August 15th marked the centenary of the Battle of Hill 70, the Canadian Corps’ next large engagement after their success at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, and their second victory of the year. It is also distinct in that it was the first Canadian battle planned exclusively by Arthur Currie, now the commander of the Corps. So why don’t we know anything about it?
Image: Dressing wounded Canadians during advance to Hill 70. August, 1917. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001598
Somehow, Hill 70 has gotten lost in the Canadian lore of the First World War. We have 2nd Ypres, that brave struggle to hold a collapsing position against chlorine gas and a much larger force, Vimy of course, and the final Hundred Days Offensive, where the Corps really came into their own as an effective fighting force. Hill 70 never seems to come up in our Great War narrative.
I for one find this extremely tragic; Hill 70 showcases, in some ways even more so than Vimy, what made the Corps so effective in the last year of the war and gave it its reputation as an elite unit. Currie showed not only his strategic abilities, but his willingness to fight for his men. Hill 70 was supposed to have been a full attack on the city of Lens itself, but Currie felt that the Corps was unsuited to fighting in an urban environment and that too many lives would be needlessly wasted. He pushed hard against British High Command and managed to have the objective changed.
Taking Hill 70 involved complicated counter battery work, as well as effective use of the creeping barrage, all done uphill against a well fortified enemy position. Additionally, Currie had less than a month to plan the battle, and to ensure that the men going over the top in August knew their objective and understood how to get there. He also understood the danger the attack posed, if the Canadian were successful in taking the hill, German counterattacks from Lens would be almost immediate; holding Hill 70 would not be an easy job.
From the morning of 15 August, Hill 70 was a success. The Corps achieved their objectives and held off two days of counterattacks under gas bombardment. By 18 August, the objective was considered secure, and Currie was ordered to arrange a further attack on the city of Lens itself. Unlike Hill 70, the Lens attacks were a failure, and the Corps was pulled back to their position outside the city on 25 August. From there, the Corps moved north to Belgium and Passchendaele in October 1917.
So why don’t we celebrate Hill 70? I can’t say that I know the answer. Perhaps it lies in the defeats at Lens, which makes it hard to call Hill 70 a complete victory. Or maybe the idea of Vimy being previously uncapturable makes it a more resonant victory – the French couldn’t do it, the English couldn’t do it, but the hardscrabble Canadians could. This year has seen several Hill 70 related projects, including a great new book by University of Ottawa historian Serge Durflinger, and finally a monument at the Hill 70 site. It is my hope that with more information available, Canadians will come to appreciate the feat the Corps pulled off at Hill 70.
Want to learn more about Hill 70 and the people involved? Visit our Centennial Story here
Mud-filled warrens littered with dung, detritus, and the dead may sound like a less than hospitable environment, but to the myriad millions that scurried along