Canada in the First World War - Hill 70
In June of 1917 Sir Arthur Currie was made a Lieutenant General and promoted to command the Canadian Corps. The promotion caused a fuss in Canadian political circles as the Canadian Cabinet had not been consulted and the post had been promised to the more senior Major General Turner. He too was promoted to Lieutenant General and was left as senior Canadian officer overseas.
The early days of that June were spent raiding the German lines south of Lens. Lens was a city about 5 miles northwest of Vimy. It had been the site of intense fighting in 1915. The raids were really small bite and hold operations, an attack against a small section of German lines that was then to hold that line against all counterattacks. Not all of the attacks were successful, but over the course of the month, sustained pressure by the Canadians and British forced the Germans back on Lens itself.
On July 31stField Marshal Haig would finally begin his long planned offensive in Flanders, the Third Battle of Ypres. To support this operation Haig wanted the Canadian Corps to capture Lens, this would hold German forces away from the Ypres salient. On observing the lay of the land Currie decided that assaulting Lens directly would be too costly. He suggested that the Canadian Corps should capture Hill 70 instead.
Haig agreed to the change but ordered that the attack take place by August 4th. The original date for the assault was July 31st, but the rain that fell at Ypres also fell at Lens and the attack was delayed until August 15th. Between those dates the Canadians raided south of the hill, these raids were smash and run raids, unlike the bite and hold raids, these raids were simply intended to cause casualties and unnerve the enemy. They were intended to draw the attention of the enemy away from the area of the main assault and in that intent they succeeded.
On the morning of August 15th the assaulting barrage began. Most of the Canadian Corps artillery had been sent north to assist in the Ypres offensive, but there were still the divisional guns and the men who saw the opening barrage still wondered how any one could survive such a pounding. In addition burning oil drums were used in the bombardment which provided thick black smoke that helped cover the advance. The barrage and the advance moved quicker than in previous assaults and this caught the well prepared Germans by surprise.
The 3rd Brigade had captured their objectives by 6 a.m., the 4th Brigade was defending against the first counterattack by 8 a.m. The German counterattack was in fact central to the General Currie’s plan. The attack on Hill 70 was a bite and hold operation, a specified section of enemy line was to be captured, and as it was known that he would then counterattack, a planned defence involving artillery and machine gun batteries was implemented. As the Germans counterattacked their formations were destroyed. This was a plan that was similar to that used by the Germans at Verdun.
Machine gun teams were rapidly moved forward to consolidate the captured objectives. Wireless (radio) sets were used to help bring down artillery barrages with spotter aircraft from the Royal Flying Corps providing valuable assistance. The nature of the operation allowed the artillery to stay in place while providing vital cover fire to the advanced Canadian positions. Several times the Germans managed to retake lines in fierce hand-to-hand combat only to be driven out in similar fighting later on.
To reduce the effectiveness of the Canadian artillery, the Germans deployed Mustard gas in their bombardments. Mustard gas is a slow acting persistent agent, it could take hours to notice the effects of the gas and up to three days to kill its victims. Its persistence meant that not only those exposed to it on the battlefield suffered, but also sometimes, the medical personnel, most notably the nurses, who handled the uniforms of gassed soldiers. On August 18th alone the Germans fired over 15,000 mustard gas shells into Canadian positions.
In four days of fighting, from August 15th to 18th, the Germans launched some twenty-one counter-attacks. Ultimately, they all failed and the Canadian Corps had captured Hill 70. German losses were estimated at 20,000 while the Canadian Corps suffered 5,600 casualties. For a battle of attrition it was a success. But Field Marshal Haig wanted Lens, and so the battle continued.
The commanders of the 2nd and 4th Divisions felt that they could capture Lens. The Canadian Corps had never actually assaulted an urban environment like Lens. For this attack there had been little time to reconnoitre and no time to rehearse the attack. Intelligence was sparse but the feeling among the general staff was that German morale was low and another push was all that was needed to make them break. That push would take place on August 21st.
Minutes before the attack was to begin the Germans began their own assault on Canadian lines. While the leading waves of the German assault were able to gain and capture the Canadian lines, the opening bombardment of the Canadian artillery wiped out the supporting waves. Within hours the captured trenches had been regained and German lines captured. As the Canadians entered Lens they were unable to maintain unit cohesion. The Germans, familiar with the city after years of occupation, were able to defeat the Canadians in detail. By the end of the day the Canadians were back where they started.
Major General Watson of the 4th Division still felt his division could accomplish more. He wanted to capture a hill south of Lens known as Green Crassier, really a slag heap. A single battalion was detailed to the attack. When the Lt. Colonel commanding complained and suggested the attack be called off a second battalion was added to cover its flank. When the attack began the other battalion was not yet in place. The attacking battalion was met by two German battalions and while initially capturing the German lines was driven off the objective. A few more trenches were captured before the operation was ended on August 25th. The extra assault had added another 3600 casualties without significant results to show for those losses.
Hill 70 and Lens were General Currie’s first operations as Corps Commander. As a diversionary operation it was successful, two German divisions were diverted from Ypres to Lens. As a battle of attrition it was also successful, greater losses being imposed on the enemy than those suffered by the Corps. General Currie, despite his success, still had lessons to learn, but he had started well. Hill 70 was Canada’s first contribution to the Third Battle of Ypres, but they were soon to be more immediately involved in the battle, also known as Passchendaele.