The Battle of Hill 70: Canada’s forgotten Vimy Ridge
It’s the sort of imagery that’s familiar to so many Canadians: a muddy, crater-filled battlefield in northern France. An uphill attack over formidable natural obstacles, against a determined foe. A hard-fought victory won by Canadian troops where others had failed. A trial by fire that established Canada’s reputation on the world stage.
The only surprise, then, is that the battle being described is not Vimy Ridge.
The similarities to that iconic Canadian victory are striking, but there is one key difference: the Canadian victory at the Battle of Hill 70 on World War One’s Western Front in 1917 has been largely forgotten in Canada’s public memory.
“It’s been overlooked — there’s no question about that,” historian Andrew Iarocci tells Global News. “Up until the completion of a recent study that I was involved in, the battle had really received no serious scholarly attention.”
“And although it’s reasonably well-represented on local war memorials and cenotaphs across the country, I don’t think you’d have any luck finding very many Canadians who have any idea what it was all about.”
Iarocci is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Western University who has studied the Battle of Hill 70. He says a big reasons for the battle’s inauspicious place in the Canadian public consciousness has to do with simple timing.
“This battle really has fallen in between two stools, as they say, with Vimy [Ridge] on one hand and Passchendaele on the other,” Iarocci said. “They’re both larger battles, they both involve more Canadian soldiers, they both kill[ed] or wound[ed] more Canadian soldiers, and that may explain part of the reason why attention has not been drawn to Hill 70.”
The Battle of Hill 70 began on August 15, 1917. By this point the war was in its third year, and the Western Front had largely devolved into a static conflict, fought along a continuous line of trenches and fortifications stretching from Switzerland to the English Channel.
Hill 70 itself lay to the north of the French city of Lens, which had fallen to the Germans in 1914. Around this time, the British Army was planning a major offensive further north in Belgium, and wanted to focus German attention and resources elsewhere.
“This is where the Canadian Corps comes into the story,” Iarocci said. “It is tasked with launching a minor offensive [around Lens] that will tie down German forces in the area and prevent them from being able to move north and reinforce the area where the British are launching their main attack.”
The Canadians Corps was coming off the victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April of that same year, the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps had fought together at a single battle.
WATCH: Battle of Hill 70 remembered 100 years later. Jeff Semple reports.
Yet in one way, the Battle of Hill 70 represented an even greater patriotic milestone for the Canadians, as they would be led by a Canadian general, not a British one, for the very first time.
“Lt.-General Arthur Currie was fighting his first battle as the corps commander at Hill 70,” Iarocci said. “Prior to Currie’s tenure as corps commander, we had Sir. Julian Byng, [a British officer], in command of the Canadian Corps from 1916 up until the middle of 1917.”
“So it was Byng, of course, who was in command during Vimy Ridge. But now it was Currie’s turn to lead an attack as Corps commander at Hill 70.”
As with the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the lessons learned from years of trench warfare played a role in the innovative tactics used in the battle.
“The tactics which are being used by mid-1917 had been refined over a period of two years of trench warfare,” Iarocci said. “They’re seeing deeper and deeper levels of specialization at the tactical level amongst troops who are equipped with rifle grenades, hand grenades, light machine guns and so forth,” Iarocci said. “All of this plays a role, as does the careful integration of moving artillery barrages.”
WATCH: Remembering the battle for Hill 70
The attack began at dawn on the 15th, and within hours Canadian forces had secured their objectives on Hill 70 and driven the German defenders from their fortified position overlooking Lens.
Over the next four days, the German Army launched over 20 separate counter-attacks to retake Hill 70. The smoke from fires and artillery barrages meant that at times visibility was almost nil, the soldiers reduced to fighting hand-to-hand in the trenches.
None of the counter-attacks managed to dislodge the Canadians, however. On the morning of August 21, a Canadian attempt to take Lens itself was repulsed, effectively ending the Battle for Hill 70.
Was the battle considered a victory?
“The [Canadians] do effectively secure the high ground north of Lens, they do draw in a number of German counter-attacks, which was the intention,” Iarocci said. “But the cost was not inexpensive.”
In total, the Canadian Corps suffered 9,198 casualties; the Germans suffered north of 20,000.
It is perhaps due to the indecisive outcome of the battle that Hill 70 has faded from Canada’s public memory. But few battles in the Great War had definitive, theatre-altering outcomes, including the aforementioned Vimy Ridge.
Andrew Iarocci suggests another reason the battle has been overlooked.
“By the middle of 1917, the country is locked in a very serious political crisis over the Military Service Act, the implementation of conscription, over which an election will be fought later that year,” Iarocci said. “And that may be why Hill 70 was not quite as integrated into Canadian memory as larger offensives on either side of it, as Canadians were distracted by a looming election, and a piece of legislation which arguably is one of the most divisive in our country’s history.”
On April 8, a monument to the Canadian victory will be dedicated atop Hill 70, prior to its official opening on August 22.
It represents the first step towards greater recognition of the battle, both in Canada and abroad.
For as then-Prime Minister Robert Borden once remarked: “Canada got nothing out of the war except recognition.”
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