Hill 70 & the Lens Offensive:
August & September of 1917
Prior to the British offensive at the Third Ypres – Passchendaele – the British wanted to secure their flank in the region facing Vimy Ridge at the French city of Lens. Luckily, this allowed the Canadians to participate in this tragic offensive in another region and under their own command. This would spare them the misery of the initial waves of attacks at Passchendaele. Initially, their task as desired from the British planners called for some kind of a diversionary attack to occupy and distract the Germans.
Arthur Currie had emerged from the astounding success at Vimy Ridge as the Canadian Commander when Julian Byng was reassigned by the British. Currie planned for the Canadian offensive to be a little more than a mere distraction for the Germans. The British plan called for what was essentially a frontal attack on German positions at Lens. Currie realized that this plan, although maybe workable, would result in tremendous infantry casualties as this strategy had been used time and time again by the British and seemed to be handled with success by the German defenders. Currie’s plan would accomplish the same general objective but would, if successful, result in far fewer Canadian losses.
The large scale frontal assault on Lens would be changed to an attack on two hills that, when taken would give the Canadians high ground and strong point to destabilize the German defenses at the city. Sallaumines and Hill 70 would be taken by the Canadian Corps. Rather than having the Canadians exposed to enemy shelling from the high ground in a costly assault against the city, this would give the Canadians the opportunity to shell German positions at the city and render the German held region of little use.
The attack on the hills would add the element of surprise in favour of the Canadians. Should the hills be taken successfully, the plan called for immediate positioning of machine guns and artillery on the high ground to take on the expected German counter-attack. Instead of solid German installations killing Canadians in the open fields of the region, the tables would be turned and the German forces, well entrenched in the city would have to move out to the open ground and face Canadian guns.
As at Vimy, Currie left nothing to chance. The plan was rehearsed and the ground to be covered well known. The attack took place on August 15, 1917 using many of the tactics used at Vimy. Artillery would lead the way with a “rolling barrage”. Smoke screens and diversionary attacks at Lens would shield the true intent of the day. Success was initially achieved in the first 20 minutes as the Canadians took the high ground of Hill 70 that same morning. By the end of the next day, August 16, the remaining objectives were secured. As expected, the Germans counter-attacked using everything they could. For two days the German unleashed their new weapons – flame throwers and mustard gas – while the Canadians, using wireless radio communications for the first time, countered with devastating artillery and machine gun fire. After 21 counter-attacks the Germans retired: Canadians had held their ground.
The victory ha not come easily. The Canadian Corps had suffered in dead and wounded, 5843 casualties during the attack and counter-attacks. This number would rise in later attacks to 9198 casualties as attempts to consolidate more territory, such as the attack on Green Crassier, would prove unsuccessful and deemed too costly.
The final result would see the area dominated by the Canadians, rendering what had been a secure zone for the Germans into one of little use. The Germans had been successfully stopped from using this ground as a staging area to attack the British positions at Ypres in Flanders. Unfortunately, the British attack that was being protected by this action was still doomed to become one of the worst experiences of the war as the mud-filled killing ground of Passchendaele would prove far more difficult than imagined.
The success of the Canadians at Lens during August and September of 1917 would lead them into the lead role at the Passchendaele front during October and November.
last updated: July 6, 2006
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