The city of Lens, in the most uninteresting part of France, is about the size of Moose Jaw. Lens has auto parts stores and townhouses. The city sits in “the bottom of a shallow saucer encircled by hills on three sides,” explains Capturing Hill 70. As homely as it is, Lens a hundred years ago was much worse, “ringed by slag heaps, coalfields and nearly a dozen industrial, red-brick suburbs that had been pulverized by shelling,” writes historian Mark Humphries of Wilfrid Laurier University.
Lens lays claim to an indelible part of Canadiana. Here in August 1917 Canadian soldiers fought for the first time under a Canadian general with Canadians in charge of nearly all the fighting formations. “A landmark battle”, says Capturing Hill 70. It was heroic and pointless, extraordinary and tragic. If the whole maddening story of the First World War could be summarized in 288 pages, this is it.
Volunteers were assigned to take Hill 70, a treeless mound overlooking German infantry that held the city itself. From the vantage point of a century past, the objective seems obscure. Hill 70 was one of those chess-piece battles devised as part of some incredibly complex master plan that came at horrific cost and did little to win the war. Canadians suffered 257 casualties in one skirmish up a slag heap. Soldiers took Hill 70 at the price of 8,677 dead, wounded and missing. Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie called it “the hardest battle in which the Corps has participated.”
They were brave men. One veteran of Hill 70, Corporal Filip Konowal, an Ottawa labourer, was awarded the Victoria Cross for single-handedly bayoneting 16 Germans in a charge on a machine gun crew. After the war Konowal was hospitalized in an asylum, and ended his days as a House of Commons janitor with a $15 a month pension.
Another Hill 70 veteran, Lt.-Gen. Brock Chisholm, won the Military Cross and for years afterward woke up screaming from night terrors. It drew Chisholm to psychiatry. He became deputy health minister in Ottawa, and the first director-general of the World Health Organization.
In the battle itself, Canadians first poured shellfire into the suburbs of Lens. It was a “metal storm”, writes Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum. Artillery dropped mammoth shells that “left craters that could swallow a truck.” Forty-six tons of poison gas were lobbed at German lines, and Canadian machine gunners discovered by tilting their Vickers at a 20-degree angle they could “spray the enemy lines indiscriminately with tens of thousands of bullets.” One machine gun company fired more than a third of a million rounds.
The fighting was so ferocious that men cracked. Two Canadians were shot for desertion. Survivors recalled the deafening roar of artillery and shower of body parts.
After shooting and bayoneting their way 1,500 yards up the hill, Canadians then made the mistake of pushing their luck and attempting to take the city itself. “The houses were built in long rows and the Germans had knocked bricks out of each house and built a tunnel through,” one veteran recalled. “They could move two or three streets out of sight. Don’t forget this: the Germans had been there for twelve or thirteen months.”
If Hill 70 was a clear tactical win, authors note, the aftermath saw commanders “unwilling to accept limited gains and continued with poor planning and costly attacks into Lens, even after there was little chance of success.”
Here is the war in a nutshell: little victories, big defeats, numbing cost. “There has been no highly publicized pilgrimage to Hill 70 and the battle is unlikely ever to grace the reverse of the Canadian twenty-dollar bill as the Vimy Memorial does,” writes historian Serge Durflinger of the University of Ottawa.
Capturing Hill 70 is as fitting an epitaph as any.
By Holly Doan
Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War, edited by Douglas E. Delaney and Sege Marc Durflinger; University of British Columbia Press; 288 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-33592; $34.95