Squeezing Lens – Arras North – Various pages

There are numerous references to Hill 70 in ‘Arras North’ as well as the chapter in ‘Arras Memorials’ covering the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge. Although it lies on the Loos battlefield, Hill 70 was also the scene of heavy fighting on the 15th August 1917 and in the days that immediately followed. The reason it merits a mention in both books is that many of the cemeteries at the northern end of the Arras battlefield, and of course the memorial on Vimy Ridge, contain casualties from this brief and often neglected operation.

My recent talk to the Herts & Beds WFA included something I referred to as ‘the shape of the Arras battlefield’. From about the 23rd April 1917, perhaps even before that date, but certainly by the end of the month, it was obvious that the Hindenburg Line was likely to withstand all but the most determined of assaults, particularly in the Quéant sector where it joined up with the Drocourt-Quéant Line. The French failure to deliver a critical blow on the Aisne had let the Germans off the hook. The Germans were also well aware that the British effort at Arras was never intended to be our main theatre of operations that year on the Western Front; by the 23rd April they had already made many of the adjustments necessary to meet their likely needs with regard to their new front line here in Artois. The powerful thrust of our initial attack on the 9th April simply couldn’t be sustained, and from a German perspective the crisis, if indeed it ever amounted to that, had been short lived. To the north, despite the loss of Vimy Ridge, the Germans also quickly realized that the Canadians would be unable to make any significant progress across the Douai Plan while their left flank was exposed to Lens. The town remained in German hands and the best the Canadians could do for now was to nibble away at the edge of its southern suburbs.

With both ends of the Arras battlefield secure, the only part against which the British could push became the bit in the middle. Accordingly, the shape of the battlefield became clearly defined long before the battle officially ended. The German artillery was able to concentrate its destructive fire along this central corridor to devastating effect. With the focus now shifting to Messines and Ypres, the British were unable to relieve their tired divisions from the burden of continuing the battle in front of Arras, which weakened not only our efforts to push on astride the Arras-Cambrai road, but also weakened considerably the strength of the divisions involved through heavy losses. Despite the massive efforts on the 23rd April and the 3rd May to carry the battle to the enemy, the narrowing channel through which the British had to fight played perfectly into German hands.

The Canadians did indeed manage to penetrate the outlying suburbs of Lens, but the line here was never ideal, nor was it ever very static. Both sides occupied positions so close to each other that in many places they were separated by the width of a street, or even the width of a building; sometimes the opponents occupied different parts of the same ruined building. Posts were frequently abandoned, sometimes only temporarily, creating a front line that was constantly shifting and this made artillery support very difficult. Throughout May and June 1917 the war here in the southern suburbs of Lens was one of constant patrolling, sniping and bombing. For the time being it was all the Canadians could do.

However, in the summer of 1917 a tempting opportunity presented itself. The opening of the Third Battle of Ypres created the distraction necessary to carry out operations immediately north of Lens against Hill 70. Preparations here began as early as the 10th July. Haig knew the importance of Hill 70 to the enemy’s positions around Lens. Once it fell the Germans would be forced to react. Moving across ground largely devoid of substantial cover, their counter-attacks could easily be smashed by our own artillery whose task would be aided by the brilliant observation afforded from the hill’s elevated position. Although the distraction here was initially conceived as a way of assisting the main operations around Ypres, it was seen also a great opportunity to capture Hill 70 and heap further pressure on Lens. Very briefly, during the morning of the 25th September 1915, after our troops had overrun Hill 70 on the opening day of the Battle of Loos, the Germans had actually contemplated evacuating Lens, a decision that was immediately reversed once it became clear that British troops had begun to fall back to positions along the hill’s western slopes. The renewed possibility of forcing the enemy to abandon Lens altogether during the summer of 1917 was a very attractive proposition indeed.

There were in fact several postponements to the operation, but on the 14th August everything was in place ready for the following day. The Canadian divisions tasked with capturing the hill were, from right to left, the 2nd Division, whose front lay between the north-west suburbs of Lens and the Loos Crassier, and the 1st Division, whose front extended the line northwards as far as Bois Hugo. Directly opposite Lens itself the Canadian 4th Division would cover the right flank of the 2nd Division by making a diversionary attack, whilst at the northern end of the main battlefield a demonstration, which included the use of dummy tanks, would be made by I Corps.

On the 15th August 1917 at 4.25 a.m. the attack, which had been rehearsed over similar ground near Aix-Noulette, went ahead. Previous postponements, rather than hindering the operation, had allowed a longer bombardment to take place which, although it indicated to the enemy that an attack was probably imminent, still left them guessing with regard to the exact date and time. The bombardment was also in very capable hands. Brigadier-General Edward Whipple Bancroft Morrison, GOC Canadian Corps Artillery from 1916 to 1919, had served in the South African War winning the DSO before going on to command the 8th Artillery Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, between 1909 and 1913. He had then served as Director of Artillery, HQ Staff, until the outbreak of war. So far, on the Western Front, he had been heavily involved at the Second Battle of Ypres, at Festubert and Givenchy, then at St. Éloi, as well as on the Somme. His barrage had also helped the Canadians to take Vimy Ridge, so he already had a wealth of experience behind him. Today, he stands as one of the lesser known figures of the Great War, though his services were greatly recognized at the time by the award of the CMG in 1917 followed by the CB in 1918 and the KCMG in 1919.

During preparations for the attack great emphasis had been placed on the need for the forty-eight Vickers machine-gun teams to push forward closely behind the attack so as to be in a position to support the new front line once it had been gained. Here they were to link up with the infantry to form a series of strongpoints, each capable of accommodating around twenty-five men. These were to be wired and consolidated as quickly as possible by teams of engineers following close on the heels of the infantry. After the initial barrage Morrison’s artillery would be brought to bear on any large bodies of Germans assembling for counter-attacks, but the infantry and machine gunners would also have an important role to play in this respect.

As well as the conventional barrage, drums of burning oil were hurled from projectors on the right flank of the attack. The smoke from these drifted across Hill 70 providing a measure of cover and protection to the advancing troops during the initial part of the attack. On the left flank smoke from 4” Stokes mortars was similarly used to obscure the enemy’s view from the direction of Hulluch. The objective of the main attack was an old German trench that ran along the eastern side of the hill, the reverse slope, which gave an overall frontage for the attack of around two miles. Intelligence had indicated that the old 1915 trenches on the hill itself, as well as the deep dug-outs there, were not held in any great strength, but the enemy’s positions on and around the reverse slope were where the Canadians could expect to meet strong opposition, not only from well prepared machine gun nests and small detachments operating from shell holes, but it was also here that any counter-attacks would have to be met and dealt with.

On the right of the attack units from the 4th and 5th Brigades broke through the ruined mining villages of Cité St. Edouard and Cité St. Laurent where to their surprise they encountered very little opposition. After a planned pause of thirty minutes the 4th Brigade chose to deploy the same battalions (18th, 20th and 21st Battalions) to push on, whereas the 5th Brigade elected to replace the 25th and 22nd Battalions with the 24th and 26th Battalions, presumably because they had slightly further to go, passing through Cité St. Emile. By 6 a.m. all objectives had been taken. So far, all had gone well.

Over on the left, the 2nd Brigade (5th and 10th Battalions) quickly reached the summit of the hill, whilst the 3rd Brigade (13th, 15th and 16th Battalions) took the western edge of the Bois Rasé and Bois Hugo before moving on to their final objectives 400 yards away. Although by 6 a.m. things had also gone well on this part of the battlefield, the 7th and 8th Battalions, belonging to the 2nd Brigade, still had 500 yards to go down the eastern slope of Hill 70. By now the smoke had begun to clear and the Germans, with customary efficiency, had been quick to react, particularly around Cité St. Auguste, taking full advantage of the thirty minute lull built into the Canadian attack plan. As soon as the Canadians resumed their advance down the slope both battalions came under intense rifle and machine-gun fire. As the troops went to ground in search of cover they inevitably lost the barrage, yet many still carried on the attack making short rushes between shell holes in order to make progress. Even so, only the right-hand company of the 8th Battalion managed to reach the final objective; similarly, only the left company of the 7th Battalion reached its final objective, which happened to be a strongly defended quarry to the side of the hill. For both battalions, it soon became apparent that they would have to withdraw to their intermediate positions, though the 7th Battalion did manage to leave around fifty men in the quarry in the hope of holding on to it. Casualties on this part of the battlefield were disproportionately heavy, the 7th Battalion losing around seventy-five per cent of its original attacking strength.

The Germans responded by launching counter-attacks between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m, but these were soon broken up, thanks in part to good observation from the summit of the hill, where the artillery’s Forward Observation Officers were now firmly established, but also to the excellent work carried out by 43rd Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, whose specific task was to spot enemy units as they were forming up for counter-attacks. Many of these attacks were stopped in their tracks, sometimes before they had even begun; in fact by the end of the first day a total of eighteen such attacks had been broken up.

The fighting went on for several days and on the 17th August the 5th and 10th Battalions completed the task of capturing the remaining objectives under a rolling barrage, but at heavy cost. The Canadians held all their ground that day, coming out on top during a particularly fierce clash when both sides met at close quarters as the enemy was gathering for yet another counter-attack. The fighting was especially heavy around the Chalk Quarry.

Arguably, the capture of Hill 70 did little to assist the main British effort at Ypres; if anything it was the other way round, and although the Canadian effort achieved more this time than in 1915, the Germans made no attempt to abandon Lens, despite the loss of this important feature . Nevertheless, it was a bitter pill to swallow and represented a severe blow to the prestige of those German units charged with defending the hill. Come the following year, with its northern, western and southern boundaries firmly in British hands, the Germans had no choice but to abandon Lens, which they did on the 3rd October 1918; faced with the Allied advance its position was simply no longer tenable.

The capture of Hill 70 cost the Canadians just over 8,000 casualties, yet it remains a story that is seldom told. The names of many who died are to be found on the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, whilst others lie in cemeteries such as Aix-Noulette Communal Cemetery Extension, Liévin Communal Cemetery Extension, La Chaudière Military Cemetery, Canadian Cemetery No.2, Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery, Villers Station Cemetery and Sucrerie Cemetery, as well as other locations closer to the Loos battlefield.

In November 1917 the “Toronto Star” newspaper ran a story claiming that the bodies of ten men had been found near Lens with their throats cut, including an officer, Lieutenant Alexander Solomon. All were from the 87th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, which formed part of the Canadian 4th Division that had carried out the subsidiary attack just west of Lens in support of the main operation. The source of the story remains obscure and it may be that it was placed in the public arena purely for propaganda purposes. All the men died between the 14th and 16th August, according to records, and seven of them are commemorated on the memorial at Vimy Ridge. Lieutenant Solomon is known to be buried at Liévin Communal Cemetery Extension (Special Memorial 11) whilst the remaining two are buried at Loos British Cemetery (Plot V.G.12) and Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery. (Plot VII.J.12)