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

Hill 70

15th August 1917

At 0425 hours, as dawn broke over Hill 70, the Canadian infantry moved out of their trenches and began following the tremendous rolling bombardment towards the German lines. As this bombardment commenced the Royal Engineers fired barrels of burning oil into the Cité Ste Elizabeth and other areas in order to cause a huge smoke screen.

The rolling barrage had been an idea of General Horne during the Battle of the Somme. Instead of one curtain of steel moving forward with the infantry (a creeping barrage) there were two. As one group of guns was forced to stop firing, whilst it lengthened its aim, the other would continue, ensuring that the defenders were given no respite.

None of the Canadians’ preparations had gone unnoticed however and the German defenders on Hill 70 (from Infanterie Regiments No 26 and 165) had requested that their reserves be moved forward in readiness.

As the Canadians launched their assault the German artillery opened a counter barrage but it was short lived; the Canadian artillery had already located their positions.

It had become recognised (by both sides) that a better way of supporting the infantry was not to pour heavy shells onto the enemy trenches (which did not kill as many as one would have thought — or liked) but to stifle the enemy’s guns. This was the first occasion on which the Canadians used wireless communication for counter battery work.

The Canadians’ initial advance was an unequivocal success. Within twenty minutes both of the Divisions had reached their first objective — the Blue Line. There was now a pause whilst on the right flank the 18th and 21st Battalions formed a defensive line. This was as far forward as they needed to advance.

The advance by 2nd Division

Once their right was secure the Canadians continued their assault towards the Green Line and their final objective. The 20th Battalion continued through the Cité Ste Elizabeth whilst on their left the 5th Brigade leap-frogged its units allowing the 24th and 26th Battalions to come through as fresh troops and take the Cité St Emile.

Having taken Hill 70 the 10th and 5th Battalions were required to secure it and the 7th and 8th Battalions took over the advance as far as the intermediary Red Line.

On the left flank the 3rd Brigade continued its advance through Bois Hugo and the Bois Rasé.

In 1915, this wood (which still exists today) was known to the British as Chalet Wood.

By 0600 hours all the attacking battalions were either on the Green or Red Line and there was now a further pause of twenty minutes before the 7th and 8th Battalions moved forward from the Red Line on towards their own Green Line.

It was only now that the Canadians ran into difficulties. Their smoke screen had dissipated and the defenders had rallied from their initial shock. They swept the Canadians with heavy machine gun fire and the Canadians were forced to take cover in shell holes losing contact with their rolling barrage.

On the left, the 7th Battalion were required to take a small quarry but it was well garrisoned and although some local success was had the majority of the battalion like the 8th Battalion on its right were forced back to the Red Line.

The advance by 1st Division

One of the Regimental stretcher bearers of the 7th Battalion, Private Michael O’Rourke, was awarded the Victoria Cross for three days tireless work bringing in the wounded whilst under fire.

O’Rourke survived the war and there is a small memorial plaque to him in the Chemin des Croisettes at the entrance to Loos-en-Gohelle as you descend into the town from the Hill 70 roundabout (see the general map of the area).

Whilst this was taking place the Blue Line was being prepared for the inevitable counter attacks.

Each of the Brigades had forty-eight machine guns and these were quickly moved up and turned into strong points adequately covered by infantry. The Canadian artillery observers also moved forward ready to direct the field guns against any massing Germans.

For two hours between 0700 and 0900 hours the Germans attempted to force the Canadians back but the counter attacks were too localised and were easily broken up by Canadian fire. This remained the case throughout the rest of the morning.

As expected though the Germans began reinforcing their line with units from the 4th Guards and 185th Divisions and these attempted to carry out further counter attacks throughout the afternoon; once more they were all broken up by artillery and machine gun fire.

All the German Regiments involved that afternoon make mention of heavy casualties and the hail of bullets and shrapnel through which they had to pass. German losses during the battle were reckoned by the Canadians to have been in the order of 20,000 killed and certainly 1,369 prisoners.

The 4th Guards Division were the Eingreif Division for Group Loos. This was the formation held in reserve in readiness to carry out the immediate counter to an enemy incursion and prevent them from consolidating. They complained in the aftermath of the battle that they had been held back in reserve far too long. Echoes of 1915.

By the evening the Canadians were well entrenched along either the Green or in the centre the Red Line. The cost had been high though. 1056 Canadians had been killed and a further 2349 wounded (In comparison the losses for the taking of Vimy Ridge, using all four Canadian Divisions, had been 2967 killed and 4740 wounded).