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World War I: Battle of Hill 70

Introduction

Four months after Vimy Ridge, the Battle of Hill 70 was the first major Canadian battle of the summer and Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie’s first war in his whole career. Lens, a coal-mining city, has been under German occupation since 1914. Since assuming control of the Corps, it was Currie’s first order to take the city by July 31. Currie felt that rather than attempting to capture Lens, it was preferable to neutralize Hill 70 first and exploit it to lure the Germans out over an assault. General Henry Horne agreed to a limited assault, and the fight was planned for the end of Summer1. Despite that change in strategy, Currie had a month to prepare and train his men for Hill 70. Like General Byng on Vimy Ridge, Currie wanted his troops to know what they were doing and where they were going.

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The assault’s goals were to cause losses, distract German forces from the 3rd Battle of Ypres, and weaken the German grip on Lens. On Hill 70, the Canadian Corps established defensive lines from which simultaneous small-arms and heavy artillery, some using the novel method of anticipated fire, could resist German response and inflict maximum losses (Hanß 2017). The Canadian Corps stopped the Germans from deploying local battalions to the Ypres Salient but failed to pull soldiers from other regions.

Strategies Used in the Battle

Despite the location of the army and the site of the war, Haig had been considering a massive Ypres assault since December 19152. To protect the British channels of communication across the English Channel, the Admiralty feared German U-boat assaults and mine-laying operations conducted from seized Belgian ports. Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, the new senior commander of that same Canadian Corps, opposed his army commander’s plan for the Canadians to capture Lens directly. Instead, Currie got his plan to capture Hill 70, a key landmark north of Lens, approved. For Currie, becoming a daring, creative commander who represented Canada’s increasing independence in the Dominion began with this brazen defiance of higher instructions. The attack took three weeks to prepare.

The BEF staff concluded that a successful seaborne invasion on the Coast of Belgium would require diverting the enemy’s attention elsewhere, including the Ypres region. In those other worlds, GHQ thought the Germans could repel a seaborne invasion on the Mediterranean coast unless an Allied onslaught tied down significant numbers of their soldiers3. A gradual onslaught from the Northwest corner toward the Belgian coast was planned for many weeks after Haig met his army leaders in May 1917. By mid-June, Haig’s strategic aspirations had skyrocketed. He would be no longer just considering securing German troops but also actions that might lead to a total victory4. According to Ferris (2017), the number of German battalion and regiment establishments was decreased, and there was a noticeable and unmistakable drop in German troop morale; the Wehrmacht would be unable to transfer more than twenty battalions from the East Front, or only at a rate of three battalions per week, and keeping those thirty-five German units away from Ypres was critical to the success of the Flanders offensive.

Technology Used During the Battle

Canada’s role as a British Dominion influenced its wartime technology. National military procurement initiatives like the Ross rifle failed. Canadian troops mostly used British weaponry and ammunition that were listed in Britain’s doctrine. Early on, the Canadian Corps had its own defensive railway unit. Canada’s skills in railway building and forestry guaranteed its position within the broader British logistical system. By the end of the war, forestry and railway groups had almost one-third of Canadians fighting divisions. Canadian troops fighting under British leadership had to adjust to new technologies by adjusting to using poison gas. It also provided an opportunity for Canadians to use their technological expertise gained during peacetime to larger-scale military problems.

During the conflict, Canadian (and British) infantry weaponry saw little technical advancement. Mortars, for example, were revived for static warfare. Recent innovations like the Lewis light machine gun gained prominence. Canadians had experience with the Ross weapon as compared to their British counterparts. After the 1st Canadian Division was pulled out of frontline service in June 1915 by British General Headquarters, the regiment resigned. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Divisions used the Ross through August-September 1916. However, specialized foot soldiers like scouts and shooters continued to utilize the Ross because of its precision.

Outcomes of the War

Like at Vimy Ridge, troops from all four Canadian battalions would fight together and at Hill 70. It was also fought almost exclusively by Canadians, a novelty in a war when our soldiers typically fought as a component of a bigger British effort5. With the little result, Currie’s smart tactics in August 1917 enabled the Allied command to realize many more successful methods to wage war. Arthur Currie himself said that Hill 70 was the Corpse’s most difficult fight. The Canadians won the war, and the victory gave them fame over the Germans. However, the way brought about suffering both by the injured army personnel and the locals affected. The property was destroyed in the course of the war, and poison gas used was a deadly weapon and therefore caused massive loss of lives.

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Key Characteristics of the Battle

Military Leader Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, proposed an evacuation from the Belgian coast to precipitate a German collapse. The British First Army was instructed to capture Lens and threaten Lille to prevent the French from bolstering its fortifications in preparation for the main British offensive to the north that was about to begin6. The Canadians surpassed the defenses on August 15, 1917, and over the following three nights, the Corps lost almost 1,900 soldiers killed and wounded in successive German counterattacks. Instead of leaving the Lens after Hill 70 was overrun, the enemy remained put, making the hurriedly planned and clumsily conducted Canadian attack against a built-up region a costly defeat7. The corps’ triumph at Hill 70 was less thorough than Vimy Ridge, so it fell into oblivion as the Germans held Lens until the spring thaw.

Conclusions

Currie was originally tasked with assaulting just Lens, a mining operations town located north of Vimy Ridge. Lens had been mainly reduced to a blasted labyrinth of destroyed buildings with strong German defensive positions due to the war. Currie concluded, however, after assessing the situation, that his guns would have difficulty destroying the German defenses there and that sending assaulting soldiers into the town probably result in massive losses. Currie’s deft strategy was to seize the hill’s slopes by surprise, then rapidly establish Canadian defenses to stave off the anticipated German counterattacks since the Germans could never let the strategically situated hill stay in Allied hands. The battle of Hill 70 was the victory for Canada that is hence regarded as a lost victory through history that was fought with the best strategies and by courageous people.

References

Fennell, J. (2018). Book review: approach to battle: training the Indian army during the second world war. Alan Jeffreys soldiers of empire: Indian and British armies in World War II. Tarak Barkawi. War In History, 25(3), 450-452.

Ferris, J. (2017). Seeing over the hill: the Canadian Corps, intelligence, and the battle of Hill 70, July–August 1917. Intelligence And National Security, 32(3), 351-364.

Hanß, S. (2017). War and Peace: Shaping Politics in Reformation Germany after the Battle of Lepanto. The Muslim World, 107(4), 652-664.

Innes-Robbins, S. (2018). Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War Edited by Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger. Canadian Journal of History, 53(2), 305-307.

Kryshtalskyj, M., Vance, J., & McAlister, C. (2018). Message in a bottle: the discovery of a young medical officer’s map from the 1917 Battle of Hill 70. Canadian Journal of Surgery, 302-304.

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Petersen, A. (2017). “The Premillennial Menace”: Shailer Mathews’ Theological-Political Battle Against Premillennialism During the First World War. Journal Of Church and State, 60(2), 271-298.

Footnotes

  1. Ferris, J. (2017). Seeing over the hill: the Canadian Corps, intelligence, and the battle of Hill 70, July–August 1917. Intelligence And National Security, 32(3), 351-364
  2. Petersen, A. (2017). “The Premillennial Menace”: Shailer Mathews’ Theological-Political Battle Against Premillennialism During the First World War. Journal Of Church and State, 60(2), 271-298.
  3. Petersen, A. (2017). “The Premillennial Menace”: Shailer Mathews’ Theological-Political Battle Against Premillennialism During the First World War. Journal Of Church and State, 60(2), 271-298.
  4. Kryshtalskyj, M., Vance, J., & McAlister, C. (2018). Message in a bottle: the discovery of a young medical officer’s map from the 1917 Battle of Hill 70. Canadian Journal of Surgery, 302-304.
  5. Kryshtalskyj, M., Vance, J., & McAlister, C. (2018). Message in a bottle: the discovery of a young medical officer’s map from the 1917 Battle of Hill 70. Canadian Journal of Surgery, 302-304.
  6. Innes-Robbins, S. (2018). Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War Edited by Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger. Canadian Journal of History, 53(2), 305-307.
  7. Fennell, J. (2018). Book review: approach to battle: training the Indian army during the second world war. Alan Jeffreys soldiers of empire: Indian and British armies in World War II. Tarak Barkawi. War In History, 25(3), 450-452.

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