Battle for Hill 70

August 1917, Lens, France

The Battle for Hill 70 represents a success of the Canadian Corps that is often overlooked, falling between the success at Vimy Ridge and the horrors of Passchendaele.

Existing literature on the battle for Hill 70 is sparse:

In his "History of the World War", compiled in 1920, Frank Simonds includes this entry into the Chronology of the War: "Canadian Troops in a brilliant attack capture Hill 70, dominating Lens (declared impregnable by the Germans)". Unfortunately, that is all that he found space to include on Hill 70 in his five volume history. Other noted historians, John Keegan and Martin Gilbert, make no mention of it at all in their major histories of the war.

Norm Christie, noted Canadian historian, has yet to write about the battle for Hill 70, but has included it in his "Lost Battlefields" television documentary, so there is hope that he will produce a volume on it in the future. The major sources of information are the Regimental Histories, the Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War by G.W.L. Nicholson, Marching To Armageddon by Desmond Morton and J.L. Granatstein, and the battalion war diaries made available on-line by the National Archives of Canada.


In April, 1917 the Canadian Corp, operating as a unit for the first time, had successfully captured Vimy Ridge from the Germans. This was the first major victory for the Allies to that point in the war. As a result of the attack at Vimy, Lieut.-General Sir Julian Byng, future Governor General of Canada and commander of the Canadian troops, the "Byng Boys", at Vimy, was ordered to take command of the British 3rd Army. His replacement was Arthur Currie, newly promoted to Lieut.-General and knighted by King George V. For the first time in history, a Canadian was in command of all Canadian troops.   Before the war, Currie was a real-estate promoter in Victoria, and shortly after he was promoted it was brought to light that he had used government funds to pay off some business debts. The new commander was a thief! Additionally, the promotion had been made by Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, who did not have the authority to promote inside the CEF. Currie quickly borrowed some money and replaced the missing funds[1]. Diplomacy decided the other issue.

Currie was a superb tactician, one of the best military minds of all time. He was incredibly sensitive about the use of troops, and his actions as commander likely saved many thousands of lives. He was also incredibly insensitive in his dealings with the rank and file and was disliked by the troops.

On July 7th, 1917 Currie was ordered to take the town of Lens in northern France. The town was strategic; the Germans needed it for its rail access, the British wanted it for its coal, which they needed to support war manufacturing. Additionally, the British wanted to use the attack as a feint, committing German troops to Lens while the British and French attacked in the Somme area.

Currie refused a frontal attack on Lens. He felt that the troops could take the town, but would then find itself under attack from the high ground that surrounded the town. He believed that the losses would be unacceptably high, and instead proposed to take Hill 70, high ground to the north of Lens. He knew that it would not be easy to take and that causalities would be high, but they would be considerably less than leaving the hill in the hands of the Germans. Currie argued that the Germans would attempt to retake the hill and the Canadians would have the advantage of high ground and would be able to inflict significant losses on the Germans. The British Army structure did not appreciate Generals changing orders instead of following them, and the issue was raised to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces. Haig approved the attack, but predicted that it would fail.

Hill 70 was a perfect defensive position. It was a maze of deep trenches and dugouts and included deep mines that had been dug in peacetime and could protect the defenders. Coiled barbed wire, up to 5 feet in height was in front of the trenches would make a frontal attack difficult. Machine guns were deeply entrenched in the slopes, inside of pill-boxes reinforced concrete[2]. Additionally, in July 1917 the Germans introduced flame-throwers and mustard gas, which blistered any portion of exposed skin. Overall, it wasn’t an enviable target to be given.

Preparations for the attack were extensive. As they had done at Vimy, an area behind the lines was laid out to represent Hill 70, and units practiced the attack until every section knew exactly what they had to do. Additionally, the hill and the surrounding area was subjected to ongoing bombardment and gas attacks. The gas, being heavier than air, would have sunk to the lowest areas of the trenches and caverns, and would have made it very uncomfortable for the German defenders[3].

On the evening of 14 August the attack commenced with the bombardment of the hill by the Canadian artillery, damaging the trenches and blowing holes in the defensive wire. At 4:25 AM, dawn of August 15, the Canadians went over the top, the 1st Division on the left, the 2nd Division in the center and the 4th Division, largely a diversionary attack[4], on the right. The 3rd Division was kept back in reserve. The ten battalions of men advanced up the hill, the 7th and 10th battalions being assigned the high points on the hill, closely following a rolling barrage by the artillery. They took the first objectives in twenty minutes[5]. The Canadians introduced a new tactic to demoralize the Germans. Drums of burning oil were dropped into the deep trenches, spreading flame and smoke over the hill. Another feature of the attack on Hill 70 was the close co-operation between the Air Force and the Artillery. Low flying aircraft spotted pockets of resistance and radioed the co-ordinates back to the artillery who responded with prompt shelling.

By 9:00 am, the Germans had begun to counter-attack, fought off by the Canadian troops on the hill and the artillery in support. The artillery crews suffered heavily. The Germans recognized that without them the attack would fail, and started a barrage of high explosive and Mustard Gas shells. The day was hot. Being forced, because of the gas, to work fully clothed and with gas masks, several men died from heat prostration[6]. Wearing a gas mask rendered the men half blind, but removing them could cause a horrible death as the Mustard Gas seared the lungs. Many men had to remove their masks, whether to accurately aim the guns or to extricate themselves from holes or wire on the hill slopes, and suffered from facial and internal blistering as a result.

The Germans were determined to retake the hill. The Canadians were subjected to intense artillery shelling, suffered from lackof rations and water, and when ammunition ran low had to attack with bayonets[7]. On August 21st, the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles took over the front lines. They described the situation: "At this time the Hill presented every aspect of a fierce and sanguinary battle; most of the German trenches had been crumpled in by our shell fire, while everywhere one went were dead Huns and, in some cases, Canadians"[8].

In total, the Germans counterattacked 21 times, the last at dawn on August 18th. The Canadians repulsed them all.

The attack on Hill 70 resulted in 1,505 men killed, 3,810 wounded, 487 wounded by gas and 41 prisoners to the Germans[9]. The bulk of the causalities were on the first day of the attack. In some cases companies reached, and held their objectives while sustaining over 70% causalities[10]. The Germans had committed 5 divisions in an attempt to hold Hill 70, with approximately 20,000 causalities, 970 Germans taken prisoner.

Lens was not taken, however holding the high ground of Hill 70 seriously impacted the German position.

The reputation of the Canadian troops was cemented in this action. Douglas Haig was wrong in his prediction; Currie had proven himself a superior tactician than the British command. The Canadian troops earned five Victoria Crosses during this 4 day period.


Maps

Attack on Hill 70 from Nicholson's "Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War"


Footnotes

[1] Marching To Armageddon, Desmond Morton and J.L. Granatstein, page 161

[2] 31st Battalion CEF, H.C. Singer, page 234

[3] 31st Battalion CEF, H.C. Singer, page 238-239

[4] Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, G.W.L. Nicholson

[5] Morton says 20 minutes, Singer reports 16 minutes.

[6] When you numbers up, Desmond Morton, page 134.

[7] Canada's Black Watch, 1862-1962, Paul P. Hutchison Page 99

[8] The 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles in France and Flanders 1914-1919, Lt.-Col. G Chalmers Johnston, D.S.O., M.C.(CEF Books reprint version 2003) Page 51.

[9] Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, G.W.L. Nicholson

[10] Narrative of Battle for Hill 70, 10 th Infantry Battalion CEF