown was born in Ontario in 1898, and enlisted with the Canadian Mounted Rifles on Aug. 18, 1916 in London, Ontario.

On Aug. 16, 1917, he was tasked with getting word back to headquarters of the position of the Canadians. The wires had all been cut, and the only way to deliver the message was on foot. Brown and one other soldier were tasked with delivering the message at all costs. The other messenger was killed as they ran, and Brown had his arm shattered by a barrage. As he reached headquarters, he fell down the steps in exhaustion. When he came to, he delivered his message and then passed out. He died a few hours later at a dressing station.

For his actions, he was awarded the Victoria Cross after his death.

Frederick Hobson was born in England, but Came to Canada in 1904. A Boer War veteran, he enlisted at 43 years old with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, becoming a sergeant in the 20th Battalion.

On Aug. 18, 1917, during a strong German counter attack, rushed from his trench, dug out a Lewis gun that had been buried and got it into action against the Germans who were attacking. The gun stopped firing when it jammed, and while he was wounded, he rushed at the Germans with his bayonet and single-handedly pushed the Germans back until he was killed with a rifle shot. By this point, the Lewis gun jam was cleared, and put back into action as the Germans were pushed back.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.

Robert Hill Hanna was born in Ireland, but came to Canada as a young man. In November 1914, he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. On Aug. 21, 1917 at Hill 70, he led a party of Canadians against a strong point, rushed the wire and personally killed four Germans. He captured the position and silenced the machine gun that was killing Canadians. For his action, he was presented with the Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian War Museum, Veterans Affairs, Western Front Association, Wikipedia, Vimy Foundation, Montreal Gazette, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, North Bay Nugget,

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