100 years later: Hill 70, Canada’s forgotten victory

Canadian soldiers in an old German trench on Hill 70. Photo: Library and Archives Canada.
Canadian soldiers in an old German trench on Hill 70. Photo: Library and Archives Canada.

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In the summer of 1917, the war was not going well for the Allies. Russia was collapsing in the face of revolution, the French army was wracked with widespread mutinies, German forces were strangling the flow of supplies to Britain—and in Belgium, the Allied offensive at Passchendaele was bogging down in the mud.

After the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie had been named commander of the Canadian Corps—the first time that position was held by a Canadian officer. Now, the Canadians were called on once again, with orders to attack Lens, France, in order to divert German troops from Passchendaele.

But Lens was well-fortified, and LGen Currie felt his artillery would have trouble dealing with the Germans entrenched in the town. Instead he persuaded his superiors to let him capture the high ground around Lens, particularly the strategically located Hill 70. LGen Currie was willing to gamble that the Germans would not allow it to remain in Allied hands.

The Canadian Corps trained extensively for the assault. Allied artillery softened up the German positions in the area, and trench raids were conducted south of Lens to mislead the enemy on the location of the main attack. The offensive was launched on August 15, 1917 and soon seized most of its objectives on Hill 70. The Canadians swiftly set up their defences. The trap was set.

The Germans took the bait. Assuming the Canadians were trying to break through their lines, they flung a staggering total of 21 counterattacks against Hill 70 in the following days. All were torn apart by machine gun fire as they attempted to cross the “killing field” established by the Canadians. The battle was remarkably brutal, even to the most battle-hardened soldiers: poison gas was widely used, and the Canadians often had to engage in hand-to-hand combat against their tenacious German attackers.

Hill 70 remained in Canadian hands. But the Germans still held Lens—now being swept with fire from the high ground—and on August 21 and 23, it was the Canadians’ turn to go on the offensive. The assault on Lens was costly, but pulled even more German units into the fight; the Canadians were able to capture the western portion of the town before their attacks petered out in the face of stiff resistance. By August 25, the Battle of Hill 70 had ended. In total, there were nearly 9 200 casualties on the Canadian side, but the Germans had lost over 22 000 men.

The Battle of Hill 70 was planned and carried out almost entirely by the Canadian Corps, a rarity in the First World War where the Canadians were usually part of the larger British effort. It was part of an unbroken series of Canadian military successes in the last two years of the war—establishing us as “the Shock Army of the British Empire” and earning Canada a place as a nation among nations on the world stage.

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