The Battle of Hill 70: A re-telling

Article written by Captain (ret’d) Hamilton Slessor, RMR

Westmount, Quebec – 04 August 2017: “In the summer of 1917, the Allies were losing the First World War.  Russia was collapsing into revolution, half the French Army was experiencing mutiny, and the island of Great Britain was being slowly strangled by German submarine attacks on its shipping and strategic bombing by German Gotha bombers.  The United States had recently joined the Allies, but at that time their army was smaller than Canada’s.

A tremendous British offensive was planned in Belgium near Passchendaele which was meant to sweep the Germans from the English Channel coast where their bombers and submarines were operating.  But they needed to divert German reinforcements away from Passchendaele in order to be successful. The British ordered that a diversionary attack be made against the German-held city of Lens in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France.  The formation chosen to make this attack was the Canadian Corps, the recent conquerors of Vimy Ridge, who in the summer of 1917 were for the first time being commanded by a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie.

Currie had orders to attack Lens directly, but knew that it was one of the most fortified positions on the Western Front and would be costly.  He argued with his British superiors and received permission to attack something more important: the high ground surrounding Lens.  This ground, particularly a feature designated “Hill 70,” was vital to the German defences and Currie knew that the Germans would spare no expense in blood trying to recapture it if the Canadians could take it.  Currie would divert enemy troops away from Passchendaele by bleeding them white on the slopes of Hill 70.

The attack began on August 15th 1917, with the Canadians seizing the trenches around Hill 70 in a pre-dawn assault, and the trap was set.  The Germans assumed the Canadians were attempting to break through their lines, and flung wave after wave of counter-attacking troops at the Canadians entrenched on Hill 70.  Twenty-one German counter-attacks were launched against Hill 70 in four days.  All of them were torn apart by Canadian guns, heart, and courage. A second attack by the Canadians in the days afterward, this time directly on Lens, was less successful and more costly, but pulled even more German units into the fight.  The Canadians suffered 9,198 casualties from 15 to 25 August, but the Germans lost over 20,000 men.  Six Canadian soldiers won the Victoria Cross during the ten days of fighting at Hill 70 and Lens, and a new style of warfare that tricked the Germans into making themselves vulnerable had been pioneered.  These tactics would help the Canadian Corps become the “Shock Army of the British Empire” in the final year of the First World War.”  [1]

General Sir Arthur Currie and staff.
Photo by William Rider-Rider (Imperial War Museum, CO1970)

“Some time after the success at Vimy Ridge, Lieut.-Gen. the Hon. Sir Julian Byng was promoted to command the Third British Army, his place at the head of the Canadian Corps being taken by Major-General A.W. Currie, C.B., a Canadian-born citizen soldier, who had won distinction while commanding the 2nd Infantry Brigade at the Second Battle of Ypres, and, subsequently, had maintained his reputation for leadership while commanding the 1st Canadian Division.  When Major-General Currie assumed command of the Corps, his place at the head of the 1st Division was taken by Brig.-General A.C. MacDonnell, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., who had successfully commanded the 7th Infantry Brigade in some of the bitterest fighting of the war.  Under these new commanders, the Corps was given the task of wrenching from German hands that rising ground east of Loos which on maps bore the unimaginative title “Hill 70”.

Sir Julian Byng had demonstrated the value to an attack of painstaking preparation, and the Canadian Corps had learnt the lesson well.  Accordingly, weeks before the Hill 70 operations, each unit’s part was studied, rehearsed, and modified as rehearsals proved advisable.  In general, the plan adopted called for attack by two divisions, the 1st Canadian Division on the left and the 2nd Canadian Division on the right.  Each division was ordered to attack on a front of two brigades and, in the 1st Division, the 3rd and 2nd Brigades were chosen, the 3rd Brigade to be on the left.  In turn, the 3rd Brigade was to attack on a front of three battalions, the 15th Battalion, 48th Highlanders, on the left; the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada, in the centre; and the 16th Battalion, Canadian Scottish, on the right.  The 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment, was to act as Brigade Reserve.

Unaware of what lay ahead, but anticipating action, the men of the 14th paraded at 6 p.m. on July 14th, in a field S.W. of the Camblain l’Abbé-Mont St. Eloy Road, with the details (No. 5 Company) under command of Lieut E. A. Adams.  Marching from this position, the Regiment followed the main road through Camblain l’Abbé and Estrée Cauchie to Gauchin Légal, where Lieut. B. T. Jackson and the Intelligence Section had arranged for billets.

At Gauchin Légal church parades were held in the morning of July 15th and kit inspection in the afternoon, deficiencies which the inspection revealed being made up by issues on the following day.  On July 17th the Transport Officer was ordered to see that the officer’s chargers [horses] were at billets at 7:45 a.m., as the Battalion, including No. 5 Detail Company, was to march a quarter-hour later.  Parading in column of route, Headquarters moved off at 8 o’clock, the companies following and maintaining inter-company distances of approximately 200 yards.  From Gauchin Légal the Battalion marched to Fresnicourt, thence to Verdrel and on past Fosse 9 to Hersin, thence to billets in Braquemont.  To smarten appearance of the unit on the march, the men were ordered to wear puttees in infantry fashion only, with no hose tops, stockings, or socks visible.  Unmounted officers were instructed not to carry canes, sticks, or riding crops.

For five days at Braquemont the Battalion carried out routine training, special attention being devoted to bayonet fighting, gas helmet practice, bombing, and the formations used by platoons and companies in attack.  At 3 o’clock on the afternoon of July 20th the Battalion, on orders from G.H.Q., paraded at full marching order before a professional camera man, who took moving pictures of the unit for War Office archives, and for exhibition in Canada.

Following demobilization these pictures were shown in Montreal, where a number of ex-soldiers recognized themselves on the screen.  Two days after the film was taken the Battalion marched from Braquemont, passed through Noeux-les-Mines and Barlin, and billeted in Ruitz shortly after noon.

On July 24th the companies proceeded independently to Houchin, where the men bathed in great vats of hot water and received clean underclothing and socks.

Physical drill, rifle grenade practice, bombing, wiring instruction, and gas helmet drills occupied the time on July 25th, and on the following day a lecture informed all ranks of the tasks to be accomplished at Hill 70.

In Operation Order No. 151, issued at 10:40 p.m. on July 24th by Major Plow, Battalion Adjutant, Lieut.-Col. Gault McCombe, D.S.O., Commanding Officer of the 14th, deals with the duties of the companies, sections and special parties in detail.  [Refer to pages 162-166, Vol 1 of the Regimental History.]

The 14th Battalion, 505 strong, paraded on July 27th and marched to Aix Noulette, there to carry out battle practice with the other battalions of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade.  For this practice an area representing Hill 70 had been prepared, with the German trenches taped out and every feature of the enemy lines marked as clearly as possible.  Over this area the battalions rehearsed the assault, each company, platoon, and section, as during preparation for the attack on Vimy, carrying out, so far as was humanly possible, the duties that would fall to it in the actual hour of battle.  To represent the barrage, a line of men with flags moved in advance of the assaulting battalions, halting and moving forward again in accordance with the arrangements for a standing barrage after the capture of the Blue Line.  A curious feature of these manoeuvres was that they were, in part, under direct observation from the distant enemy lines.  Perhaps the slight haze screened them.  In any event they were uninterrupted by aeroplanes or shell fire, which was fortunate, as, owing to the importance of ripening crops, no other practice ground was available in the entire district.

On July 29th religious services were held in a tent owned by the Expeditionary Force Y.M.C.A. and in the Ruitz Village church.  Following these, the ribbon of the Military Medal was presented to No. 25933, Sergt. Henry Campbell, who had been awarded the decoration for bravery in charge of a carrying party near Vimy on June 27th.  At noon on July 30th the Battalion Adjutant issued addenda to Lieut.-Col. McCombe’s operation order dealing with the attack on Hill 70.  Amongst other items announced were details regarding prisoners, barrages etc.

Heavy rain interfered somewhat with the training on August 1st, 2nd and 3rd.  In the morning on the 3rd Major-General A.C. MacDonnell, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., the new leader of the 1st Canadian Division, visited the Battalion at Ruitz and referred to the fine tradition which the unit had established.  Later in the day the Battalion marched from Ruitz to Mazingarbe, there entering billets in Brigade Reserve.

After two days at Mazingarbe, the Battalion moved to relieve the 16th Battalion in the front line (Loos Sector).  On reaching the village of Le Philosophe, the unit encountered severe shell fire, which killed 8 men and wounded 14, the casualties including the entire personnel of a Lewis gun section.  Pushing through, or around, the danger zone, the companies completed relief of the 16th Battalion at 3:15 a.m. and established liaison with the 10th Canadian Battalion on the southern flank and the 6th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, on the north.  Fine weather prevailed during the relief, but the trenches were deep in mud as a result of the previous rain.

Aerial view of the trenches at Hill 70

“The introduction of aircraft in WWI resulted in the development of aerial mapping, which was essential for the artillery to be able to range the guns accurately on identifiable, specific enemy targets such as enemy gun batteries and strong points. At Hill 70, the distinctive chalky soil resulted in white lines, delineating the Allied and German trenches on aerial photographs.”    [5]

“August 7th was a busy day, as much material for the attack on Hill 70 was delivered at the Battalion dump.  During the day some 200 enemy shells fell in the Regimental area without causing loses, or serious damage.  At 9 a.m. the heavy artillery of the Corps bombarded the German front line, continuing the fire until 6 o’clock in the evening.   On the left of the 14th front, “back lash” from this fire rendered evacuation of some trenches advisable.  On August 9th the artillery again carried out a 9-hour “shoot”, tearing out the enemy wire and paving a way for the coming assault of the infantry.  Retaliation for this fire was sharp and Lieut. L. M. Hooker was wounded.  At night on the 9th the Battalion was relieved by the 3rd Battalion.

Following relief, the Royal Montreal Regiment marched to Noeux-les-Mines, proceeding on the following day to Fosse 7, Barlin, where, on August 12th, a Protestant church service was held in conjunction with the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada.  Following this service routine training continued for one day, then, at 6:30 p.m. on August 13th, the Battalion marched to Mazingarbe, where the companied were reorganized for the Hill 70 operations, No. 3 Coy, being brought to a strength of 200, divided into 4 platoons, and Nos. 1, 2 and 4 Companies reduced to a two-platoon basis.

Hill 70 Trench Map – August 1917

At 9:50 p.m. on August 14th, 1917, the Battalion left Mazingarbe Huts, the platoons donning box respirators as the forward area was reached and gas shells fell in large numbers.  In spite of the obstacle which these shells presented, the Battalion, 589 strong (83 were on special duty), had reached assembly trenches and taken up position  at 3:45 o’clock on the morning of August 15th.   Forty minutes later the Canadian guns opened fire and the Battle of Hill 70 began.

Artillery barrage map for Battle at Hill 70.

At 5:30 a.m. 14th Battalion Headquarters was notified that the 13th and 15th Battalions had captured the Blue Line, and at 5:55 a.m. the 13th Battalion was reported to have captured its final objective, the Green line.  This report must have been premature, as it was 6:10 o’clock before the 13th and 16th Battalions stormed their way into the Green Line, both battalions having encountered stiff opposition and suffered severe losses.  In both cases, however, the battalions had refused to check and had courageously maintained the prearranged schedule of progress.

At 7 a.m. the 14th Battalion sent four Lewis guns and eight posts of riflemen forward into the old Canadian front trenches, to guard against any counter-attack which might sweep through the decimated battalions in the new front line.  Several counter-attacks were attempted, but the artillery smashed them, or they were dealt with by the reduced, but still effective, front line companies.  From an advanced position on the left flank of the attack, Lieut. B. T. Jackson, Intelligence Officer of the 14th Battalion, who was attached to the 138th British Brigade for liaison, reported the assembly of counter-attacking forces near the Bois Dix-Huit.  One counter-attack in strength led by a German officer on a white horse, deployed under fire with a courage exciting the admiration of all observers.  Courage alone, however, could not carry the attack forward and it wilted under the blast of concentrated shell fire which greeted it.

Lieut. Jackson was also witness to a stirring little action when Lieut.-Col. C. E. Bent, Commanding Officer of the 15th Battalion, was attacked by Germans who debouched from a dugout in his rear. Though taken by surprise, the gallant C.O. of the 15th showed fight and held the enemy off until his men rallied to his support and dispersed the attacking party.  Lieut.-Col. G. E. McCuaig, of the 13th Battalion, had a equally narrow escape when prisoners near his headquarters were mistaken by a mopping-up patrol for active enemies and attacked with machine gun fire.  McCuaig and the prisoners escaped injury, but one runner was killed and two signallers were wounded.

Meanwhile, possibly as a result of the attack on Lieut.-Col. Bent, 14th Battalion received news that 15th Battalion Headquarters was in immediate danger.  Lieut.-Col. McCombe thereupon issued orders for an attack on the left, with No. 2 Coy. leading the assault and No. 1 Coy., advancing in close support.  Hardly had No. 2 Coy. started forward, when a message arrived stating that the situation had improved and no counter-attack would be required.  On receipt of this message, No. 2 Coy. was ordered to reinforce the 15th Battalion on the left, No. 4 Coy taking over the position No. 2 vacated.

Throughout August 15th carrying parties of the 14th Battalion worked their way through enemy barrages, delivering much material at points where it was urgently needed.  On the return trips many of these parties carried stretchers with wounded, all ranks displaying gallantry under fire and earning mention in the Commanding Officer’s report to Brigade Headquarters.  In one party, commanded by Lieut. J. M. Stephenson [formerly R.S.M. of the 14th Bn.], two men, Privates Burke and Hall, refused to leave duty when wounded and worked faithfully until killed by a shell in Canteen Alley.  Lieut. H. T. Rodger also remained at duty after suffering a painful wound.

At 1:30 o’clock on the morning of August 16th, No. 4 Coy. of the Royal Montreal Regiment reinforced the 15th Battalion, and Major Sheppard, of that unit, used 1 officer and 45 other ranks to strengthen the front line at the junction of the Blue and Green Lines, 1 officer and 20 other ranks to man the front line west of this junction, and 1 officer and 20 other ranks to garrison the Blue Line.  No. 4 Company Commander was ordered to remain in the Blue Line and lead a counter-attack, should this prove necessary.  One hundred other ranks were attached to him for the purpose.

Meanwhile, two companies of the 2nd Canadian Battalion reported for duty to 14th Battalion Headquarters and were ordered to take up a position in Gun Trench.  At 2 a.m. Lieut.-Col. McCombe moved one platoon of No. 1 Coy. into the old front line and effected redisposition of several minor posts, all with a view to checking any enemy counter-attack on the left flank.  At 3:45 a.m. he moved one company of the 2nd Canadian battalion from Gun Trench to Reserve Line, on the right of Railway Alley.

All day on August 16th and all that night the companies of the 14th Battalion continued to carry out the tasks assigned to them.  In the front line Nos. 2 and 4 Companies valiantly co-operated with the men of the 15th Battalion, sharing with the latter the hardships of maintaining and consolidating the newly-captured line and suffering proportionately from severe shell fire.  At one point a platoon of No. 2 Coy., sadly reduced in strength, kept up an appearance of power by deputing one man to run up and down at night, firing Very lights over the parapet at frequent intervals.  Lieut. René Bourgeois, who had won the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre while serving in the French Foreign Legion and who, throughout the present operation, had displayed courage and abundant good cheer, was killed, as was Lieut. J. G. Pope.  Amongst other ranks, either in the actual front, or whilst employed on carrying parties, 17 were killed, 11 failed to answer roll call and were listed as “missing and presumed killed”, 80 were wounded, and 39 severely gassed.  Lieuts. W. S. McCutcheon, Harry Edney, and Donald MacRitchie were also wounded.

At 5:10 a.m. on August 17th the 14th Battalion was relieved by two companies of the 3rd Canadian Battalion, No. 1 Coy. of the 14th proceeding to Gun Trench, No. 2 Coy. to the Village Line, No. 3 Coy. to Loos, and No. 4 Coy. to the Village Line.  Battalion Headquarters remained in the Meath Trench, Lieut.-Col. McCombe issuing orders to the company commanders regarding positions to be taken up in the event of an emergency.  Should all wires and communications be cut, company commanders were left to judge whether an emergency existed, or not.

On taking over their new positions, all men of the Battalion were re-equipped with bombs, small arms ammunition, and such articles as they had lost, or used up, in the course of the Hill 70 operations.  Gas shelling caused much inconvenience at this time, consequently the men were not sorry when at 2:15 a.m. on August 20th the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles carried out relief and the 14th withdrew to billets in Les Brebis.  Here a poor welcome was provided, shell fire killing one man and wounding three.  These casualties were attended by Captain Graham, the Battalion Medical Officer, who, during the operations just concluded, had passed through his post over three hundred and seventy-five wounded, including many members of the 10th Battalion.

The 14th Battalion (RMR) marching to rest billets after Hill 70, August 1917

After resting for a few hours at Les Brebis, the Battalion marched, via Sains, to Fosse 7, Barlin, billeting there for the night, and marching on the 21st via Ruitz and Haillicourt, to the reserve area at Marles-les-Mines.  On arrival at Marles-les-Mines, the troops started to clean up and to repair clothing damaged in the operations just completed.  On the afternoon of August 21st a reinforcing draft of 1 officer and 75 men reported for duty, and on the following day the Battalion received a visit from Major-Gen. A.C. MacDonnell and Brig.-Gen. G. S. Tuxford, who congratulated the troops on the work carried out at Hill 70, but warned them that ceaseless effort would be required to maintain the reputation the Division had won.”     [9]

*    *    *    *    *

Postscript:    For over 100 years there was no suitable monument to remember and honour the 9,000 Canadian soldiers who were casualties in capturing Hill 70, including over 1,800 who paid the supreme sacrifice.   For the past number of years The Hill 70 Project team of distinguished Canadians has worked very hard to establish just such a memorial.   Under the active patronage of the Right Honourable David L. Johnston, Governor General of Canada, dedicated volunteers have worked with enthusiastic officials and citizens of the City of Loos-en-Gohelle, France.  The Project Team secured a prominent location just inside the Canadian front lines of August 1917, next to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.  The actual location of Hill 70 is 1.4 kilometres to the east.  Governor General Johnston unveiled the new monument on April 8, 2017.

“The Memorial site is made up of a several different elements. After leaving a welcome centre, the visitor begins a gentle climb along a curving pathway.  Set into the pathways on the site are 1,877 Canadian Maple Leaves, each representing a Canadian Soldier who died achieving the Victory at Hill 70.

The Hill 70 Memorial while still under construction, Spring 2017.
A close up of one of the 1,877 maple leaves in the pavement of the memorial.

Continuing along the pathway the visitor enters the General Sir Arthur Currie Amphitheatre. This is one of the key features of the Hill 70 Memorial Site. Located immediately below the Obelisk, the amphitheatre is a central gathering point for visitors and tour groups who are exploring the site. Overlooking and standing some 70 metres above sea level is a stone Obelisk.  Set into the Obelisk is the sword of sacrifice and the words: CANADA 1917. The tapered portion at the top is the height of an average Canadian soldier and represents all the soldiers of the Canadian Corps who fought throughout the First World War.   

Hill 70 Memorial

The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery located to the southwest of the Memorial Site is the The Loos British Cemetery, which was started by the Canadian Corps in July 1917 and a few of the soldiers who died capturing Hill 70 rest in this cemetery.”   [13]

This memorial is being funded entirely by private donations, without government contribution. Those wishing to contribute in support of the Hill 70 Memorial may contact – The Hill 70 Memorial, P.O. Box 73, Kingston Main, Kingston, ON, K7L 4V6,  (613) 546-4567,


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[8]     Library and Archives Canada; Canadian War Records Office: Image 0-2049

[9]     R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pp.160-171.  



[12]   Photo by Edward J. Walshe, Montreal, of the C.E.F. Study Group



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