Wednesday, August 17, 2016

World War Wednesdays: The Canadians at Hill 70

Canadians take a break in a captured German trench during the Battle of Hill 70 in August 1917. The soldiers on the left are scanning the sky for aircraft, while the soldier in the centre appears to be re-packing his gas respirator into the carrying pouch on his chest. Dust cakes their clothes, helmets, and weapons.
George Metcalf Archival Collection 
CWM 19920085-686
     This month marks yet another 99th anniversary related to the events of the First World War, and one that has not as of yet had any coverage by World War Wednesdays. I thought it would be a fitting tribute to give readers an overview of the events and what they meant for Canadians, while adding in some of the local research I compiled this past spring. 
     The central concept of Hill 70 is that the Canadian Corps attacked the northern France city of Lens in August 1917 in order to relieve pressure on other Allied troops who were fighting in Passchendaele, near Flanders.
     Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western front, launched a strategic offensive in Flanders, east of Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Known as the infamous Passchendaele campaign, it was marked by intense fighting, heavy rain, and mud. All of these factors combined to result in a diminishing hope for significant breakthrough. In order to divert German reinforcements from the Passchendaele battlefield, Haig ordered attacks further south. One of these, involving the First Army, meant an attack at Lens by the Canadian Corps. 

Canadian soldiers used this ruined house west of Lens to shelter their water tanks. From here, water would be carried forward to soldiers in the trenches. This photo was taken in September 1917, about a month after the battle.
George Metcalf Archival Collection 
CWM 19920085-786
     Haig ordered Strathroy, Ontario's own Sir Arthur Currie, who in June had been placed in command of the Canadian Corps, to launch a frontal attack on the city of Lens. Instead of attacking the heavily-fortified city directly, however, Currie's studies of the land were enough to convince his British superiors that a better plan would be to capture Hill 70, directly to the north. If the significant hill could be taken, the Germans would have no choice but to counterattack. Currie thus planned for artillery and machine guns to smash the German concentrations in order to weaken their hold on the entire sector. 
     The Canadians attacked on 15 August and captured many of their objectives, including the high ground. They were then able to hold their positions despite 21 determined German counterattacks over the next four days. Subsequent Canadian probing attacks against Lens on 21 and 23 August were unsuccessful, but Currie's forces had inflicted severe casualties on the enemy and gained the high ground overlooking the city. 
     Ultimately, over 9,000 Canadians were killed at Hill 70, but an estimated 25,000 Germans were killed or wounded. Currie proved himself as an able and innovative commander, and his Canadian Corps soon moved north to assist Haig and his faltering Passchendaele campaign. 
Canadian troops inspect a captured German gun position near Lens, France in September 1917. Its concrete construction helped protect the defenders from bullet and shrapnel fire.
George Metcalf Archival Collection 
CWM 19930013-964
     On 15 August 2016, the Hill 70 Memorial Project commemorated the 99th anniversary of Canada's "Forgotten Victory" by recreating the photo used as the top of this post (which was taken at Hill 70) in tableau. It was staged in various locations across downtown Ottawa, with a piper leading the way to each spot. The event began at the Drill Hall at 11, and was seen at:
Valiants Gallery at 11:15-11:45
Parliament Hill at Noon to 1 pm
Sparks and Metcalfe at 3.30-4 pm
George Street near the Bay at 5 to 6 pm.
    Local Connections 
     As part of my research for the 100th anniversary of the departure of Elgin's own 91st Battalion, I was able to identify the battles at which some of our local veterans served. I wanted to include a list, with images where possible, of the Dunwich and West Elgin men who are known to have served at Hill 70. In doing so, I recognize that this is only a partial list, and hope that any readers with further information will share any additions to my database. 
William Doolittle, Dutton
William McNernie, Dutton
William Lodge, Iona
Leonard Munn, Dutton (wounded at Hill 70)

Ernest Rycroft, Iona 
Lance Corporal Wesley E. Sloan, Iona 
Leon Russell Auckland, Rodney
David Gill, Rodney
Frank Winfield Jannaway, Rodney
Hilton Day McNally, Rodney
Ross Farnham Peace, Rodney
Earl Russell Peace, Rodney 
George Henry Sayer, Rodney
Reuben Byfield, West Lorne
Roy Erskine, West Lorne
Boyd Erskine, West Lorne
Victor Earl Lemon, West Lorne
John Gyde, West Lorne

  Finally, I'd like to make special mention of the one local soldier who is known to have lost his life at Hill 70, William Harold Jacques. A native of Eagle, he enlisted in October 1915 and served at the Somme and Vimy Ridge with the 70th and 91st Battalions, as well as the 75th French Battalion. He was killed at Hill 70 exactly 99 years before this post was published, on August 17, 1917.

They were young, as we are young,
They served, giving freely of themselves.
To them, we pledge, amid the winds of time,
To carry their torch and never forget.
We will remember them

Special thanks to the Canadian War Museum for information and images, Lost Ottawa, and Elgin County Archives. Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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