#86 Capturing Hill 70, reconsidered
First published Feb. 12, 2017
REVIEW: Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War
by Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger, website editors
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016.
$34.95 / 9780774833592
Reviewed by Chris Arnett
In Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War, military historians Doug Delaney and Serge Durflinger gather a team of experts to tell the story, for the first time, of the capture of Hill 70 from the German Army by the Canadian Corps in August 1917.
B.C. regiments such as the 47th Battalion (New Westminster Fusiliers) helped take Hill 70 — just north of the French industrial town of Lens — including coastal logger Filip Konowal, the only Ukrainian recipient of the Victoria Cross, and Tom Anderson, whose grandson Chris Arnett provides this appraisal for the Ormsby Review.
The year 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, where the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together for the first time in a victorious but costly battle. While the battle of Vimy Ridge was important, its iconic “birth of a nation” status occurred long after the event has eclipsed the significance of another costly but landmark Canadian victory that occurred 100 years ago this summer.
At Hill 70 and Lens, for the first time, as superbly documented in this book, all of the extraordinary resources and capabilities of Canadian Army Corp went into action under a Canadian, not a British, commander.
A coalmining town in the north of France a short distance along the Western Front from Vimy Ridge, Lens was dominated by a slight rise of chalk ground known by the prosaic name of Hill 70. Earlier in 1917 it had been heavily fortified by German troops.
After weeks of planning, the Canadian Corps under Sir Arthur Currie took Hill 70, goading the enemy into twenty-one disastrous counterattacks in which they were mowed down by Canadian firepower in “a killing by artillery,” as one participant put it.
The Canadian attack between August 15 and 17, 1917 was a brilliant success, and once Hill 70 was taken, it was assumed the Germans would abandon Lens; but they held fast, and two hastily planned Canadian assaults on the city of Lens from August 21 to 25 were far less successful than Hill 70, and Lens remained in enemy hands.
In Capturing Hill 70, editors Douglas Delaney and Serge Durflinger, with seven other noted military scholars, dissect the battle in nine riveting essays documenting how Canadian expertise – now seasoned by three years of warfare — contributed to the planning, training, logistics, and fighting.
Following Delaney’s masterful overview of the battle, the book takes a top-down approach to expose all levels of this fight, each chapter providing another layer of detail and analysis to the sequence of events.
Nicholas Gardner, in his chapter “Higher Command: First Army and the Canadian Corps,” examines the relationship between Canadians and the British command to remind us that the Corps, as at Vimy Ridge, was part of the British First Army, which in turn was part of a larger army, the British Expeditionary Corps.
While First Army support and planning was significant, Sir Arthur Currie, a former teacher and realtor from Victoria, enjoyed much greater autonomy than similar British formations. While the plan to take Hill 70 was not Currie’s idea, he was able to modify it according to his own preferences by drawing on the expertise of his own staff and commanders.
Given a free hand by the British First Army, Currie achieved great success in his tactical victory at Hill 70.
Gardner notes that Currie was also given “the freedom to make mistakes” — and indeed, his subsequent attack on Lens was, due to hasty planning, something of a disaster that tempered the initial victory and helps explain why the Battle of Hill 70 is not better known.
Next up is Douglas Delaney who, in “The Corps Nervous System in Action: Commanders, Staffs and Battle,” unpacks the chain of command in the Canadian Corps to show the care Currie’s officers took in the weeks before the battle in planning their objectives and conducting their own reconnaissance and estimates.
Mark Osborne Humphries then takes up the narrative in “The Best Laid Plans: Sir Arthur Currie’s First Operations as Corps Commander,” with particular attention to Currie’s pattern of “refusing orders from his superiors in order to save Canadian lives” from costly frontal assaults.
Instead, Currie “made the important mental shift from capturing ground to killing the enemy.” The plan worked magnificently but, as Humphries shows, while “anxious to protect Canadian lives, Currie showed himself to be as vulnerable to the lure of a prestigious objective as many other Great War commanders” — launching his ill-planned frontal assault against the strongly fortified city of Lens, something even his British superiors were reluctant to initiate.
Tim Cook, author of several books on the Canadian contribution to the war to end all wars, provides an action-packed essay entitled “The Fire Plan: Gas, Guns, Machine Guns and Mortars.” Cook outlines the “combined-arms system of battle” in which the aforementioned weaponry “unleashed the firepower for the biting and holding of key terrain.”
Cook describes the role of integrated firepower and gas attacks during the initial Hill 70 attack of August 15, the destruction of German counterattacks from August 15 to 18, and the attack on the Lens itself between August 21 and 25.
Even though Cook describes Hill 70 “as very much a Canadian battle,” almost half of the artillery contribution was British, once again enlarging our scope of understanding how the Canadian Corps was “ably supported by First [British] Army.”
Two subsequent essays leave the excitement and carnage of combat for the less glamourous but essential role of infrastructure and supply in maintaining the Canadian Corps in the field.
In “Sinews of War: Transportation and Supply,” Andrew Iarocci ably documents the role of transportation infrastructure, motor vehicles, horse drawn transport, and light narrow-gauge railway in the movement of guns, ammunition, food, and casualties. The flexibility of the system improved the chance of success and increased the odds of survival for wounded soldiers.
And there were many wounded. In “Force Preservation: Medical Services,” Robert Engen chronicles the success of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) in disease prevention by keeping “soldiers healthy and fit to fight,” while also ensuring prompt evacuation and medical treatment for wounded soldiers — no mean task under a barrage of fire and gas. From August 15 to 25, the unsung heroes of the CAMC processed 7,000 Canadian wounded.
Next in this path-breaking volume is Robert Foley’s “The Other Side of the Hill: The German Defence,” in many ways the most interesting essay in this volume. German accounts are rare partly due to the destruction of military records in the Prussian Archives in 1945.
Foley’s admirable command of the few available German sources sheds new perspective on the Canadian achievement. He provides graphic first person depictions of the fighting as seen by the German troops, who were well aware of the abilities of the Canadians, whom they considered “the best English assault troops (Sturmtruppen).”
The concluding essays contextualize the battle on the home front and consider its legacy. In “To Win at Any Cost: Political and Manpower,” J.L. Granatstein considers the 1917 general election and the wane of public support for the war, declining enrollments, and the issue of conscription.
Farmers feared the loss of labour and politicians feared the loss of the farm vote. Soldiers in the field, aware of the lack of enthusiasm in Quebec for the war, demanded conscription in French Canada.
Following the 1917 Conservative federal election victory, Sir Robert Borden instituted the Military Service Act, a political act that contributed little to the war effort while strengthening the cause of Quebec nationalism.
Finally, in “A Battle Forgotten? Remembering Hill 70 in its Time and Ours,” Serge Durflinger examines the legacy of the battle and its gradual disappearance from national consciousness, even though memory of the battle was retained and preserved by individual units and communities across Canada.
In the interwar years, Hill 70 and Lens were sites of frequent pilgrimage by Canadians who watched as the battlefield was reclaimed by French farmers and by French householders, who restored their wrecked homes.
In 1925, a group of Canadian Protestants erected the Canadian Vimy Memorial Church at Lens — not at Vimy — because the soldiers who took Vimy Ridge in April 1917 had been able to see the church spires of Lens in the distance.
In this way, the Memorial Church at Lens became the site of yet another celebration to Vimy. The 1936 dedication of the magnificent Vimy Memorial barely fifteen kilometers away further erased memory of Hill 70.
Even before it was erected, observes Durflinger, “the Vimy Memorial’s long shadow had begun to obscure the Hill 70 and Lens battlefields;” and after the war, a committee on battle honours decided not to include Hill 70, forcing Currie to enlist the support of British Field-Marshal Douglas Haig.
As Currie put it, “he [Haig] personally appeared before the committee for the purpose of insisting that a battle honour be given for the engagement. I daresay it is the only battle honour which the Canadians share with no one.”
This year, the Hill 70 Memorial Project, a group that came up with the original idea and support for Capturing Hill 70, will erect a seventy metre tall obelisk on the former Canadian front line with accompanying information displays on the battle, close to the resting place of the nearly 2,000 Canadians who died in the battle.
In this way, Hill 70 should gain the recognition it deserves as the first battle in the First World War planned, executed, and fought by Canadians.
While taking nothing away from the accomplishment of Canadian arms at Vimy Ridge, Capturing Hill 70 puts these watershed 1917 battles into a detailed perspective.
Pierre Berton’s best selling book Vimy (McClelland & Stewart, 1986) solidified the myth of the Battle for Vimy Ridge but, as John Grodzinski concludes, Canada’s greatest popular historian “distorted this battle beyond anybody’s ability to repair the damage.”
Distortion is definitely not the case with the excellent collection of essays that comprise Capturing Hill 70. There is no romance here — only pragmatic efficiency in getting the job done in the Canadian way.
My Grandfather Tom Anderson was at Lens with the 47th Battalion (New Westminster Fusiliers) but he never talked much about the war. He was wounded on August 21, 1917 in Currie’s rash attack on Lens.
Hit in the upper right arm with shrapnel, Tom was quickly evacuated from the front line by the Canadian Army Medical Corps and went on to live a long life. Of the fighting at Lens he told me, “None of it made any sense.”
Now, thanks to this book, some of it does.
Chris Arnett is an author, artist, archaeologist, musician, and historian who lives on Salt Spring Island and in the Vancouver area, where he is currently a sessional instructor in the Department of Anthropology at UBC. His parents, grandparents, and great grandparents instilled in him a keen interest in North American history and in the people and culture of his ancestral homelands of New Zealand, Cornwall, and Norway. He continues his ongoing self-directed and institutional ethnographic, archaeological, and sometimes musical research in British Columbia.
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 Major John R. Grodzinski, “The Use and Abuse of Battle: Vimy Ridge and the Great War over the History of the Great War” (2009): http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vol10/no1/12-grodzinski-eng.asp