The Attack On Lens
A Centenary Action

The destruction in Lens was immense, yet gutted houses like these could be fortified and turned into nests of resistance.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001862.

21-25 August 1917

With the success of the Canadian Corps at Hill 70, Currie now turned his eyes to the town behind the hill – Lens. Despite drawing out the Germans into a costly attack, and causing some 20 000 casualties, the capture of Hill 70 had not forced a German withdrawal from the city. Currie had originally planned Hill 70 to avoid having to make the Corps attack a fortified city, which they had no previous experience doing, but with no German withdrawal and increasing pressure from his high command Currie was forced to consider going into Lens.

With input from his divisional commanders, Currie ordered the 2nd and 4th Divisions into the city in a narrow fronted, probing attack. The first attack took place at 4:35 am on 21 August with battalions from both divisions advancing from their lines to the outskirts of the city. They were met with extremely strong resistance, and in the maze of fortified cellars, ruined houses and block streets were continually harassed by the Germans. By the end of the day, the Canadians were forced to withdraw; they lost 1 154 soldiers in only one day.

Currie now knew what was waiting for him in Lens – a strong German force – but made an uncharacteristic miscalculation. Rather than bombard Lens from above and avoid any inner city combat, he decided to send the 4th Division back in to try and capture Green Crassier, a large slag heap to the south of the city. The 44th (Manitoba) Battalion was ordered into Lens on 23 August to try to take the Crassier, and while they managed to capture it initially, were left to hold it cut off from communications and without reinforcements. The 44th held out until the end of the day on 24 August but were forced to retreat and Curried called off the operation in Lens on 25 August 1917, ending the Battle of Hill 70. The city remained in German hands until the general German retreat of 1918. Total casualties for the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the period of 15 – 25 August 1917 were 9 198 killed, wounded, or missing.

 

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“Canadians wounded at Lens on way to Blighty via Light Railway, September 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001823.

The fighting at Lens demonstrated a form of warfare that would take precedence in the Second World War; urban warfare. Capturing the city required the Canadian Corps to go through Lens street by street to clear out all remaining enemy forces, something which they just did not have the resources or the training to do. Lens was the last time the Corps fought in a city until Valenciennes in 1918.

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Corporal Filip Konowal (47th (British Columbia) Battalion)- An immigrant from modern-day Ukraine, Filip Konowal was a veteran of the Imperial Russian Army and enlisted in 1915. His battalion was part of the 4th Division and was sent into the city of Lens on 21 August 1917. During a two-day stretch, Konowal was involved in clearing cellars in the city and attacked two machine gun nests single-handedly, killing their crews and destroying their guns. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery, the only Ukrainian ever to receive one. Konowal’s post-war life was tragic; his family in Ukraine was believed killed during Stalin’s collectivization plan in the 1930s and Konowal himself never returned to his homeland. Convicted of murder after coming to the aid of a friend in 1919, he was institutionalized and treated for physical and mental traumas of the First World War. Later released, he worked as a janitor in the House of Commons.

Company Sergeant Major Robert Hill Hanna (29th (Vancouver) Battalion) was the second Canadian to receive a Victoria Cross during the attack on Lens. Both Hanna’s and Konowal’s VCs are counted as Battle of Hill 70 awards.

Accounts of both VC actions can be read by visiting the pages linked to the men’s names.

“A Canadian Doctor checking wounded Canadians before leaving an aid post near Lens. September, 1917.” (Note the large “cross hair” that has been marked on the house in the middle background).
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003816.

Poll Results

The Vimy Foundation regularly polls Canadians about their attitudes and opinions related to Canada’s First World War legacy and the upcoming Vimy Centennial, through market research conducted by Ipsos Reid.

November 2017 New Poll Shows Canadian First World War Legacy Building as More Young Canadians Engage in Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. 

November 2016 “Survey of Six “Western Front” Nations Shows Canadians Most Likely to Have Attended War Remembrance Ceremony in Past Year

April 2016 “New Poll Shows Most Canadians (83%) Feel Vimy Centennial should be Key Part of Canada 150 Celebration

November 2015 “Most Canadians Can Identify “In Flanders Fields” (76%) by John McCrae (61%) as Canadian Poem Written During First World War

April 2015 “Three Quarters of Canadians (74%) Believe 100th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge in 2017 Should Be One of Canada’s Most Important Celebrations During Sesquicentennial

November 2014 “Three in Ten (27%) Canadians Will Attend a Remembrance Day Ceremony This Year, 23% Said they Went Last Year

April 2014 “One in Five (18%) Canadians Don’t Know What Vimy Ridge Is

 

 

Canada’s FWW Battles

From 2014 to 2018, we commemorate the centennial anniversaries of the First World War. The Vimy Foundation is actively working to ensure that these major battles of the First World War involving Canadians are recalled and our losses commemorated.

Read more about some of the lesser-known battles of Canadians:

May 1915 – Festubert and Givenchy

June 1916 – Battle of Mount Sorrel

July 1, 1916 – Beaumont Hamel

September 15-22, 1916 – Courcelette

September 26, 1916 – Thiepval Ridge

October 1 – November 11, 1916 – Regina Trench

April 9 -12, 1917 – Battle of Vimy Ridge

April 14, 1917 – Monchy-Le-Preux

April 28-29, 1917 – Arleux-en-Gohelle

May 3-8, 1917 – Battle of Fresnoy

August 15-18, 1917 – Battle of Hill 70

August 15-18, 1917 –  Battle of Langemarck

We will remember them.

 

Help us continue our work to highlight Canada’s lesser-known First World War battles, and commemorate these important centennial anniversaries. Please consider making a donation today.

 

History Of Vimy Ridge

The message of Vimy Ridge is one of bravery and sacrifice. The battle, which took place on April 9, 1917, is commonly highlighted as a turning point in Canadian history, where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a unified fighting force for the first time. While 3,598 Canadian soldiers were killed during the battle, the impressive victory over German forces is often cited as the beginning of Canada’s evolution from dominion to independent nation. The Vimy Foundation is working to spread the word to Canada’s youth — through initiatives like the Vimy Prize and the Vimy Pin — so that all Canadians understand the importance of Vimy to the nation’s identity.

To underscore the sacrifices made by Canada, which suffered 60,000 fatalities during the First World War, France granted Canada 107 hectares of land at Vimy to build and maintain a memorial. That iconic site is today considered one of the most stirring of all First World War monuments, and certainly Canada’s most important war memorial.

Victoria Cross

For most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. The medal was instituted on February 5, 1856 with awards retroactive to 1854. The first award to a Canadian was in February 1857, to Lt. Alexander DUNN (Charge of the Light Brigade). There have been 1,351 Victoria Crosses and 3 Bars awarded worldwide, 94 to Canadians (Canadian-born or serving in the Canadian Army or with a close connection to Canada).

First World War Colourization Project

When you look at old black and white photos, the past seems very far away. This is no more so true than First World War pictures. And yet in the course of time, it was only yesterday.

The Vimy Foundation is launching a project to bring Canada’s First World war efforts to life. We will colourize 100 photos from the First World War and release a book with these images to help bridge the gap between Canadians today and the soldiers, nurses, engineers, mothers and children of 100 years ago.