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Webmatters : The Battle of Hill 70, 15th August 1917
Rough Map of Area

Hill 70

The Canadians

The Canadian Corps’ successful capture of Vimy Ridge resulted in its commander Lt General Sir Julian Byng being promoted to take command of the Third Army.

Byng believed that it was time for a Canadian to take command of the Corps and both he and Field Marshal Haig were agreed that the preferred candidate was Arthur Currie commanding the Canadian 1st Division.

On 6th June 1917 in a fait accompli Currie (who had been knighted by King George V on the 3rd June) was promoted to Lt General and given command of the Corps. Although the Canadian politicians complained that the British did not have the power to make the decision they were ultimately forced to bow to Haig’s veiled threat that he wanted the best man and could soon find a British candidate if pressed for one.

 

Lens

The first task required of Currie was to finish the work already started by First Army: to capture Lens. Haig had informed First Army that his Flanders campaign would begin on the 31st July and that it was imperative that the Germans should feel threatened from the south.

After three years of heavy bombardment Lens lay in ruins, a warren of collapsed miner’s housing estates (the word in French is: cité) offering the defenders myriad possibilities to create strongholds; the streets turned into fortified trench systems. Then there were the slag heaps (crassiers or terrils in French) and the pit head installations scattered across the terrain like skeletal watch towers.

A fosse is a colliery whilst a puits is a pit. Because the mining was carried out by various companies it is quite possible to notice that there is more than one Fosse 7 for example. The Fosse could also carry a name in honour of someone. This would cause dreadful confusion during the assault on Green Crassier.

The initial orders on the 7th July from General Horne to Currie were for an assault on Lens from the Canadians’ current position at Méricourt to the south of the town.

Up until now none of the armies on the front had attempted to engage in full scale urban warfare. Everybody’s experiences in fighting for small villages had been dreadful and nobody had troops suitably trained to fight their way through a heavily ‘built-up’ mining town.

Currie conducted a reconnaissance of the front line and deduced that if his troops entered the town they would be fighting under the observation of the Germans from two prominent features. To the south-east of Lens and on the Canadians’ immediate right was the hill of Sallaumines.

On the far side of Lens on its northern side was Hill 70 the objective that Horne had been forced to abandon through lack of heavy artillery. Currie proposed to Horne that instead of trying to fight their way through the town it would be better to deprive the Germans of this strategic observation post. Currie was certain that he could take the hill and having done so that the Germans would be forced to try to take it back.

One of the acquired experiences that the Allies had learnt was that leaving the safety of a village to continue an advance was often bloodier than trying to get into it. By taking the hill, Currie argued, the Germans would have to come to him; on his terms; with the advantage of observation now working against them.

General Horne agreed to the plan and on 10th July ordered the Canadian Corps to take over the position of the British I Corps on its left giving the Canadians the entire line around Lens.

Horne put the Hill 70 proposal to his Commander in Chief and Haig gave his consent, noting that the Germans would not give up the hill without a fight — a fight that Currie would be ready for; with every machine gun and piece of artillery that he possessed.

Currie intended to have his plans ready for an assault on 30th July (The eve of the 3rd Battle of Ypres) but suggested, that to keep the enemy guessing as to where the attack was going to come from, that the Canadian 3rd Division (still facing the German Méricourt Trench) should carry out a large scale raid on that front. This was completed successfully in the small hours of the morning of 23rd July.

Behind the lines near Aix Noulette the Canadians began a period of intensive training similar to that which they had gone through in the run up to the assault on Vimy Ridge. Currie was a methodical commander and organised everything to ensure that as little as possible was left to risk. Experience had shown that without leadership on the battlefield the ordinary soldiers would not advance. It was essential that NCOs understood the battle plan and what was required of their men.

The Canadians were far from being the only people to use intensive training before a battle.

Whilst the infantry trained the siege guns were back at work pummelling the ruined town whilst surreptitiously clearing the barbed wire in front of Hill 70. When it was realised that this clearance was taking longer than planned Currie asked for a two week delay in the operation. This was accorded and the British assisted with further heavy artillery being diverted from the Flanders operation.

Just before the battle the GOC Royal Artillery, Canadian Corps, Brigadier General Edward ‘Dinky’ Morrison, voiced his concerns over the shortage and worn condition of his heavy guns. Only 164 heavy pieces of various calibres remained behind to do the task. In September 1915 Haig’s First Army (of two Corps) only had access to 110 heavies !

Morrison’s Staff officer was Major Alan Brooke — later Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke.

Throughout that fortnight the rain poured in torrents but Haig remained supportive, assuring Currie that he should commit himself only when he was convinced that the time was right.

The final date was set for 15th August 1917.