Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Battle for Lens, 21st August 1917
Rough Map of Area

Hill 70

The battle for Lens

Following the taking of Hill 70 the Canadian Corps had beaten off all German efforts to recapture it. Now that the front had calmed slightly and realising that the link between the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions was still precarious it was decided to withdraw slightly, from Norman Trench (The Green Line during the seizure of the hill) to a position 250 metres further back in Noggin Trench.

On the right of the line the 4th Canadian Division took over the front as far north as the Lens – Béthune Road.

The original orders to Lt General Sir Arthur Currie back in June 1917 had been to capture the town of Lens. At the time he had successfully argued to both General Sir Henry Horne (First Army) and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig that a frontal assault would be costly and that it would be more efficient to capture the high ground. This had been achieved but the Germans obstinately refused to withdraw from the town.

Currie now decided to test the water with a two Brigade assault on the pile of rubble that represented the once bustling mining town of Lens. He would attempt (but only on a small scale) the sort of urban combat that he had counselled against.

A Brigade from each of the 2nd and 4th Divisions would be used attacking from the north-west and west respectively. 2nd Division would take Nun’s Alley, Cinnebar Trench and Combat Trench. On the southern side of the Béthune Road, 4th Division was to advance as far as the Arras Road: Aloof Trench, Aconite Trench and Alpaca Trench.

6th Canadian Brigade : Lens 21st August 1917

The operation required an advance on a front of about two and a half kilometres between Eleu dit Leauwette and Cité St Émile. Opposite the 6th and 10th Canadian Brigades were two battalions from the 4th Guards Division and two from the 220th Division.

The date was set for the 21st August; Zero Hour was 0435 hours — whilst it was still dark.

The artillery preparation for the Canadian assault was impressive with the artillery of the two participating Divisions being augmented by that of the 1st Division, the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and four British batteries. Prior to the assault the heavy artillery of both Canadian and British batteries would batter the trenches, then, during the attack, it would switch its attention to the town of Lens.

 

The Germans pre-empt the attack

As the Canadians were preparing themselves for the coming battle they suddenly came under German artillery fire at 0400 hours. Immediately prior to the Canadians’ own Zero the Germans launched an attack against the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion on the left of 6th Brigade. The two parties collided in no man’s land and after much bitter fighting the Canadians pushed the Germans back.

Memorial plaques to O'Rourke VC and Hanna VC at Loos

The plaques to Michael O’Rourke VC and Robert Hanna VC at Loos-en-Gohelle

The battalion reached Cinnabar Trench but suffered heavy casualties in the act including all of their officers; killed or wounded. Company Sergeant Major Robert Hanna assumed command of the remaining force and led them against a German strongpoint that was holding out against all attempts to seize it. Hanna managed to kill all four defenders, silence the machine gun and capture the position. Having occupied the top end of Cinnabar Trench he held it against repeated counter attacks. His act of leadership and courage was recognised with the award of the Victoria Cross.

A native of Kilkeel in (Northern) Ireland, Hanna survived the war and reached the rank of Lieutenant. A member of the Orange Order he returned home on a number of occasions and his personal sword still hangs in the Royal British Legion in the town. He is buried in Burnaby, British Columbia.

The surprising intervention of the German Guards battalion had prevented the 29th Battalion from achieving all of its objectives. With assistance from the 28th Battalion they had Nun’s Alley and the top end of Cinnebar Trench under their control but the Germans still held the lower end of Cinnebar.

On the right of 6th Brigade the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion was also in difficulties. It is hard to appreciate in the urban sprawl that is modern day Lens-Liévin just how open much of this ground was in 1917. The 27th Battalion had to cover 500 metres of open ground towards the Guards Division who had made good use of every cellar to escape the shells from the heavies and then made even better use of the shattered buildings as cover.

As the attackers, the Canadians found that when they were held up by machine gun fire it was impossible to dig into the rubble and thus consolidate the ground in the only way they knew how. This would probably be the only time in the war that urban warfare on this scale would be attempted; Lens was far from being a small village such as Loos.

 

10th Brigade


Memorial plaque to Filip Konowal VC at Lens

On the Route de Béthune

In 4th Division’s sector the 10th Brigade attacked with three battalions. On the right the 47th Battalion escaped the Germans’ shelling but still had a desperate struggle amongst the ruined buildings.

One of its Companies fought its way as far as the Arras Road and by evening Alpaca Trench had been secured.

During the course of the day their Ukrainian Corporal, Filip Konowal (who had served previously in the Imperial Russian Army) knocked out one machine gun crew, capturing the weapon; he then went on to distinguish himself in single handedly taking on numerous Germans and topping off his endeavours with the capture of another machine gun on the morrow.

There is a bronze plaque dedicated to Konowal, the only Ukrainian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, on the Béthune Road. It is thus quite some distance from the location of his deeds of valour. Konowal would survive the war.

In the centre of the Brigade the 46th Battalion had been shelled throughout the night but managed to carry Adonite Trench on the left of the 47th Battalion.

Of the three battalions the 50th Battalion on the left and fighting down the Béthune Road had the hardest time. They had suffered a hundred casualties, whilst forming up, from the German bombardment, and the losses had been severe enough that they had to alter their assault formation. A feint attack against Aloof Trench the previous day had put the Germans on alert and as the Canadians approached the German front line they were torn asunder by machine gun and artillery fire.

10th Canadian Brigade : Lens 21st August 1917

Just three small parties, totalling less than fifty men, managed to reach their objective at the junction of the Béthune and La Bassée Roads. The remainder of the survivors had been forced back to their starting lines within ninety minutes of Zero. With the holding parties unable to link with themselves or their neighbouring battalions they were forced to retire.

An attempt to gain the remaining section of Cinnebar Trench by the 29th Battalion was planned with a proposed Zero of 1430 hours, but once again the control of events was dictated by the German Guards. Having been reinforced by a battalion from the 220th Division they pressed home their own counter attacks forcing the 29th and the 27th Battalions to fall back — leaving their outposts to hang on as best as they could.

Although two hundred Germans had been captured and the line advanced in some places, little had been gained for the loss of 346 Canadians killed and 802 wounded.