Hill 70

Hill 70

By mid-1917, the reputation of the Canadian Corps was that of one of the strongest fighting forces in the world. Three years of warfare had refined the Canadians into a fine-tuned, fire hardened unit who could be confidently called upon to deliver victory time after time.

Success at Vimy Ridge was swiftly followed by engagements at Arleux and Fresnoy early in the spring of 1917. Both towns fell to the Canadians by May 3rd, with the 1st Division bearing the brunt of the fighting.

Following the victory at Fresnoy, British 1st Army Commander Henry Horne cabled Arthur Currie, Commander of the 1st Division, his admiration - proclaiming Currie’s division “the pride and wonder of the British Army”

Currie had proven his worth as a Division Commander. His flexibility and willingness to undertake unorthodox operations to ensure success had played a major role in Canadian victories through his tenure in the Corps. Moreover, Currie possessed an unwillingness to callously sacrifice the lives of his infantry. Instead, he and Andrew McNaughton placed their faith in well planned artillery barrages.

These tactics would be implemented into the Canadian attack doctrine following Currie’s promotion to Corps Commander in June 1917. Julian Byng was promoted to command of the British Third Army, and he had longed groomed Currie as his eventual successor.

The newly promoted Lieutenant-General Currie would soon have his first test in command. B.E.F Commander Douglas Haig had launched his long-planned, if ill timed, offensive in Passchendaele on July 31st, 1917. In an attempt to stem German reserves racing towards the newly opened battleground, the British First Army was ordered to capture the city of Lens.

After a brief respite from the lines, the Canadian Corps joined the First Army in moving to their new positions. By mid-July, the 1st and 2nd Divisions were on the outskirts of the city.

In surveying the city and the surrounding area, Currie came to the conclusion that the proposed assault on Lens would be a “bloody fool operation”. It was a well studied observation. An assault on the city itself would force Canadian troops into urban fighting, an aspect of war they had no experience in.

In addition to this, Lens lay directly under a gentle ridge known as Hill 70. The hill offered a direct view down into the suburbs of Lens and the trench lines running beyond. German artillery had a clear view of fire over the plain below.

Currie saw value in capturing the hill before assaulting Lens. Neutralizing German artillery and depriving them of their commanding view of the city would be of a great advantage to any attacking force. Horne agreed, and left the planning to the Canadians.

In a similar fashion to the raids at Vimy Ridge, the Corps launched a series of raids to prepare themselves for the upcoming assault. A number of battalions launched raids on German trenches south of Lens, drawing away German reinforcements from around Hill 70, and securing a number of prisoners.

August 1st, 1917 saw Canadian artillery began a two week bombardment of Hill 70. On the 14th, the 1st and 2nd Divisions moved into positions just outside Lens.

The command of the 1st Division had been given to Archibald MacDonell, a Boer War veteran who had formerly commanded the 7th Brigade. He was an able leader, and would command the division for the rest of the war.

At 4:25 AM on August 15th, another barrage began to pound the German positions atop Hill 70. 10 Canadian Battalions sprung over the top, following a creeping barrage towards the German lines.

Facing the Corps were 5 German Divisions of Otto von Below’s 6th Army. The 4th Guards, 7th, 11th, 185th, and 220th Divisions stood fast in the face of the Canadian onslaught, despite having to bear weeks of devastating bombardments.

Most Battalions were on their objectives by 7:00 AM, though some stiff German resistance made it difficult for others. However, all had to dig in and prepare for a struggle against a number of determined German counterattacks.

The battle raged for 3 days. By the 18th, the Germans had been soundly beaten, and Hill 70 was securely in Canadian hands. They would go on to attempt an assault on Lens the next day, though it would ultimately end up a failure. On August 25th, following a failed assault on German positions at the Crassier, Lt-General Currie ended the operation.

Although Lens remained in German hands, the Canadian victory at Hill 70 had afforded them a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and of the city itself. The Corps had suffered though; through 10 days of fighting, 9,198 Canadians would be listed dead, wounded, or missing.

The victory at Hill 70 stands as a testament to the ever-developing fighting prowess of the Canadian Corps, who would be afforded no rest as Douglas Haig called them to the battlefields at Passchendaele.