Battle of Hill 70 – August 15th-25th, 1917

A century ago, soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were into their second day holding newly-won positions on Hill 70, near Lens, France. Counter-attacks by German units, desperate to regain this strategic position, were increasing. At 4:25 AM the previous morning, on August 15th, 1917, they had left their jumping-off positions to advance on this important high-point near the industrial city of Lens, France. The intent of the operation was to force German military planners to divert forces away from the Passchendaele operations, by mounting an attack on Lens. Sir Arthur Currie, recently promoted to command the Canadian Corps, reconnoitered the positions and crafted a plan to seize the heights to the North of city, after first convincing his superiors to modify the main objectives. Lens was to be attacked next.

Map of the training grounds, battlefield models and recreations of the territory around Hill 70 helped familiarize troops with major objectives before the assault. (from an appendix to the 22nd Battalion War Diary, August, 1917, Library and Archives Canada)

Meticulous planning built on recent successes, such as the Vimy Ridge operations. A massive preparatory bombardment presaged the attack. Special batteries of artillery under the command of A.G.L. McNaughton were employed in counter-battery fire, and managed to silence many German guns before the infantry went in.

A Canadian 18-pounder field gun camouflaged and in a reinforced position amidst the ruined houses and industrial buildings of Lens. Camouflaging positions was essential to protect batteries from enemy observation and counter-battery fire (Library and Archives Canada CWRO O-1889, Mikan 3395293)

Initially, the attack was a success, with rapid advances. Clearing up entrenched defenders in the Chalk Pit, and in the ruins of Lens’ suburbs, was no easy task, and positions changed hands several times. The operation dragged on for 10 days, and beleaguered and exhausted troops had to drive off relentless enemy counter-attacks. Accurate and prompt artillery support was instrumental in breaking up German concentrations of troops and keeping the Canadians from a general withdrawal. From 15 August until the 25th, Roughly 8,700 CEF soldiers became casualties with almost two-thousand killed, while estimates of German losses run much higher. The planned operation to capture Lens was eventually called off.

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A badly wounded Canadian giving another wounded soldier a light during the recent push to Hill 70.(Library and Archives Canada CWRO O-1752, Mikan 3397017)

Somewhat surprisingly, until the recent opening of the new Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park in France, the only memorial that focused on commemorating Hill 70 was located in Mountain Ontario, a small community South of Ottawa. This memorial was originally built during the height of memorial construction in the 1920s.

The pre-2011 Mountain Memorial to the Battle of Hill 70. Originally, an electric lamp on a tall flagstaff was also an important element (source “War Monuments in Canada” site: https://www.cdli.ca/monuments/on/hill70.htm)

For the 2011 work on the memorial, local groups struggled with what to do with the rusted machine gun, that had been a feature of the original 1920s layout. Some wanted to scrap it. A recent Globe and Mail article explores the various proposals. A local resident who was heavily involved in the rehabilitation project, Mr. Johnston, is quoted as saying “I struggled with the gun. Why would we want a German machine gun that was used to kill these boys?” This sentiment has been expressed many times over the years about trophies, and ties in with evolving public memory on the meaning of the First World War. In the 1930s and Second World War-era many pieces were indeed destroyed because of similar community sentiments. For the purposes of this project I am relieved to say that the gun remains a focal point of the memorial.

Mountain ON. Battle of Hill 70 Memorial site (author’s photo)

One of the tablets of the Hill 70 memorial explains the unique origins of this commemoration in Mountain, ON. (author’s photo)

According to War Trophy Commission records at Library and Archives Canada, two captured German guns were shipped to Mountain in September 1920 via Canadian Pacific Railways. The captured German machine gun now at the memorial is most likely MG08 no. 2946b (the serial numbers have substantial corrosion), seized by the 22nd Battalion at Catapult Trench, Hill 70, 15 August 1917. This gun would have been used against Canadian soldiers in the initial assault.

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Captured war trophy MG08 German machine gun, Battle of Hill 70 Memorial, Mountain ON.(author’s photo)

The 22nd Battalion’s War Diary “Report on Operations” notes that 4 similar guns were captured. Particular mention is given to the capture of one by Lt. Henri de Varennes (who was killed early in the morning on 16 August) and Sgt. Eugene Keller, who would later receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal for this action (The First World War service files of Keller and de Varennes are available digitized from LAC). Interestingly, recent talks with local residents have indicated they are convinced this is indeed a gun captured by the 22nd Battalion at Hill 70.

For many reasons, Hill 70 has not been accorded the same attention as other CEF operations that Canadians are familiar with. In contrast to the range of captured relics that remain from the Vimy operations (which I recently posted on) this gun, and a 75mm Trench Mortar in the collection of the Brome County Historical Society in Knowlton, Quebec, may be the only monuments that remain of this important Canadian operation.

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MG 08 Machine Guns: Belt-fed Malice

Author's photograph

The War Museum’s Spandau 1917 manufactured gun #4943d, complete with barrel armour, and muzzle and shield armour, water reservoir to circulate water through the barrel, and optical sight.

Dubbed the “Queen of the Battlefield” or the Devil’s Paintbrush (because of the way it swept across a battlefield in strokes), the MG08 Heavy Machine gun is one of the iconic weapons of the First World War. The German Army was well-equipped with Spandau and DWM manufactured MG 08s when the war began. Both the British Vickers and the 08s were refinements of Sir Hiram Maxim’s basic design. An 08 could fire as much as 500 rounds a minute, and was fed by a cloth sewn belt of 250 rifle-caliber bullets. The crew was highly trained to be able to remedy every one of the guns frequent stoppages (jams, etc.) quickly. 08s were carefully placed to maximize their effectiveness on the battlefield, and overlapping fields of fire gave way to cleverly placed guns that fired at oblique angles, to avoid tell-tale muzzle-flashes or frontal exposure of the crew. The July 1916 opening of the Somme offensive proved to Commonwealth armies that the MG08’s defensive power could not be overcome by waves of massed infantry assaults. The same lesson was learned in similar casualty figures in botched French and Russian attacks. Allied armies eventually trained specialist snipers (again the Germans had been far ahead in this) to eliminate crews. The Germans adapted by protecting the gunners with body armour and fitting the MGs with special shields to protect the gunner. The snipers learned to target the water sleeve on the barrel, to disable the gun. As long as static war prevailed, the MG08 had a huge defensive advantage. Still, combined tactics of preparatory bombardment, rehearsals, barbed wire cutting raids, creeping barrages, sniping, accurate counter-battery fire, close support from mortars (and rifle grenades), and squad level tactics that avoided masses of men grouping together, all helped lessen the losses.

MG-08 #2685, in the mud at Passchendaele, reconstruction of saturated, cratered landscape at Canadian War Museum

MG-08 #2685, in the mud at Passchendaele, reconstruction of saturated, cratered landscape at Canadian War Museum

These guns had held up many an advance, and battalions were very proud of their destruction or capture. Many Canadian Victoria Crosses (some posthumously awarded) were also awarded for eliminating machine gun positions. Crews could face harsh treatment by CEF soldiers who had watched their pals gunned down. The regular soldier thought of artillery as almost an act of nature, like a hurricane to suffer through; If you were unlucky, your sector got pounded. If you were really unlucky, “a shell had your number on it.” In contrast, the machine gun was personal. It spewed malice, in the form of spitzer-tipped, full-metal-jacketted rounds cutting across “No Man’s Land.” Astonishingly, about 2,500 machine guns, mostly of this type, were brought back by the Canadian government as war trophies. These are difficult to locate, as many were scrapped, many were sold off to private collectors, some went missing, and some ended up in museums.