Canada’s forgotten battle: Hill 70

I first became aware of the First World War Battle of Hill 70 when researching the 107th Capturing Hill 70“Timber Wolf” Battalion for a couple of short stories I was working on a number of years ago, which were “A Deeper Echo” and “The Wolves of Vimy.” Compared to the treatment of other battles Canada fought in during the First World War — such as the Somme, Vimy, and Passchendaele — it’s almost unheard of today, and I only stumbled across mention of it because the 107th played a part in it. However, as the contributors to the new volume Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War, edited by Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger, show, at the time it was seen as equally important as those other battles. I had the opportunity to review the book for the Winnipeg Free Press (presented below in slightly longer form).

Etched in stone on the war monument on Winnipeg’s Memorial Boulevard, along with SOMME, VIMY and PASSCHENDAELE, are the words HILL 70. Yet while Vimy and Paschendaele loom large in Canadian awareness of the First World War, Hill 70 has been forgotten.

Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger hope to change that with their new volume of scholarly essays on the battle, arguing it was at least as important as Canada’s more well-known battles.

Hill 70 overlooked the German-occupied town of Lens, France significant for its connections to railways and nearby coal production. The four Divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, having fought together for the first time in the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, were now tasked with taking this point along the Western Front in August.

Aside from the site’s strategic value, the Canadians were meant to occupy German forces, preventing them from reinforcing their line in Flanders, where the British were making a major thrust.

Canada successfully took the hill, repulsed days of German counterattacks, and suffered 8,677 casualties. At Vimy, Canadians earned four Victoria Crosses; at Hill 70 and Lens, they earned six.

The volume is meticulously researched and will provide much to the student of Canada’s changing role in the First World War. However, despite careful cross-referencing between the chapters, no cohesive narrative of the battle emerges.

The book leads off with Nikolas Gardner’s detailed explication of First World War British command structure in and Canada’s place in it. It provides context but is hardly an engaging start to an argument for including Hill 70 in the same breath as Vimy or Passchendaele.

It might have been better to begin with Dufflinger’s essay on contemporary coverage of the battle, which garnered exuberant front-page headlines across Canada.

Or, perhaps, with J. L. Granatstein’s essay on Canadian politics, especially then-prime-minister Borden’s determination to push conscription as well as income tax through Parliament while trying to win a fall election. The pressure to keep the C.E.F. at full strength meant Borden had to choose between inadequate volunteer enlistment, or legislating conscription  — and torching the Conservatives’ political fortunes in Quebec.

Robert Engen’s chapter on health, and front-line medicine paints a vivid picture of the realities of life in the trenches, including such tidbits that Canada was the only country to vaccinate all its troops against typhoid, which, along with other preventive health measures, had a huge effect on the troops’ combat readiness.

The chapter on the use of light rail at the front at Hill 70 surprisingly gives a clear picture of the scale of Canadian operations and indeed, the Western Front. The logistics of moving people, ammunition, and supplies not only to the front, but away from it (as for evacuating casualties) was staggering, and in fact given the limits of early motorized transport, the replacement of trucks as well as horsepower with narrow gauge rail represented a huge savings in terms of petrol use.

In a somewhat pragmatic Canadian fashion, as well, the soldiers who took part in creating and maintaining Canada’s light rail infrastructure at Hill 70, somewhat to the consternation of British commanders higher up, were not a unit unto themselves but a collection of Canadian rail workers from different units who came together on an ad hoc basis.

Despite some repetition of information from chapter to chapter, the editors succeed in arguing Hill 70 was as just as important other more famous battles. As several contributors show, Canadian commander Lt.-Gen. Sir Arthur Currie capitalized on the lessons of Vimy in orchestrating the success, and, equally, seemingly ignored those lessons when pressing on immediately to try to take the town of Lens, and failed.

It may be impossible to create as stirring a portrait of the Battle for Hill 70 as Pierre Berton did for Vimy Ridge in Vimy — mainly because Berton wrote he could still interview survivors of the battle. And perhaps because Hill 70 was such a success for the Canadians, it doesn’t compel reflection as do other battles such as Passchendaele, whose memory  has been bolstered by a relatively recent feature film.

 

Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War is published by UBC Press/Canadian War Museum.

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