Battle for Hill 70
The capture of Hill 70 in France was the first major action fought by the Canadian Corps under a Canadian commander in the First World War.
The capture of Hill 70 in France was the first major action fought by the Canadian Corps under a Canadian commander in the First World War. The battle, in August 1917, gave the Allied forces a crucial strategic position overlooking the city of Lens.
Currie Takes Command
Lieutenant General Arthur Currie took command of the Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force) in June 1917. He was the first Canadian put in charge of the Corps, Canada's main fighting force on the Western Front, following its prior leadership by British generals.
In July, Currie received orders from British Commander-in-Chief Douglas Haig to capture Lens, a coal-mining city in France. Haig hoped it would divert German military resources away from the Passchendaele campaign then raging.
Lens had suffered terribly in the war; the Canadians were sent to capture a city that lay half in ruins. Currie thought the nearby Hill 70 was tactically more important, as occupying the city would be futile if the Germans could shoot down from the commanding hills. Currie convinced his superiors to make Hill 70 the Canadians' main objective.
Currie believed that by capturing the hill he could aggravate the Germans in surrounding positions and provoke them to come out of their dugouts and attack. The Canadians could then kill large numbers of the enemy and drive them out of the area. Throughout late July and early August, the Canadians harassed and distracted the German forces.
Assault on the Hill
Hill 70, so named because it was 70 metres above sea level, was a treeless elevation that dominated Lens. The city itself had been bashed by years of warfare, and German trenches cut through the ruins of the miners’ brick homes. The ruins offered plenty of cover to the Germans.
The Canadian Corps launched its bid for Hill 70 at 4:25 a.m. on 15 August. The Royal Engineers fired drums of burning oil into the German positions on the hill along with heavy artillery fire. The Germans of the 7th Infantry Division saw the attack coming and were ready with defensive fire. Still, by 6 a.m., the Canadian infantry had captured several of its first goals.
German resistance stiffened as the Canadians advanced on the hill. The smoke screen of the burning oil drifted away and German machine guns and rifles killed and wounded many attacking Canadians. Individual Allied soldiers now ran from shell hole to shell hole to move forward.
Slowly, the Canadians captured German machine-gun posts and advanced up the hill. Meanwhile, Currie ordered 200 gas bombs projected into German positions south of Lens as a diversionary tactic during the assault on Hill 70.
The German forces counterattacked before 9 a.m., but the Allies broke each enemy attempt to reclaim ground. A second wave of afternoon counterattacks was likewise rebuffed. German infantry marched through “fountains of earth sent up by the heavy shells” and “a hail of shrapnel and machine-gun bullets,” according to the history of the German 5th Foot Guard Regiment, and were annihilated.
The Canadians eventually captured the high ground of Hill 70. By the end of the first day, 1,056 Canadians were dead, 2,432 wounded and 39 taken prisoner. A higher death toll was avoided in part because of the work of Private Michael O’Rourke, an Irish-born Canadian stretcher bearer. He earned a Victoria Cross for repeatedly running into German fire to rescue wounded Canadians. It's not known how many Germans died that day.
Fighting continued on 16 through 18 August, with the Canadian Corps withstanding German resistance, which included the use of mustard gas and flamethrowers.
Six Victoria Crosses
The Germans counterattacked again at 5 a.m. on 18 August. Québec’s Major Okill Massey Learmonth jumped atop a parapet and hurled hand grenades at the advancing enemy. The 23-year-old caught enemy grenades that were thrown at him, sending them back to their owners. He was wounded and later died — posthumously being awarded the Victoria Cross.
In all, the Canadians turned back 21 German counterattacks and held onto Hill 70. About 9,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in the effort while an estimated 25,000 Germans were killed or wounded. Six Canadians won the Victoria Cross in the Battle for Hill 70.
“It was altogether the hardest battle in which the Corps has participated,” wrote Currie. “It was a great and wonderful victory. GHQ [General Headquarters] regard it as one of the finest performances of the war.”