“Currie was a superb tactician, one of the best military minds of all time. He was incredibly sensitive about the use of troops, and his actions as commander likely save may thousands of lives. He was also incredibly insensitive in his dealings with the rank and file and was dislike by the troops.
On July 7th, 1917 Currie was ordered to take the town of Lens in northern France. The town was strategic; the Germans needed it for its rail access, the British wanted it for its coal, which they needed to support war manufacturing. Additionally, the British wanted to use the attack as a feint, committing German troops to Lens while the British and French attacked in the Somme area.
Currie refused a frontal attack on Lens. He felt that the troops could take the town, but would find itself under attack from the high ground that surrounded the town. He believed that the losses would be unacceptably high, and instead proposed to take Hill 70, high ground to the north of Lens. He knew that it would not be easy to take and that casualties would be high, but they would be considerably less than leaving the hill in the hands of the Germans. Currie argued that the Germans would attempt to retake the hill and the Canadians would have the advantage of having the higher ground and would be able to inflict significant losses on the Germans. The British Army structure did not appreciate Generals changing orders instead of following them, and the issue was raised to Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British forces. Haig approved of the attack but predicted it would fail.
Hill 70 was a perfect defensive position. It was a maze of deep trenches and dugouts and included deep mines that had been dug in peacetime and could protect the defenders. Coiled barbed wired, up to 5 feet in height, was in front of the trenches and would make a frontal assault difficult. Machine guns were deeply entrenched in the slopes inside pillboxes of reinforced concrete. Additionally, in July 1917, the Germans introduced flame throwers and mustard gas, which blistered any potion of exposed skin. Overall it wasn’t an enviable target to be given.
Preparations for the attack were extensive. As they had done at Vimy, an area behind the lines was laid out to represent Hill 70, and units practiced the attack until every section knew exactly what they had to do. Additionally the hill and the surrounding area was subjected to ongoing bombardment and gas attacks. The gas, being heavier than air, would have sunk to the lowest areas of the trenches and caverns, and would have made it very uncomfortable for the German defenders.
On the evening of the 14th August the attack commenced with the bombardment of the hill by the Canadian artillery, damaging the trenches and blowing holes in the defensive wire. At 4:26 am, dawn of August 1915, the Canadians went ‘over the top’, the 1st Division on the left, 2nd in the centre and the 4th Division, a largely diversionary attack, on the right: the 3rd Division were held back in reserve. The ten battalions of men advanced up the hill, closely following a rolling barrage by artillery. They took the first objective in twenty minutes. The Canadians introduced a new tactic to demoralise the Germans. Drums of burning oil were dropped into the deep trenches, spreading flames and smoke over the hill. Another feature of the attack on Hill 70 was the close co-operation between the Air Force and the Artillery. Low flying aircraft spotted pockets of resistance and radioed the co-ordinates back to the artillery who responded with prompt shelling.
By 9:00am the Germans has begun to counter-attack, fought off by the Canadians troops on the hill and the artillery in support. The artillery crews suffered heavily. The Germans recognised that without them the attack would fail, and started a barrage of high explosive and Mustard Gas shells. The day was hot and being forced, because of the gas, to work fully clothed and with gas masks, several men from heat prostration. Wearing a gas mask rendered the men half blind, but removing them could cause a horrible death as the Mustard Gas seared the lungs. Many men had to remove their masks, whether to accurately aim the guns or to extricate themselves from holes or wire on the hill slopes, and suffered from facial and internal blistering as a result.
The Germans were determined to retake the hill. The Canadians were subjected to intense artillery shelling, suffered from lack of rations and water, and when ammunition ran low had to attack with bayonets. On August 21st, the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles took over the front lines. They described the situation: “At this time the Hill presented every aspect of a fierce and sanguinary battle; most of the Germans trenches had been crumpled in by out shell fire, while everywhere one went were dead Huns and, in some cases, Canadians.”
In total, the German counterattacked 21 times, the last at dawn on August 18th. The Canadians repulsed them all.
The attack on Hill 70 resulted in 1,505 men killed, 3,810 wounded, 487 wounded by gas and 41 prisoners to the Germans.
The bulk of the casualties were on the first day of the attack. In some cases companies reached and held their objectives while sustaining over 70% casualties. The Germans had committed 5 divisions in an attempt to hold Hill 70, with approximately 20,000 causalities, 970 Germans taken prisoner.
Lens was not taken, however holding the high ground of Hill 70 seriously impacted the German position.