By far the most emotional aspects of my trip to France were the times I tried to walk in my Grandfather's footsteps. When I stood near where he jumped off at Vimy I was overcome with emotion remembering my grandfather, and failing in my efforts to imagine what it had been like for him that day. As I stared out towards Farbus Woods, the sounds of bagpipes playing in my iPod, I tried to listen to the sounds of hundreds of heavy guns, shrapnel bursting in front of me, the rattle of machine guns, the screams of wounded men, shouts of anger, and of orders. I tried to smell the cordite and gunpowder, the blood, and the stench of death. I realized, of course, that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in my experience that could take me back there, to really realize what it was like for him. But I knew that I missed him terribly and I cried, and wished that he had known me as man, that he knew my full measure and not just my potential.
Two days later found me at the scene of another significant battle of his, one that seems to have been forgotten by many, Hill 70. There is nothing to mark Hill 70, no sign pointing to the battlefield, no memorial to the thousands who died there. If I hadn't done my research I would have had no way of knowing where it was. The battle of Hill 70 began on August 15th 1917, and was the first major battle for the Canadians with a Canadian, General Sir Arthur Currie, at their helm. Their commanding officer at Vimy, Arleux and Fresnoy had been General Sir Julien Byng, a British officer. The Canadians had been ordered to attack the coal centre of Lens, mostly as a diversionary battle for the British offensive known as Third Ypres, but better known as Passchendaele.
Currie was a brilliant tactician, and was always conscious of the human cost of these offensives, and he knew that an attack on Lens itself would come at a terrible cost, and would likely fail. He saw that by capturing the high ground near Lens the Canadians could both make their objectives with less human cost, and could greatly disrupt the German operations in Lens. He also knew that the enemy would try to re-take the high ground and planned on immediately setting up strong points with machine guns and create "killing zones" with machine gun and artillery.
At 4:28 am on the 15th of August 1917 the Canadians went "over the top" behind a rolling barrage, and using much the same tactics as they had employed at Vimy quickly took their objectives. As expected the enemy tried very hard to retake the lost ground, launching no less than 21 counter-attacks over the next five days, but Currie's foresight resulted in the Canadians holding the ground. Six Victoria Crosses were awarded for this single battle, and one regiment, the 10th (attacking on the right of my Grandfather's regiment at Hill 70 itself) became the most decorated Canadian Regiment in a single battle, earning one of the Victoria Crosses (Private Harry Brown), three Distinguished Service Orders, seven Military Crosses, nine Distinguished Conduct Medals and sixty Military Medals.
The area around Loos and Hill 70 had seen several major battles, prior to Hill 70, both the British and the French fought here in 1915. So it was no stranger to death and carnage, still the human cost over the five days of the main battle and some (ill thought out) subsequent actions was high. The Canadians suffered over 9,000 casualties, and estimates for the Germans ranged between 20,000 and 35,000. Thirty-five thousand casualties over a little more than a week! Currie's killing fields were very efficacious.
What is incredible, in light of the high human costs, is that there is nothing there to mark it, and if you look for a great imposing height worthy of so much loss, you'll miss it. For Hill 70 is little more than a small rise, enough apparently to give advantage to whoever held it, but certainly not the scale of Vimy Ridge.
To be continued...