History

Canada’s most significant battles: Hill 70

Hill 70 is one of Canada’s most significant battles of the First World War and is well known for its different tactical approach. The Canadian Corps attacked the city of Lens, France, on August 15, 1917, with the hope of taking the pressure off other Allied troops fighting near Passchendaele in Flanders.

Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie took over the Canadian Corps in June of 1917. Only two months later, Currie was ordered by British Field Marshal, Sir Douglas Haig, to launch a frontal assault on Lens, which Germans had fortified for over two years. The Battle of Hill 70 was Currie’s first major battle.

Initially, the Canadian’s were going to move forward with the assault at the end of July, but it was postponed due to poor weather conditions.

Surveyed Battlefield

According to Dr. Tim Cook, director of research at the Canadian War Museum, and author, Currie and his officers surveyed the battlefield. They realized a frontal assault into fortified Lens would be a slaughter. So instead, they decided to capture Hill 70 to the Northwest of the city. The plan was that if they could capture hill 70 and prepare for the German counterattacks, once they held Hill 70 and created a firestorm, the Germans would be the ones who would have to attack into a storm of steel.

Initially, the Canadian’s were going to move forward with the assault at the end of July, but it was postponed due to poor weather conditions.

Canadians in captured trenches on Hill 70. August, 1917. Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-001718 (modified from the original). Provided by The Vimy Foundation.

Preparing for Attack

“We spent all day Aug 14 getting ready for the attack,” Alfred Herbert John Andrews, First World War Veteran, wrote in his Diary (Canadian Letters and Images Project). “I checked over the guns, munitions and talked to the various crews and impressed on them the necessity of trying out the slings. I was detailed as liaison officer to the 16th, and at midnight I reported to Col. Peck of the 16th in his dugout well below the surface. He didn’t pay any attention to me as I might as well not have been there.”

On August 15, the Canadian’s attacked and captured the high ground. The Germans had to come out of their trenches and attack over open ground, and the Canadians cut them down with mass artillery, fire, and machine guns.

“The Germans were hurling themselves at the Canadians counterattack after counterattack, which was defeated with tremendous bravery and courage and skill by the Canadians,” Cook informed.

A badly wounded Canadian soldier drinking hot coffee at a soup kitchen 100 yards from German lines, amid the push on Hill 70, in August 1917 during the First World War.(Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada

Germans Turn to Mustard Gas

The Germans turned to mustard gas on the night of the 17th and into the early hours of the 18th. “They saturated the Canadian front in mustard gas. It’s really the first time that Canadians encounter mustard gas,” he added.

Mustard gas is a chemical agent that burns and blinds. There were over a thousand Canadian gas casualties during the battle of Hill 70. For much of the battle, the Canadians had small-box respirators and gas masks. Cook describes the battle as “this apocalyptic battlefield of high explosive shells, machine-gun bullets and chemical agents. It’s a horrendous place

They then held their positions against 21 determined German counterattacks over the next four days. Canadian probing attacks against Lens on August 21 and 23 were unsuccessful, as the Germans had anticipated the attack and even under the heavy barrage made the Canadian advance difficult. Nevertheless, the attacks continued for the following days.

More than 9,000 soldiers lost their lives fighting at Hill 70. Soon after, the Canadian Corps moved north to help Haig at Passchendaele.

Canadian Secured Hill 70

“On the morning of Aug 16, Templeman and I went up to the Red Line, which was the objective set for the 10th. Things were as quiet as the grave, like a morning after the storm, but it was only a lull. We found many of our men dead or wounded. Brigade ordered the 10th to attack again. There was a feeling that it was suicide to go forward with so few men,” Andrews wrote.

The Canadians didn’t take Lens, but they secured Hill 70, and it remained in the allies’ hands until the end of the war.

More than 9,000 soldiers lost their lives fighting at Hill 70. Soon after, the Canadian Corps moved north to help Haig at Passchendaele.

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Julia Lennips

Julia is a journalist who is an avid reader and an artist. She is living in North Bay, ON pursing her passion for reporting.

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