Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Battle of Hill 70, 16th August 1917
Rough Map of Area

Hill 70

16th August 1917

The following morning the Germans still seemed too stunned to co-ordinate a proper response and could only muster small scale attempts to approach the Canadians’ entrenched positions.

Having been forced to postpone its second attempt to secure the chalk quarry the day before, the Canadian 2nd Brigade tried again at 1600 hours with the fresh 5th and 10th Battalions (who had replaced the 7th and 8th Battalions).

From Hill 70 towards Puits 14 bis

Looking from the hospital roundabout (Hill 70) northwards towards Puits 14 bis
The gentle slope of the hill is quite evident

The defenders put up a stiff fight and, in the quarry itself, the 10th Battalion killed a hundred and captured a further hundred and thirty. On their right the 5th Battalion captured fifty prisoners and eight machine guns in Norman Trench. The Green Line had been taken within an hour of the commencement but the fighting was far from over.

One soldier who was not present during the battle was CQMS William Alexander, 10th Battalion, who failed to report for duty. Despite having served with courage through almost three years of warfare he was brought to trial and condemned to death. Lesser men were shown clemency and his case highlights the lottery of the system.

He is buried in Barlin Communal Cemetery Extension (Grave: II D 43).

By 1730 hours the 5th Battalion was out of grenades and its two assaulting companies (In theory 300 soldiers) was down to less than ten men and it was forced back to its starting point on the Red Line. This manoeuvre left the right flank of the 10th Battalion open but despite repeated counter attacks they held on.

It was during this time that the company at the front lost all communication with its battalion headquarters and once more had to resort to runners. One urgent message was entrusted to two soldiers, one of whom was Private Harry Brown. The message had to get through so that the Canadian barrage would be altered.

Taking different routes the other soldier was killed but Harry Brown managed to complete the journey with a shattered arm. He collapsed at the dug-out and subsequently died of his wounds. His last words were : Important message.

He is buried in Noeux les Mines Communal Cemetery (Grave: II J 29).

That night the 1st Brigade took over the line from 3rd Brigade on the left flank and subsequently the 2nd Brigade’s front as well.

Mustard Gas

Whilst little happened on the ground during the 17th August the Germans continued their pressure in particular against the Canadian artillery. By sending up false alarms or simply menacing the front line troops they hoped to force the Canadians to expend their shells.

They also directly shelled the gunners of 1st and 2nd Field Brigades with mustard gas or yellow cross as it was also known because of the shell’s identifying marks. This had been introduced in Ypres in July and is what is known as a vesicant: a substance which causes blistering. The French name for the gas is Yperite.

Unlike the asphyxiating and tear gases, mustard gas does not produce an immediate effect. However like phosgene it reacts slowly. Within 24 hours the victim starts get irritating blisters on the skin and these become more and more debilitating. It is slow to evaporate and lingers as droplets which could be carried on clothing into shelters. Body heat then turned it into gas.

It took days for the full effects of this bombardment to take effect and by 21st August the two artillery brigades had suffered 183 gas casualties.

At 0415 hours on the 18th August the 55th Reserve Infantry Regiment launched an attack against the 20th Battalion of 2nd Canadian Division. Few of the Germans managed to make it through to the Canadian lines where they were driven off by Sergeant Fred Hobson. A veteran of the Boer War he seized a Lewis gun from its wounded crew and opened fire at close range. When the machine gun jammed he got one of the wounded crew to get it going again whilst he continued to bayonet and club any attackers with the temerity to get that close. First wounded, he was subsequently killed by a bullet but the position had been saved. For his heroism he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

His body was later lost and he is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial.

Forty-five minutes later (0500 hours) the fighting turned northwards to the Bois Hugo where the 2nd Battalion came under attack by German bombing teams backed up by flamethrowers (The term bomb in these circumstances always refers to grenades). They managed to penetrate the northern end of the wood but elsewhere were so completely overwhelmed by artillery, machine gun and rifle fire that by the time they reached the Canadian parapet and bombed in their own turn they were done.

Looking north across the eastern edge of Loos

Bois Hugo is that on the left, Bois Rasé that on the right
This was the left flank of the Canadian advance

Major O’Kill Learmonth, commanding the 2nd Battalion’s company on the south side of the wood was awarded the Victoria Cross for his direction of the defence. Wounded but standing on the parapet he urged his men on whilst throwing grenades at the Germans he was seen to catch German stick grenades in the air and throw them back. When his wounds became so severe that he could no longer take an active part he remained in his place directing his junior officers. The 2nd Battalion stood firm and this final major attempt by the Germans to budge the Canadians was brought to a halt.

Major Learmonth VC died of his wounds and is buried a row away from Harry Brown VC at Noeux les Mines Communal Cemetery (Grave: II K 9).

 

End of Battle

After twenty-one counter attacks the Germans conceded defeat and Hill 70 remained in Allied hands. General Sir Arthur Currie’s hope by taking Hill 70 the Canadian Corps would create a killing field for his artillery and massed machine guns had proved correct.

Although the initial assault had been costly the subsequent casualties in holding the line against the German counter attacks had been (by Great War standards) remarkably light with 449 killed during the three days of fighting between the 16th and 18th August.

Whilst Currie was justly pleased with the performance of his Corps he was ultimately frustrated by the Germans’ refusal to withdraw from the town of Lens. It will be remembered that his original orders were to capture the town and it had been his opinion that taking Hill 70 would oblige the Germans to relinquish it.