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Canada’s forgotten battle: Honouring the legacy of Hill 70, more than a century later

WATCH: A new memorial honouring Canada's forgotten victory in the First World War has been unveiled in France. In 1917, more than 9,000 Canadian soldiers were wounded or killed in the pivotal Battle of Hill 70. Redmond Shannon was at the emotional ceremony.

It was a battle when a Canadian commander decided against following the orders of his British superiors, and came up with a better plan instead. It was a battle during which six Canadians earned the Victoria Cross for bravery.

It was also a battle that helped turn the tide of the First World War in favour of the Allies.

Many Canadians know little or nothing about the Battle of Hill 70, but on Wednesday, an impressive, five-hectare memorial to the events of August 1917 was finally officially opened in northern France.

READ MORE: The Battle of Hill 70: Canada’s forgotten Vimy Ridge (April 8, 2017)

Among the guests was Bob Hanna from Delta, British Columbia.

His father, Robert Hill Hanna, was one of the six Canadians awarded the Victoria Cross after the battle.

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“It’s hard to believe that 102 years after my father was here that we’re standing here on the same site,” said Hanna.

“It’s really a nice experience to know that so many people were involved and so much effort was put in.”

The newly-dedicated Battle of Hill 70 memorial site near Lens in northern France.
The newly-dedicated Battle of Hill 70 memorial site near Lens in northern France. Redmond Shannon / Global News

The Hill 70 project team raised more than $8.5 million over the past decade to complete the park.

The five-hectare site was sold by the local municipality to the Hill 70 team for just 1 euro ($1.45), and the project was given significant tax relief by the French government.

No Canadian federal government money went toward the project.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki was also at the ceremony, honouring the 2,500 North-West Mounted Police officers who served with the Canadian Corps during the First World War.

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In the shadow of Vimy

The Battle of Vimy Ridge is rightly regarded as a defining military achievement of Canada’s early history, but the Battle of Hill 70 happened just four months later, and just 10 kilometres away — and it saw similar sacrifices that played a crucial part in the Allied victory.

It was also the first time the Canadian Corps was led by a Canadian, Lt.-Gen Arthur Currie.

Currie was ordered to attack the town of Lens, France by his British superiors, but instead, he convinced them that capturing the nearby Hill 70 site would make more strategic sense.

He was proven right.

The Battle of Hill 70: Canada’s forgotten Vimy Ridge
The Battle of Hill 70: Canada’s forgotten Vimy Ridge

The 10-day battle soaked up a huge amount of German military resources as they attempted — and, 21 times, failed — to retake the hill.

It eased the pressure on the Allies in Belgium, allowing them to eventually push the German forces back from the English Channel.

“The people who built the Vimy Memorial in the ’30s between the wars never imagined in a million years that Hill 70, which was viewed as at least equal to Vimy, would be forgotten,” said John Scott Cowan, who sits on the board of directors of the Hill 70 project.

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“It never occurred to them that the centralization of memorialization would cause the story of Hill 70 to disappear.”

READ MORE: N.B. family reveals never before seen photos taken at Vimy Ridge

Located close to the battle site, just north of Lens, the new memorial features a white obelisk, sitting exactly 70 metres above sea level — the same altitude as Hill 70 itself.

Around the site are 1,877 maple leafs embossed into the concrete, representing each Canadian who died in the 10-day battle.

Six of the walkways at the memorial are dedicated to the Victoria Cross recipients from the battle, and a plaza at the site honours the 2,500 RCMP officers who fought in the First World War.

Tales of valour

Ron Lucas’s grandfather James Lucas died on the first day of the Battle of Hill 70. / Credit: Braden Latam / Global News.
Ron Lucas’s grandfather James Lucas died on the first day of the Battle of Hill 70. / Credit: Braden Latam / Global News.

Six Canadian solders were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions in the Battle of Hill 70, each with a remarkable story of bravery.

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Pte. Harry Brown raced through the battlefield to hand-deliver a message at a critical moment in the battle. He reached his destination despite his arm being shattered, and handed over the message before falling unconscious and dying just hours later.

CSM Robert Hanna earned his Victoria Cross for leading a party of men to capture a strong point under heavy gunfire.

Sgt. Frederick Hobson rushed from his trench to help dig out a machine gun. He then rushed at the enemy with a bayonet and club rifle, before being shot dead. His actions gave the gunner enough time to start firing again, and to hold-off enemy advances.

Cpl. Filip Konowal killed at least 16 enemy soldiers at close range. Konowal is the only Ukrainian Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross.

Maj. Okill Massey Learmonth caught bombs thrown at him and threw them back at the enemy, despite being mortally wounded. He refused to be carried out of the trench, and continued to instruct junior officers. He later died in hospital.

Pte. Michael James O’Rourke was a stretcher-bearer who worked without sleep for three days and nights to bring the wounded to safety. He did so under heavy gunfire and shelling.

First World War exhibit honors Icelandic Canadians
First World War exhibit honors Icelandic Canadians

The brutality of the attack on the fortified hill saw many Canadians die in the first hours of the operation, including Pte. James Lucas, an Irish-born solider whose body was never found.

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His grandson, Ron Lucas, first came to the site in 2010 when it was just a field.

“I was really disgusted that there wasn’t even a plaque, or whatever, and I started writing my member of parliament and the prime minister,” said Lucas.

“Then I found out about the [Hill 70] group in Kingston so I got involved, first as a donor and then I bugged my friends to participate and donate and I’ve been involved ever since.”

The 77-year-old from Montreal has now been to the site four times, and insists he’ll be back again.

“I always come here to see the progress and to see it completed today, I can’t put it into words,” said Lucas.

The Hill 70 project has also created a book about the battle which is being sent to schools across Canada.

Hill 70 apps can be downloaded from the Apple and Google Play stores.

More information on the memorial and the project can be found online at hill70.ca