The Forgotten Victory at Hill 70
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^^^Canadian soldiers practice bringing a Vickers medium machine gun quickly into action prior to the Hill 70 battle.
CANADA: FROM A COLONY TO A NATION
At the start of the First World War, Canada was but a colony - tied to the Commonwealth of Britain and impacted by the decisions Britain would make for her. But the victories that the Canadian men before us achieved during the First World War would be so valiant, so crucial, and so extraordinary - that Canada itself would come out of the War an independent nation, deserving of the utmost respect on a global platform.
The Canadians' actions during the First World War would transform Canada from Britain's colony to a dependable ally - fully capable of handling her own, even in the most drastic of circumstances.
Many who reflect upon Canada's actions during the First World War think back to the events that would take place at the Vimy Ridge in April 1917. In many historical texts, the site of Vimy Ridge is regarded as the birthplace of Canadian independence. The battle of Vimy Ridge was the first time that all four Canadian battalions would fight as a single united force. Together, they would accomplish what no allied force could complete in previous efforts over the past three years of fighting - the taking of Vimy Ridge.
Others might also point out the terrific achievements and bravery that would come after the Battle of Vimy Ridge for the Canadians; Passchendaele, The Last Hundred Days, and the Second Battle of Ypres for example, were all battles that would have only added to Canada's achievements.
However, there was another victory - shadowed by Vimy's success perhaps - that undoubtedly and single-handedly secured Canada's independence as a nation, and that is the poignant victory that took place at Hill 70.
OBJECTIVE: DESTROY GERMAN REINFORCEMENTS
The battle for Hill 70 at Loos-en-Gohelle, a town near Lens, France, was a terrific battle that took place between August 15th - 25th, 1917 - four months after the attack at Vimy Ridge.
^^^ Google Maps Data Earth View Zoom-out of Loos-en-Gohelle & the city of Lens
^^^ Google Maps Data close up of Loos-en-Gohelle & the city of Lens
How the battle of Hill 70 came to be is in and of itself, quite the story. After the successful attack at Vimy, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, the British commander of the Canadian Corps who had overseen Vimy, was promoted to the General Officer Command of the Third Army. To take his place as commander of the Canadian Corps would be the Canadian, Arthur Currie. It marked the first time in history for a Canadian to be appointed total command of its corps. Sir Arthur Currie was officially knighted a few days after that, on June 12th, 1917.
Sir Arthur Currie took brave steps in the next few months - actions, that no other commander in the Commonwealth would dare risk. On July 7th, 1917, Currie's first orders from General Haig came through - to take the mining town of Lens, 10 km north of Vimy Ridge. The objective was to prevent the Germans from getting their reinforcements to Passchendaele, where the British were already struggling.
After extensively surveying the area around Lens, Currie became gravely concerned. The Germans had full control of the high ground surrounding half the city of Lens. The Germans would easily have them in their sites should the Canadians attack the city. Additionally, the German heavily fortified Lens would make attacking it and holding it very difficult. It would leave the Canadians stuck, and exposed. It was, as Colonel A.G.L. McNaughton would call it, a “bloody fool operation.”
Currie determined that the only way to continue to fulfill Haig's objective was to attack the two hills overlooking the city; the German-occupied Sallaumines to the south and Hill 70 to the north, would need to be taken before Lens itself could be attacked. Currie met with the commander-in-chief Douglas Haig, himself, and presented him with his alternative plan. For a Lieutenant General to retaliate against the orders of a commander-in-chief like that was unprecedented and widely frowned upon - yet Haig was confident in Currie's abilities and assured trust in Currie's alternate plan to move forward.
THE BATTLE FOR HILL 70
Leading up to the battle, the Canadians would participate in a variety of strenuous training exercises, including running trials through a full-scale taped-off course - a precise replica of the battlefield they would be attacking - now a standard procedure since the battle for Vimy.
On August 15th, 2017 - those preparations would bode well despite having only three divisions and one reserve of the Canadian Corps fighting against the five armoured divisions of the German army. The battle was an arduous and uphill struggle for the Canadians, and would ultimately cost the Canadians Corps over 5,700 men in casualties. Despite this, the Canadians would continue to bite back, and hold on - by August 20th, 1917, the German Army would suffer losses estimated at close to 20,000 men.
The Canadians had effectively taken and held Hill 70, an almost impossible achievement, and thus hastening their objective. As a result of the battle, the Canadian Corps would be awarded six Victoria Crosses for their heroic actions, where at Vimy, the Canadians had only won four.
For the Canadian offensive, it was a crushing win against unimaginable odds. General Arthur Currie would call it “a great and wonderful victory” as well as “the hardest battle in which the Corps has participated.”
Although, the achievements at Vimy, Passchendaele, and the Last Hundred Days, are of important note in their own regard - the Battle of Hill 70 would indeed be the toughest, and most crucial of the Canadian victories - as it provided the Allies with a significant turning point in the War.
With the victory at Hill 70, the Canadian Corps quickly developed into a national army - its success would provide Currie with a new status: the National Force Commander. In turn, Sir Arthur Currie became highly regarded for his ability to provide good judgement and with that, himself and the nation he represented became highly respected. The organisation of the Canadian Corps would drastically change once Currie was given full command of his national army. The Canadian Corps would re-organize their divisions' ratio, size and logistics from what they had been told to do as a British division. The Canadian Corps would renew their focus on artillery as Currie's famous slogan rang true: "Pay the price of victory in shells, not men".
The successful battle for Hill 70 is thus the watershed to Canada's success and independence. Because of this victory, further achievements, such as the Canadian involvement at Passchendaele, and the Hundred Days offensive, could be made to ultimately win the War. These accomplishments could not have been guaranteed without the re-organisation and restructuring of the newly national army - the Canadian Corps.
AN EPIC VICTORY FORGOTTEN Despite the epic achievements attained here at Hill 70 - it may come to a surprise that little is known about the events that happened here. There is no official memorial in Loos-en-Gohelle, and historical texts tend to neglect the battle - even the most substantial of literature might provide only a basic description. The Canadian National War Memorial at the site of Vimy Ridge is sketched proudly on the Canadian $20 bill, yet at Hill 70, no image can be placed in a Canadian's mind. Once you know this story of Hill 70 it is almost shocking to realise , that what had happened here - despite how significant, symbolic, and pertinent it would be for Canada's place on a world stage - had been ultimately dismissed - forgotten, somehow.
THE CENTENNIAL & THE HILL 70 MEMORIAL PROJECT
The Battle of Hill 70 began on August 15th, 1917, and on August 15th, 2017, we will be marking the centennial year since the battle begun - what better time than this to remind Canadians of how their land truly became a country? In anticipation of the upcoming anniversary, a group of Canadians, supported by the Princess of Wales' Own Regiment, have been building the "Hill 70 Memorial Project" to shine light upon this crucial, yet overlooked victory.
Funded entirely by private support via a nation-wide fundraising campaign, a memorial will finally be constructed in the City of Loos-en-Goehelle, France. Combined with a new and robust educational programme devised by a professionally programmed media platform, the Princess of Wales Own Regiment is also focused on the culmination of these efforts to be completed in time for the commemorative centennial ceremonies to take place on August 15th, 2017.
PRINCESS OF WALES OWN REGIMENT ON TOUR
The Battlefield Tours Team is honoured to escort the Princess of Wales' Own Regiment to the city of Loos-en-Gohelle to walk in the footsteps of their forebears and commemorate this utmost important even that transformed Canada from a colony, to an independent nation and powerful ally. If you'd like more information, please see the PWOR tour page at: www.thebattlefieldtours.com/pwortohill70
If you'd like to return to the tour page for this initiative, please see the Hill 70: 100 Tour Page at Hill 70: 100 Official Tour Information
If you'd like to learn more about the project, please see the Hill 70 Memorial Project Proposal written by Dr John Scott Cowan, Principal Emeritus, The Royal Military College of Canada. See more at: http://pwor.ca/foundation/hill-70-project/
If you'd like to gain more insight as to why the Battle of Hill 70 is regarded as the 'Forgotten Battle", please see "Neglected Victory The Canadian Corps at Hill 70" by Matthew Walthert. See more at http://scholars.wlu.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1583&context=cmh
If you'd like to read more about Hill 70, may we suggest Vimy: A Battle Remembered, Hill 70: A Battle Forgotten March 1, 2012, by Tim Cook - See more at https://legionmagazine.com/en/2012/03/vimy-a-battle-remembered-hill-70-a-battle-forgotten/#sthash.92a4U7b9.dpuf
John Swettenham, McNaughton Vol. 1 (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1968), 98.
Matthew Walthert (2010) "Neglected Victory The Canadian Corps at Hill 70," Canadian Military History: Vol. 19: Iss. 1, Article 3. Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol19/iss1/3
Terry Copp, “The Military Effort,” Canada and the First World War: Essays in Honour of Robert Craig Brown, edited by David MacKenzie (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), p.52.
G.W.L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 (Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, 1962)
Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918, Volume 2 (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008).
Geoff Jackson, “‘Anything But Lovely’: The Canadian Corps at Lens in the summer of 1917,” Canadian Military History (Winter 2008), p.5.