Wednesday, October 19, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Capturing Hill 70 Launch

     Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending the launch of a fantastic new book, Capturing Hill 70: Canada's Forgotten Battle of the First World War held in the Barney Danson theater at the Canadian War Museum. Hosted by the War Museum's post-1945 historian, Dr. Andrew Burtch, it also featured introductions by co-editor Dr. Serge Durflinger and contributor Dr. Tim Cook. The general theme of the evening was that most Canadians really have no idea what happened at Hill 70 during the First World War, so I'm proud to say that regular readers of this blog will not fall into that category! I won't be saying too much about the battle itself outside of each author's speeches, so if you'd like to brush up on the finer details and our local veterans' involvement, you can refer back to this one:

     As Dr. Durflinger discussed, the book is actually a volume of collected essays edited by both himself and Douglas Delaney. It's a detailed account of the 'how' and 'why' of Canada's forgotten battle and victory, where nine thousand men lost their lives in August 1917. The goal is that it will operate in conjunction with the upcoming monument at the Hill 70 site in France to commemorate the battle's centenary, with the overall project being supported by the Hill 70 Memorial Fund. Capturing Hill 70 is part of a UBC Press series on Canadian military history.
Dr. Serge Durflinger, University of Ottawa

     Dr. Durflinger highlighted the importance of understanding Hill 70 as the major event between Vimy Ridge in April 1917, a major Canadian victory, and Passchendaele in October, a horrific failure. For the Canadian Corps, it was a diversionary attack from the upcoming offensive, but it also had its own local objectives. The battle occurred 1-2 kilometers north of Lens, a French coal mining district, and was referred to as "Hill 70" because that is the landmark's height in meters above sea level. Durflinger theorized that it is less-known recognized in Canadian memory because it is not actually an identifiable place, such as Vimy and Ypres.

     The offensive at Hill 70 was planned by Strathroy's own Arthur Currie, and it was his first time being in charge of a battle. The overwhelming opinion of historians is that he carried out this duty admirably with significant consideration for both tactics and preservation of men. Nonetheless, the first day of the battle (August 15, 1917) saw some of the Canadians' most grisly fighting on the entire Western Front. They were ultimately able to hold their ground, but it was a grim victory. Later, Currie indicated that he believed Hill 70 had been the Canadians' toughest fight, and he had seen them all. August 15 is regarded as Canada's third worst day of the entire war.

     Despite being a two-part offensive with the second stage (the seizure of Lens) a bitter defeat, the essays in the book demonstrate the battle's importance in the events that took place after it. Overall, it was the first solid example of Canadian affirmations on the Western Front. Durflinger concluded by adding that both his and Delaney's grandfathers had served in the First World War, and his at Hill 70.
Dr. Tim Cook with one of his books, The Necessary War
     Dr. Tim Cook took the stage to talk about his essay in the book, which is about the artillery, fire plan, machine gun barrage, and chemical warfare during Hill 70- an idea which he said came from the Hill 70 Memorial Group. He described the battle plan as a "killing by artillery," which was to be a "bite, hold, and destroy" operation that was unique and essential in its inclusion of that third step, "destroy." In all, 482 guns were present at the Hill: half British, half Canadian; and half the number of guns that the Canadians had had at Vimy Ridge. This worried Currie because it meant wear and tear on the guns, but the emphasis was nonetheless on a counterbattery program. In addition, Royal Flying Corps squadrons aided the gunners from the sky.

     The battle also saw the use of a heavy machine gun barrage using Vickers guns, with 2.5 million rounds being fired before the battle even began. This combined arms approach to battle ultimately proved successful, and set an example for subsequent engagements. In addition, the Canadians provided a vicious, brutal infantry attack.
A Vickers machine gun during the battle of Passchendaele

     Currie's plan was to hold the hill, thereby turning the Canadian attackers into defenders (he had the foresight to know that the Germans would eventually turn around with a counteroffensive), but his forces were unable to withstand the total of twenty-one counterattacks. During that time, 171 calls for support came from the infantry, by means of telephone, wires, runners, and even pigeons, and the gunners responded to every one. Ten days after the battle, Currie wrote letters of appreciation to the gunners, which included: "The assaulting Infantry maintain that the [artillery] preparation has never been more complete, the support has never been better and the liaison has never been more perfect."

     This book proves to be an impressive discussion of Hill 70 which includes a variety of perspectives and material which appeals to both academic and non-academic audiences. It was great to reconnect with Dr. Durflinger, one of my greatest historical inspirations, and to see Tim Cook, another phenomenal historian (check out some of his many books, they're all incredible) in person. Capturing Hill 70 is available through Chapters Indigo Coles and I highly recommend checking it out if you're interested.

     Phew, was that too much military history?? I always worry about indulging that side of things too much and boring the readers who come here for the weirdness/ niche topics I'm usually good for. I haven't mentioned it in a while but I am still always open to suggestions, requests, and questions!
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)
Further reading:

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