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.

 

Technological Advancements|

“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.

Characters|

Full accounts of their lives and VC actions can be read by clicking on the hyperlinks in the men’s names.

Corporal Filip Konowal (47th (British Columbia) Battalion) – An immigrant from modern-day Ukraine, over two days of fighting, Konowal was involved in clearing cellars in the city. He 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-Canadian 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 Konowal himself was 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) –  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.

“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.

 

The Battle of Hill 70
A Centenary Action

Canadians in captured trenches on Hill 70. August, 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001718 (modified from the original). Colourized by Canadian Colour.

15-25 August 1917

Fought four months after Vimy Ridge, the Battle of Hill 70 was the first large Canadian engagement of the summer, and the first test of the Canadian Corps’ new commander- Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie. The city of Lens, an industrial coal mining centre, had been in German control since 1914, and was overlooked in the north by Hill 70. The original attack, given to Currie shortly after he took command of the Corps, called for the capture of the city by the end of July. Currie believed that Hill 70 was a more important objective, since controlling meant a strong artillery position above the city, and that rather than waste lives trying to take Lens, it would be better to neutralize the hill first and use it to draw the Germans out into an attack. He convinced his superior, General Henry Horne, at a meeting on 10 July of the worth of a more limited attack, and the battle was set for the end of July. Delays caused by poor weather moved the battle into August. Despite the change in plan, Hill 70 was still a very tough objective, and Currie had less than a month to plan and train his troops. Like his predecessor General Byng at Vimy, Currie wanted his men to know their exact objective, and made similar use of maps, classroom teaching, and scaled battlefields to ensure that every soldier in the Corps knew what they had to do and where.

The Corps attacked on 15 August at 4:25 am under a creeping barrage and smoke screen:

The artillery bombardment unleashed on Lens and Hill 70 left little of the city standing.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001872.

“… At four-twenty A.M. you’d have thought the earth had cracked open. My God, it was marvelous! I don’t know how many guns we have, some say one to every three men… With the first roar we manned the trench and began to move… No power on Earth could keep us from getting on the parapet to have a look. It was too dark to see the men advancing behind the barrage, but the line of fire – ye Gods! Try to imagine a long huge gas main which had been powdered here and there with holes and set fire to. The flame of each shell burst and merged into the flame of the other. It was perfect. It was terrible. The flames were dotted with black specks which were bits of rock and mud… After some while, the barrage died down. Only the scream of the heavies overhead and the whirr of planes and the heavy crump, crump, crump of Fritzie’s shells behind us searching for batteries. He might as well have tried to shove the sea back with a broom.”
18 August 1917
(Watson, Letters of a Canadian Stretcher-Bearer, p. 156 – 157)

Currie’s plan called for three phases of attack; the first to take the German line at the crest of the hill, the second to take the trenches on the downward slope towards Lens, and the third to take the lower-most arc of trenches at the foot of the hill. All three phases had to be achieved very quickly, so that the Canadians were in position against the inevitable German counter attack the Currie was inviting. At the same time, battalions from the 4th Division were engaged in a feint attack against Lens, to draw German attention away from Hill 70 to allow for more time to consolidate the position.

The attacks on 15 August went well, with the formation of a new Canadian front line comprising of parts of the second and third objectives, but German counter attacks began quickly after the initial gains, with the first at 7 am. On 16 August, the 2nd Division completed its objectives on the third line and Hill 70 was considered fully taken by the Canadians. Massed German gas attacks on 18 August made holding the hill miserable work, and many suffered from mustard gas related casualties, which burned the skin and caused blindness. By the end of 18 August, the German counter attacks calmed and the Corps spent the next several days consolidating before Currie ordered them into their next battle on 21 August – the attack on Lens. Casualties for the first six days of battle were 5 600 wounded, killed, or missing.

Dressing wounded Canadians during advance to Hill 70. August, 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001598.

Technological Advancements|

“A wounded Canadian leads in a Boche whose nerves have been shattered during our advance on Hill 70. August, 1917.”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001597.

The Canadian Field Artillery was already using counter barrage techniques at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, but Hill 70 posed a particular challenge. Many of the Canadian guns and gunners had been moved to support the ongoing British battle at Passchendaele, leaving the CFA undermanned and using much older guns. Additionally, the weather leading up to the fight was consistently bad, making accurate location of the enemy guns difficult. However, Canadian artillery still succeeded in knocking out 40 of over 100 German batteries before the launch of the attack and continued to provide support with a creeping barrage on 15 August

-To meet the German counterattacks that he knew would come, Currie created a complex front zone of overlapping machine gun, rifle, and artillery fire that would be moved into place when the Corps had reached their objectives.  To reach the Canadian trenches, the Germans would have to attack through a field of live fire. Currie’s idea drew on information that he had learned from the French in the winter of 1917, who defended the city of Verdun using a similar technique

-Both the Germans and the Canadians used poison gas to devastating effect during Hill 70. The initial Canadian attack at 4:25 am took place behind a cloud of gas and smoke, which confused the German forces in the city and made them slow to respond. The German Army used mustard gas on 18 August, which unlike chlorine was not immediately detectable, and many Canadians were unwittingly poisoned because they waited too long to put on their respirators.

Pivotal Figures |

Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie –  Hill 70 was Currie’s first battle since his promotion to Corps commander in June 1917. The battle bore all the hallmarks of Currie’s later successes in 1918; careful preparation, co-operation between the artillery and the infantry, and bite and hold tactics. By the end of the war, Currie was considered to be one of the best generals in the British Army.

During the Battle of Hill 70 and subsequent attack on Lens, six Canadians received the Victoria Cross for their actions of valour.
Over the next ten days we will be posting in-depth accounts of each Victoria Cross recipient on the centenary date of their action. Click on an individual name to be taken to the account of their Victoria Cross.

Private Harry Brown (10th Battalion CEF) – A messenger, Brown was badly injured and his partner runner killed while delivering a message on 17 August 1917. He continued on and delivered his message before fainting from loss of blood. Pte Brown died of his wounds the same day.

Private Michael James O’Rourke ( 7th Battalion CEF)O’Rourke served as a stretcher bearer at Hill 70 and worked for three days under heavy fire to ensure that the wounded members of his battalion were evacuated. He survived the war and was the head of a 1 000 strong longshoreman’s strike in Vancouver in 1935.

Sergeant Frederick Hobson (20th Battalion CEF) – On 18 August 1917, after a Lewis gun post was buried and the crew killed, Hobson left his trench, dug out the gun, and fired on the attacking Germans until he was killed.

Major Okill Massey Learmonth (2nd Battalion CEF) – On 19 August 1917, during a German counterattack, Learmonth was wounded, but refused to leave his men instead directing them first from the parapet and then from the bottom of his trench, all the while throwing grenades. He died the same day of his wounds.

Company Sergeant-Major Robert Hill Hanna (29th Battalion CEF)- rushed an enemy machine-gun nest with four other men and captured it on 21 August 1917. Hanna immigrated to Canada from Ireland before the war.

Corporal Filip Konowal (47th Battalion CEF)- Konowal was tasked with clearing occupied cellars in the city of Lens during Currie’s second phase of attack after Hill 70. He single-handedly attacked two machine gun nests before being seriously wounded. Konowal survived the war and lived a tumultuously eventful life in Hull, QC.

Download our poster about the centennial anniversary of the Battle of Hill 70.

Today’s photograph has been colourized as part of the Vimy Foundation’s First World War In Colour project. Learn more about this project, and see additional photographs, by following this link:  http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/projects/ 

Editor’s Note – The term “Battle of Hill 70” is used by historians today to refer to the entire period of fighting from 15 – 25 August 1917. This includes the initial attack on Hill 70 and the attack a few days later on the town of Lens itself. After the war, Canadian Battalions were awarded the Battle Honour of HILL 70, which grouped both attacks as one collective campaign, thus, the “Battle of Hill 70” term endures. As the Vimy Foundation aims to raise awareness of these actions on their centenary, we have chosen to devote coverage to both important battles, based on their respective launch dates. For coverage of the Lens portion of the Battle of Hill 70, visit our Attack On Lens post.

 

 

 

Leave – Part I
11 July 2017

Today we begin a series on rest periods and leave during the First World War.

The hopes of being granted a leave pass to “Blighty” was often a point of contention amongst front line troops. Those in the trenches felt they were constantly losing out to the officers and troops in support roles – those who weren’t doing the fighting; instead occupying “bomb-proof jobs” always seemed to be getting the leave. In addition to being passed up by officers, (who as per their rank were afforded more frequent periods of leave), the luck of the draw never seemed to fall in the favour of the “old timers” or “originals”. Victor Wheeler of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion gave the following account resenting the distribution of leave in his unit:

‘The Originals, we who had enlisted when the Battalion had first been organized, had the numbers 434 as the first three digits of our serial dog-tag numbers. We were jealously proud of having the lowest numbers in the Battalion and resented privileges being accorded to men who enlisted much later while members of the original contingent were passed over… Time after time I had been “due” for a leave to Blighty, but each time it was my turn, someone had been given priority. I pencilled [sic] : “I was again up for a Blighty leave, but some ‘435er’ got ahead of me…” ‘ (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 132).

Wounded troops leaving for Blighty are sent-off by their healthier comrades. Those who received a “Blighty” wound were generally envied by those they left behind in the trenches.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000975.

 

Bruce Bairnsfather

In our post from 26 May 2017, Canadian Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, made reference to a Bruce Bairnsfather comic, “Well, If You Knows of A Better ‘Ole…”, while recounting an experience in No Man’s Land. Read it again here:
http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/raid-reconnaissance/

Bruce Bairnsfather was a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment when he was hospitalized for shell shock and hearing damage after the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. While recovering, Bairnsfather developed a cartoon character called Old Bill.

Overwhelmingly ill-tempered and surly, humourous “Old Bill” featured in his own comic series, his adventures and misfortunes depicting everyday life at the front for the regular soldier. The “Old Bill” series became a massive hit with the troops and those at home by putting a humorous spin on the war.  Recognized for its effect on morale, 2nd Lt. Bairnsfather was commissioned by the War Office to continue publishing the cartoons for the duration of the war. His comics were reproduced both in print and numerous other daily items.

Imperial War Museum, “Bully”, © Bruce Bairnsfather Estate.

Below is one of the most well-known Bairnsfather comics, printed on a dinner plate, featuring Old Bill and another soldier, huddled in a shell hole while shells burst all around. The soldier has grumbled to Old Bill on the state of his shell hole, to which the veteran provides the wisdom: “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.”

Dinner plate depicting Bruce Bairnsfather’s well-known comic.  Canadian Centre For The Great War, 2017.

 

Dominion Day 1917

The Dominion Day Shoot

In 1917, July 1st marked the 50th Anniversary of what was then called Dominion Day. The Canadian Corps HQ issued orders that at 12:00 noon “all guns on the Canadian front shall fire” totalling three salvos in two-minute intervals (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 129). From the memoirs of Victor Wheeler, of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion:

‘ “All guns” included those of the Heavy Artillery, Field Artillery, Siege, Field, Howitzer and Anti-Aircraft Batteries. In addition, thousands of machine-guns, trench mortars, bombs and grenades of all descriptions, plus two million rounds of .303 bullets from thousands of Ross and Lee-Enfield rifles thundered magnificently. This was truly the grandest of all sounds ever to simultaneously belch from the barrels and muzzles of Allied guns and trench pieces!’

‘If Orpheus’ music could move trees and rocks, the exquisite music of Canada’s massed guns, played a few short bars at two-minute intervals, must have flattened all the trees and pulverised all the rocks that afforded shelter to the enemy on the Canadian Corps Front. The synchronous delivery of our terrific fire must have convinced l’Armee allemande that Canada had become a Nation that memorable Dominion Day! Bienvenue aux Allemands!’ (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 129).

Canadians celebrating Dominion Day in a village they have recently taken, 1 July 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001414.
(modified from the original)

1 July 2017 – Memorial Day, NFLD

1 July 1917 – 2017
Memorial Day – Newfoundland & Labrador

The launching of the Battle of the Somme was first announced with an air of celebration in newspapers on 1 July 1916. The St. John’s Daily Star July 1, 1916. Courtesy of the Digital Archives Initiative, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL.

Today we gather with our families and communities to celebrate Canada Day, marking the 150th Anniversary of our nation. In the midst of these celebrations, it is important to note that for some this day also marks sadness. In Newfoundland & Labrador, July 1st marks a sombre anniversary; that of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s massive losses at Beaumont-Hamel. On 1 July 1916, the youth of Newfoundland went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In just half an hour, the entire regiment would be destroyed, suffering 324 killed and 386 wounded. Of 801 available men, only 68 volunteers could answer roll call the next morning.

As casualty lists began to trickle in, the horrific losses of that first day became apparent. The St. John’s Daily Star July 13, 1916. Courtesy of the Digital Archives Initiative, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL.

In response to these great losses, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador established their own day of mourning, actually preceding Remembrance/Armistice Day of 11 November, by marking 1 July 1917 as their Memorial Day. Consequently, 1 July 2017 is not just the 150th year of Canada, but also the 100th Anniversary of Memorial Day. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 1 July is first and foremost Memorial Day, marked by the observance of solemn ceremonies at cenotaphs, honouring the province’s immense sacrifices. Only after these sacrifices have been mourned does the province begin the transition to the celebration of Canada Day in the afternoon.

This sign marked a trench line in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s sector during their attack at Beaumont-Hamel.
© IWM London (FEQ 68)

30 June 2017
Bathhouses On The Western Front Part III

While on the Lens sector in the midst of winter, Sgt. Frank S. Iriam had another lively experience after coming out of the bathhouse:

“I had a hot time with an undershirt that I got one day. Just before we came into the line, we were rushed to the baths and then went directly from there into the trenches. I had drawn a very tight-fitting under shirt of heavy wool at the bathing house lottery and it was binding me in the armpits. I marched about a mile with full equipment and began to perspire a bit. Talk about (coming to life), I’ll say that shirt did nothing else but. I thought my skin was on fire. The thing was literally alive and moving. I had to strip right in the communication trench and get rid of that shirt quick. I flung it as far as I could in the snow and went shirtless until the next bath day.”  (Iriam,  In The Trenches – 1914-1918, p. 187).

Clean underclothes being issued to a soldier from piles in the storehouse after a bath. Ypres, 1st Anzac Corps. The baths were rarely as clean and orderly as this photograph suggests – this was likely an “ideal” representation set up for propaganda purposes.
© IWM (E(AUS) 1132)

29 June 1917
Capture of Avion Trench - Part II

A Centennial Action – Part II

On the heels of their success in the early morning of 28 June 1917, at 7:10 p.m. the same day, the second phase of the advance along the Souchez River resumed. Kicked off in the midst of a heavy thunderstorm, the surprised Germans were quickly beaten and objectives consolidated. North of the Souchez River, the 46th Division held Hill 65. On the southern side, the 4th Canadian Division had secured Eleu and most of Avion, while the 3rd Cdn. Div. established a strong flank astride the Avion-Arleux road. Flooding of the Souchez restricted the opportunity to exploit the advances and as the Germans regrouped from the initial surprise they put in strong counter-attacks. By the end of 29 June 1917, the advance had gained approximately half a mile, with British troops entering the western outskirts of Oppy.

Taken in August 1917, this photograph depicts a solitary rail car amidst the utter destruction of the Canadian sector along banks of the Souchez. Not a trace of rail tracks or a station remain, while in the background, the “famous Central Electric Generating Station” is merely a twisted heap.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001728.
Map of the Souchez-Avion Sector, where the Canadians and British advanced along the Souchez River, 28-29 June 1917.
Credit: Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 280.

Vimy Foundation Celebrates Canada Day at Canadian Citizenship Ceremonies

Vimy Pin

The Vimy Foundation is playing a unique role in more than 15 citizenship ceremonies on July 1 by  presenting each new Canadian Citizen with a Vimy pin to commemorate the battle’s Centennial this year. Welcoming new citizens to our country on this very special day, the Vimy Foundation is sharing with them a defining moment in our history. These ceremonies will be held at various locations across Canada. 

Locations include:

Alberta: Calgary, Edmonton and Stony Plain

British Columbia: Fort Langley, New Westminster,Vancouver, Victoria and West Vancouver

Manitoba: Winnipeg

Ontario: Niagara Falls, Niagara-On-The-Lake, St. Catharines & Windsor

Yukon: Whitehorse

28 June 1917
Capture of Avion Trench - Part I

A Centennial Action – Part I

Map of the Souchez-Avion Sector, where the Canadians and British advanced along the Souchez River, 28-29 June 1917. Credit: Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 280.

Late in June 1917, as the 46th British Division attacked, German forces holding the Souchez River defences began falling back. The month-long battering by Canadian trench raids had taken their toll on the enemy, now facing a renewed attack. Sensing a weakening line, the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions immediately advanced to maintain contact with the enemy. Then on 28 June 1917, at 2:30 a.m., the British attacked to the north of the Souchez while the Canadian Corps attacked along the south, with the 3rd and 4th Cdn. Div. securing Avion Trench by daybreak. From the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion, a patrol had reached Eleu dit Leauvette, a hamlet occupying the crossroads to Arras and Givenchy. A pause during daylight allowed the Canadians to muster for the second phase of the attack that evening.