Despite their great victory at Vimy Ridge in April, the Allies suffered from war-weariness by the summer of 1917. The Russian Army on the Eastern Front began disintegrating in the spring and by late June, the majority of French divisions on the Western Front had succumbed to mutinies. With the French unwilling to attack, the burden of offensive action fell to the British armies. Morale was slightly raised by news that the Americans had joined the war. Canada too, however, felt disillusionment with the war, and recruiting faltered. Casualties in the field had to be replaced with troops still waiting in England. Units there waiting to deploy were broken up for reinforcements. In June, the Canadian government became convinced that conscription would be the only way to continue the war, and at the end of August the Military Service Bill was passed into law.1
With the French unable to attack, the British undertook to launch a major offensive in Flanders in late July. Field-Marshal Haig, commanding the British Expeditionary Force, had several objectives. To relieve pressure on the demoralized French armies, to liberate ports on the Belgian coast and hinder German submarine activity, and to outflank the German armies and precipitate a general withdrawal. The role of the Canadian Corps was to attack the town of Lens, 6,000 metres north of Vimy Ridge, draw attention away from the British offensive in Flanders, and prevent the transfer of German troops north to reinforce the Flanders sector.2 Capturing Lens, the centre of France's coal-mining industry, would constitute a threat that the British armies would next advance on Lille.3
The Canadian Corps would go into action with a new commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie. Currie, promoted from command of the 1st Canadian Division, was the first Canadian officer to command the corps. He made a personal reconnaissance and saw that the industrial suburbs of Lens had been blasted into rubble and were under direct enemy observation from Hill 70 to the north and Sallaumines Hill to the east. Currie convinced his commander that it made more tactical sense to assault Hill 70. Feeling the ruins of Lens would require a long, slow, and costly assault, he said "If we have to fight at all, let us fight for something worth having."4
10th Battalion Preparations
As part of the general shifting of the Canadian Corps north of the River Souchez, the 10th Battalion left Neuville Saint-Vaast at the start of July. His Majesty King George V made an impromptu inspection of the Battalion on 11 July, reviewing the battalion as they marched down the Arras-Lens road. On 14 July the 10th Battalion moved into the front line in the Lens area with 32 officers and 702 other ranks. The sector was active and despite German shell and machine-gun fire, the Battalion escaped their first day in trenches without losses. Casualties began to mount the next day and over a dozen men were killed and wounded by the time the 10th relieved the 5th Battalion on the night of 18-19 July. On 22 July the Battalion moved into divisional reserve and began preparing for the task of capturing Hill 70.6
All ranks were briefed on 24 July, and practice attacks on a marked course were carried out the next day. On 26 July all ranks were briefed a second time in front of a replica of the terrain. Private Norman Eastman remembered:
Fully briefed and trained by the time they returned to brigade support positions near Les Brébis, the only detail yet to be determined was the timing of the attack. In the meantime, the Commanding Officer of the 10th, Lieutenant-Colonel Dan Ormond felt anxious about the quality of reinforcements that had arrived in the unit to replace men lost at Vimy, feeling "(t)hey do not perform work with the same keenness as men who enlisted at an earlier date, this causes one to wonder what their value will be as fighting men! This also applies to officers!"8
The meticulous planning experienced by the 10th Battalion was common throughout all the units selected to conduct the assault on Hill 70. As at Vimy, artillery was intended to neutralize German M.G.s, counter-battery fire would bombard the German artillery lines, and massive fire would batter the customary German counter-attacks to wear down the German reserves and prevent their use elsewhere on the front.9
The assault on Hill 70 began before dawn on 15 August 1917. A rolling-barrage blasted along a 4,000 yard front. In addition to the heavy artillery employed to support the ten assault battalions of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions, 500 drums of burning oil were launched by a mortar-type projector to create a smoke screen and mask the area between Lens and the Canadian objectives.10 Zero Hour was 04:25hrs and while the 1st Division attacked the Hill, the 2nd Division assaulted the suburbs of Lens.11
The 1st Division attacked with two brigades, and the 10th Battalion attacked on the left of the 2nd Brigade's front with the 5th Battalion on their right. Their first objective was the Blue Line, a German support line running across the crest of Hill 70. Once this line was captured, the 7th and 8th Battalions were to leapfrog and take the Red Line and finally the Green Line at the base of the hill on the enemy side.
On the 10th Battalion's front, "D" Company and "A" Company formed up left to right with orders to take the forward German trenches. "B" and "D" Companies were to pass through and secure the Blue Line some 500 yards further on. Each assault company had four officers and 150 other ranks.
There were difficulties forming up, and between midnight and 02:00hrs on the 15th, five men became casualties due to German artillery that dropped high explosive shells and gas. All four companies were delayed in forming up, and while "B" Company reported ready 30 minutes late, it wasn't until 03:30hrs, two hours past the deadline, that the last company was in position. The officers of the 10th had also synchronized their watched incorrectly, and waited nervously for two extra minutes until the barrage began at Zero Hour. The Battalion stepped off with fixed bayonets into massed German machine-gun fire. Enemy SOS flares filled the sky and within four minutes, German shells began to rain down. Nonetheless, the lead German trenches were quickly taken. "A" Company's commander, Captain Stevenson, was wounded for the fourth and final time of his war career, a severe wound to his shoulder and neck. He had been an original 10th Battalion soldier who came overseas as a sergeant.
At 04:53hrs, "B" and "C" Companies leapfrogged into the attack and carried the assault forward to the crest of the hill. "C" Company lost half their effective strength to German machine-guns, including their Officer Commanding who took shrapnel in both thighs and had a leg broken in two places. "B" Company lost two-thirds of their men in their advance to the Blue Line. The battalion history notes that there "were several notable feats of heroism," including Corporal Nicholas Purmal's capture of a German machine-gun crew. Wounded in a brief exchange of fire, he brought first word to the Commanding Officer that the attack was going well, arriving at battalion headquarters with his prisoners in tow. Purmal was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. There were many other feats of bravery that day:
The Blue Line was in Canadian hands by 06:12hrs and the 7th and 8th Battalions passed through the 2nd Brigade. The battalion tallied 100 prisoners, six machine-guns and two grenade launchers, and a liaison officer of the 10th reported to the C.O. that the 5th Battalion had sent two of their pioneers forward to paint the battalion's name on all trophies. The liaison officer, Lieutenant Harry Templeman, was concerned that the 5th might claim the 10th Battalion's war trophies as their own.13
Second Phase - Taking the Quarry
Careful planning once again paid dividends as the attack continued on from the Blue Line. By 06:00hrs the 2nd Brigade had gained the Red Line while all other brigades had secured the Green Line. The 2nd Brigade was faced with strong positions in a fortified chalk quarry.
A diversionary attack by the 4th Canadian Division, on the right (southern) flank of the Canadian Corps, performed admirably, and a simulated assault by that division drew heavier German fire than the actual assault by the 1st and 2nd Divisions. Strong fighting patrols from the 4th probed into Lens to take advantage if the Germans decided to pull out, but the enemy proved unwilling to yield the ruins of the town. The typical German counter-attacks chased the 4th Division back to the outskirts of the shattered city.15
In the meantime, the 10th Battalion was left to consolidate on the Blue Line. By 10:00hrs, shortages of barbed wire and pickets had held up this process (now that the German front line had been captured, there was a need to fortify the new positions against counter-attack). The battalion had linked up with the 16th Battalion on their left but came under heavy fire from 4.1-inch and 5.9-inch shells. By 17:00hrs "B" Company reported a strength of 15 all ranks in each platoon. The great numbers of wounded required much effort in care and evacuation, all under the heavy shellfire.
The 10th Battalion's part in the assault on Hill 70 was supposed to end with the capture of the Blue Line.
The 7th and 8th Battalions had passed through the Red Line but had become stalled in their drive to the final objectives on the Green Line. A force of 300 Germans with 20 machine guns held the quarry, and when the 7th gained a toe-hold, they were thrown back out to the Red Line. The two battalions launched a final attempt to take the quarry before dark. The 8th Battalion attack failed to materialize and the 7th Battalion refused to move without the 8th alongside. The commander of the 2nd Brigade, Brigadier-General Loomis, gave verbal orders to the 10th to relieve the 7th Battalion. "A", "B" and "C" Company went forward to carry out the task while "B" Company, alone, manned the Blue Line. The 10th Battalion's trench strength after the day of fighting was 17 officers and 316 other ranks. The relief was completed early on the morning of the 16th under heavy shellfire. The Germans made no counter-attacks that night.
A daylight attack was scheduled for 16:00hrs on the 16th, with the 10th Battalion and the 5th Battalion to clear the Green Line. The brigadier felt a daylight attack would achieve surprise, and Lieutenant-Colonel Ormond further maximized the surprise by forgoing a preliminary bombardment, ordering the scarce artillery shells be used in a creeping barrage instead. The depleted 10th Battalion would attempt to take the Chalk Quarry with just 7 officers and 120 men, a task that the entire 7th Battalion had failed to complete. "D" Company, manning the Blue Line, was down to just 3 officers and 38 other ranks and were under heavy machine gun and sniper fire as they tried to complete the fortification of the former German trench.
As the afternoon progressed, German fire slackened and just before Zero Hour not a shot was being fired. The creeping barrage arrived, and in just twenty-one minutes, the 10th Battalion had advanced into the Green Line and secured the Chalk Quarry. According to the battalion history, "...those twenty-one minutes involved fighting of unrivalled ferocity and bravery of breath-taking proportions."17
"B" Company attacked on the left, attained fire superiority with two Lewis gun teams, and drove the German defenders into headlong rout where many were gunned down. Privates Bateman and Baxter, manning one of the Lewis guns, received the Military Medal; both survived the battle only to be killed before the end of 1917. The company commander, Captain Thompson, received the Distinguished Service Order, though his company was reduced to just 2 officers and 20 other ranks.
"C" Company attacked in the middle and enjoyed startling success, rounding up large numbers of prisoners. Lieutenant Pearson was wounded three times during the day and awarded the Military Cross. Private Masumi Mitsui, one of a number of Japanese-Canadians serving in the Battalion, retrieved a Lewis gun from its dead crew and similarly inflicted heavy loss on retreating Germans. He too was awarded the Military Medal.
"A" Company, on the right, was hampered by the slow advance of its flanking unit, the 5th Battalion. With an exposed flank, and under the command of a recently arrived reinforcement subaltern, the commander panicked 200 yards short of the objective. Quick thinking by Lieutenant MacEachern took charge, ignored the enfilade fire, and pressed the attack home, running shellhole to shellhole behind the creeping barrage and collecting stragglers trapped in No Man's Land during the 7th and 8th Battalion attack.
The Chalk Quarry was studded with dugouts carved into the chalk. A veritable fortress, the 10th Battalion found the Germans there very willing to surrender, particularly once the 10th Battalion's bombers became active with their Mills bombs. Company Sergeant-Major Tom Carter was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for leading resupply parties through enemy fire while Corporal Gordon Jones, also awarded the DCM, single-handedly captured 30 Germans. Private Tokutaro Iwamoto, another of the 10th Battalion's Japanese-Canadians, was awarded an MM for taking 20 German prisoners, including a signaller with code book.
Defending the Quarry
The 10th Battalion consolidated the Quarry and dug a hasty trench on the German side of the former positions. Surviving Lewis gun crews were deployed across the Battalion's front. Five riflemen engaged a trio of German machine-guns so effectively that the Germans withdrew with their heavy weapons, and all five soldiers were awarded the Military Medal.
The German counter-attacks began with a very heavy barrage at 16:43hrs, not even forty-five minutes after Zero Hour. German soldiers were observed to be assembling and just after 17:00hrs Canadian artillery was falling on them in response to SOS flares sent up by the 10th. Lieutenant-Colonel Ormond noted that "(t)he enemy dispersed in confusion," and praised the efforts of the artillery.18 Artillery support and massed small-arms repelled a number of German counter-attacks. The officers of the 10th Battalion received much praise after the battle. Captain Thompson "seemed to be everywhere" and, according to the C.O., "was almost solely responsible for the holding of this position." Lieutenant Pearson and Lieutenant Frank Fane (later Member of Parliament for Vegreville from 1958 to 1968) both refused to be evacuated despite serious wounds.
At 20:30hrs brigade headquarters authorized the 4th Battalion to relieve the battered 10th. By 02:30hrs on the 17th, the relief was complete and early on the 18th the remains of the unit marched away from the battle zone to divisional reserve.
No less than three Distinguished Service Orders, seven Military Crosses, nine Distinguished Conduct Medals, and sixty (!) Military Medals were awarded to soldiers of the 10th Battalion, an unmatched total of awards for a single Canadian unit in a single battle.
And it was at Hill 70 that a rare honour was bestowed on a 10th Battalion soldier for the first time. The artillery, praised by the C.O., was instrumental in the battalion's successful assault and then defence of the Chalk Quarry. However, German counter-fire was so heavy that it continuously cut the telephone cables connecting the guns with the forward observers. The signallers did their best to repair the cables (Lance-Corporal Joseph Milne was awarded the second bar to the Military Medal, the only 10th Battalion soldier so honoured, for his work repairing cables under fire). In the absence of effective wire communications (wireless was still in its infancy), soldiers were required to physically relay messages by running from the forward command posts back to the rear. Private Harry Brown and another runner were given identical messages calling for urgent artillery support. The other messenger was killed carrying out the dangerous work, and Brown's arm was nearly blown off by a shell. With his thigh laced with shrapnel, he staggered into the headquarters of "D" Company, bleeding heavily, arm hanging, and gasped out his last words "important message" as he passed the sheet to an officer.
Private Harry Brown was just nineteen years old when he died of his wounds in the dressing station shortly after, but because of his dedication to duty and his actions, a Canadian barrage was brought down on enemy concentrations just in time. He was nominated for, and received posthumously, the Victoria Cross.
A sadder footnote involved Sergeant William Alexander, who became one of 346 soldiers in the British Expeditionary Force, and one of just 25 Canadians, to be executed in the name of military justice in the First World War. Two of the 25 Canadians were found guilty of murder, one was convicted of cowardice (under military law, a death-penalty crime), and 22 found guilty of desertion. Alexander had enlisted in August 1914, promoted twice to company sergeant-major and twice requested to be returned to the rank of sergeant. Following heavy losses in the first day of the Hill 70 battle, and just returned from hospital, he was sent forward as a platoon sergeant and then put in charge of a platoon of "D" Company in support positions during the attack on the Chalk Quarry. He absented himself from the trenches at this point, and was found two days later in the 10th's former billets behind the lines claiming to have been knocked down by a shell. There was no physical evidence to corroborate his story and he admitted he had not reported to any of his superiors before leaving the trenches. His court-martial was held in late September, four days after the court-martial of the officer who panicked at the Chalk Quarry. The officer was cashiered. Alexander was ordered shot by firing squad. The grim duty was carried out by soldiers of all four 2nd Brigade battalions on 18 October 1917.
According to the battalion historian, "Alexander's actions had been the only blight on the Battalion's brilliant performance at Hill 70."19
The Canadian Corps did not rest long and their attention turned northwards to the Ypres Salient, that same intractable ground in which they had received their bloody baptism of fire in April 1915. Once again, the Canadians would be called on to take positions others found unassailable.
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