Born in the 1870’s (dates vary), Michael James O’Rourke immigrated from Limerick, Ireland to Victoria, British Columbia. Before enlisting in 1915, O’Rourke worked as a tunneller and miner on major infrastructure projects for Canadian Pacific Railway. On 8December 1916, O’Rourke was awarded the Military Medal for bravery while serving with the 7th Battalion (1st British Columbia) on the Somme. Despite being an unarmed stretcher-bearer, O’Rourke launched a personal offensive against an advancing German counter-attack, holding off the enemy for a number of hours.
When the 7th Battalion took part in the attack on Hill 70 in August 1917,sixteen stretcher-bearers, including O’Rourke, entered into the fray; two were killed and eleven were wounded; “for the Germans sniped at them as they worked to carry the wounded from the field. During those three days and nights O’Rourke worked unceasingly rescuing the wounded, dressing their injuries under fire and bringing food and water to them… Several times he was knocked down and partially buried by shell-bursts. Once, seeing a comrade who had been blinded stumbling along in full view of the enemy who were sniping at him, O’Rourke jumped out of the trench and brought him in…” (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 54-55).
O’Rourke’s bravery and unceasing medical assistance over three days and nights (15 August – 17August 1917) of unceasing battle was recognized with the awarding of the Victoria Cross.
Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC, MM, managed to survive the war, but life afterwardswas not easy. Physical and emotional trauma resulted in what would likely be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today. O’Rourke was unable to obtain steady work, moving about on the western coast from job to job, in and out of poverty on a meager disability pension. Most notably, in 1935 he was placed at the head of a Vancouver longshoreman’s strike that ended with the Battle of Ballantyne Pier.
O’Rourke’s life is a sad example of the post-war treatment of veterans, though his funeral provided one lasthonourfora broken, impoverished man. Newspaper articles state that the procession included at least seven fellow Victoria Cross recipients, city officials, military officers and O’Rourke’s fellow 7th Battalion veterans, as well as former co-workers from the docks and “homeless old-timers”. Private Michael James O’Rourke, VC, MM, is buried with a plain grave marker in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Burnaby, British Columbia.
Private Harry Brown, of Gananoque, Ontario, was serving with the 10th Battalion (Canadians) during the attack on Hill 70. On 16 August 1917, while a meagre outpost was being reinforced by a small party of the battalion, the enemy was seen to be massing together. In order to save the outpost, artillery was desperately needed to break up the pending enemy counterattack. By this stage of the battle, all wires to headquarters had been cut by shellfire. Private Harry Brown and a second runner were sent back with the urgent request for artillery support when they were caught in the open by a hostile barrage. Brown’s companion was killed, while Brown himself had his arm shattered. Still carrying the message, Brown carried on through shell holes and shattered trenches, slowly making his way toward an dugout with a working telephone.
Looking out from one such dugout was an officer who “was peering out at the devastation” when suddenly “a dark form crawled out of the ruin and stumbled towards the dug-out. It was a soldier – hatless, pale, dirty, haggard, one arm hanging limp and bloody by his side”. (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 46). Reaching relative safety, Brown fell down the dug-out steps utterly exhausted, remaining conscious only ‘long enough to hand over his message, saying, “Important message.” ‘ (The London Gazette, Publication date: 16 October 1917, Supplement: 30338, Page: 10678). With his message passed along and artillery support on the way, Brown slipped into unconsciousness, dying from his wounds a few hours later at a dressing station in the early hours of 17 August 1917. Private Harry Brown, VC, is buried in Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery.
Today in France, the BVP2017 participants commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Hill 70. On the occasion, Cecilia gave a presentation on Japanese-Canadian Sergeant Masumi Mitsui who received the Military Medal for bravery, and Maddy gave her presentation on Ukrainian-Canadian Sergeant Filip Konowal who received the Victoria Cross.
(Please note: the students blog in their language of preference)
Filip Konowal may have been born in the Ukraine, but everything he had, he gave to Canada. Today, I had the opportunity to visit Hill 70 to commemorate his life, his sacrifice, and his valour. In 1915, Konowal he enlisted with the 77th (Ottawa) Battalion. Once overseas he was transferred to the 47th (British Columbia) Battalion.
Three days before the Battle of Vimy Ridge, he was promoted to acting corporal, successfully leading his men to their objectives. During the fighting at Hill 70 and Lens, Konowal served on a mopping-up party. Even after the quick capture of Hill 70, Konowal grew restless, claiming in a later interview “I was so fed up standing in the trench with water to my waist that I said to hell with it and started after the German army.” Acting alone, Konowal accounted for no less than three enemy machine gun posts, taking them with just his rifle, bayonet, grenades and bare hands. This act earned Filip a Victoria Cross for bravery. Late in the day of 22 August 1917, Konowal was severely wounded by a gunshot wound to the neck and face. He was evacuated, recovered, and even went on to serve with the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force late in the war.
Back in Canada, Filip Konowal’s physical and emotional injuries began to take their toll; he began to suffer hallucinations and in one instance, killed a man while coming to the aid of his friend who was being attacked. Due to his war injuries, which included severe brain trauma, Konowal was found not criminally responsible for the murder and placed in a hospital for treatment. Gradually healing from his wounds, upon release, Filip married a war widow. He wasn’t honored for his service until 1956, when other veterans raised awareness and funds to send Konowal to meet the queen who awarded him with a Branch Merit award. He would later work as the personal caretaker and messenger of the Prime Minister’s office on Parliament Hill. When Filip Konowal passed at the age of 72, his government record was labelled “died in service”, as he devoted himself entirely to our country. I am honored to have been able to commemorate him.
-Madelyn Burgess, Bow Island, Alberta
August 15th, 2017.
On this day 100 years ago, the Canadians attacked Hill 70 and today we visited the site where the battle took place. It was there that I shared the story of Japanese-Canadian soldier Masumi Mitsui. Although he was one of many Japanese soldiers who served during the war, his story applies to many of these brave soldiers. Due to discriminatory recruiting, Japanese-Canadians had a difficult time enlisting when the war broke out; some even travelled to different provinces to enlist.
They were also treated poorly at the front, as other soldiers made racist remarks and doubted their abilities. Additionally, there was a language barrier between the soldiers of different races, which was one of the reasons Mitsui was put in command of the Japanese soldiers from the 10th Battalion as he was fluent in English. Thirty of Mitsui’s thirty-five men lost their lives during the Battle of Hill 70 and all of them showed great courage in the face of danger. It is heartbreaking to know that later, during the Second World War, the veterans and their families, along with 21,000 other Japanese-Canadians were interned. Throughout the years, the Japanese-Canadian soldiers persevered through many different struggles and hardships. These soldiers, though they were not as recognized, also lived, loved and laughed in their homes and in their communities and made the ultimate sacrifice for us. “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
-Cecilia Kim, Surrey, British Columbia
I didn’t want to show tears in front of him because he was such a strong and resilient character; Captain Gordon Budd Irving didn’t fear the war. He occasionally complained about how boring his journey started but more often he wrote to his sister Fern, thanking her for fresh cake in a tin or telling her funny stories about the pals they knew. The worst parts of war never seemed to have gotten to him, the loneliness of being in the Royal Air Force never disconnected him from family and home. Reading the seventy-five letters that he sent home made me realize that he was truly daring and loving – he gave advice to his dad about selling the car and worried if his family would overwork themselves.
When I got to the Arras Flying Services Memorial, it took a while to find his name because subconsciously I wished for his name to be inscribed somewhere reachable, down to earth, just like his personality. But he was near the top of the rectangular column. Looking all the way up, I realized that is where he belonged – against the background of the clear sky that he fought so hard in. There is no longer a need for the Sopwith Dolphin to soar in the sky and Captain Gord is no longer flying in the skies. Never have I ever wished for more beautiful words to flow from my pen, these words just don’t seem enough. I do hope the words I whispered to him at the Memorial were enough to give him a sense of direction back to his school, his home, so that although he was reported missing on the August 11, 1918, he does not feel lost and can find his way home.
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:
“… 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.
–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.
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.