Just over 100 years ago, August 15 marked one of many Canadian victories during the First World War. The capture of Hill 70 in France was the first significant action fought by the Canadian military and led by a Canadian commander, Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, and the battle awarded Allied forces a vital strategic position overlooking the occupied City of Lens.
In July of 1917, the Commander-in-Chief of all British-led forces, Douglas Haig, set forth orders for the French coal mining City of Lens. Haig had hoped this would distract German troops from the erupting battle of Passchendaele.
Hill 70 received its name as it is elevated 70 metres above sea level. Although the City of Lens lay in ruins and shambles below, Currie believed the piece of land was more critical, tactically speaking. For them to traditionally attack and take control of the city, Currie felt their efforts would be wasted if enemy forces could shoot from above while on surrounding hills. It was decided Canadian efforts would be focussed on Hill 70 and by disturbing German troops in the area and coaxing them out of hiding, Canadians could then take out large numbers of enemy forces.
Canadian forces began their attack at 4:25 a.m., on August 15, 1917. The Royal Engineers attacked with burning drums of oil, throwing them into German positions along the hill, matching it with heavy gunfire. The German soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division saw and prepared themselves for the attack, but by 6 a.m., the Canadian Corps was successfully making their way down their checklist of goals.
As the Canadians made their way up the hill, their shield of smoke began disappearing, and many Canadian soldiers were killed or wounded when met with German gunfire. However, they persevered and slowly started taking German machine gun posts as Currie ordered 200 gas bombs to be fired into German positions south of Lens.
By 9 a.m. the next day, German soldiers had executed their first counter-attack in an attempt to reclaim their territory but were unsuccessful. The second counter-attack was also refuted. Eventually, Canadians successfully captured Hill 70, but the cost was high as 9,198 Canadians were killed, and 25,000 were wounded.
Six Victoria Crosses were awarded to soldiers who had shown extreme bravery during the battle of Hill 70.
The first was awarded to Irish-born Canadian stretcher bearer, Private Michael O’Rourke, who repeatedly ran into German fire to save wounded Canadians. The second was awarded to Major Okill Massey Learmonth of Quebec for catching live grenades that were thrown at him and throwing them back at enemy forces. Four other crosses were awarded to Canadian soldiers for their acts of bravery during the battle of Hill 70.
In August 2017, the Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park opened and is located just 1.4 kilometres of where the actual battle took place. The memorial site features several different components. Upon leaving the Welcome Centre, visitors begin their gentle climb along a curving pathway.
As visitors continue down the path, they enter the General Sir Arthur Currie Amphitheatre, one of the critical features of the Hill 70 Memorial Park. The amphitheatre is a central gathering point for visitors and tour groups who are exploring the site. Standing 70 metres above sea level is a stone Obelisk featuring a sword of sacrifice engraved with the words, ‘CANADA 1917.’ The tapered portion at the top stands as tall as an average Canadian soldier, representing the soldiers of the Canadian Corps who fought throughout the First World War.
Visitors are welcome to continue from the Obelisk or the Amphitheatre to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, located southwest of the Memorial Site. Canadian Corps started the Loos British Cemetery in July 1917 and hundreds of the soldiers who died capturing Hill 70 rest in this cemetery.