Remembering Hill 70
Kingston group ensures key First World War battle is immortalized
Thanks to a group of Kingston residents, one of Canada’s most important victories in the First World War will no longer be forgotten.
Since 2012 the local volunteers raised $6 million to build the Hill 70 Memorial in Loos-en- Gohelle, France, to honour the sacrifice of the 1,877 Canadian soldiers who died on the hill and to commemorate the significance of the battle.
“The aim of the project was to make sure Canadian people properly recognize the importance of the Battle of Hill 70,” retired colonel Mark Hutchings, a Kingston resident and chair of the project, said.
An official dedication of the memorial was held in April, presided over by then Gov.- Gen. David Johnston, and the site was opened to the public in August to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Hill 70, which took place Aug. 15-25, 1917.
The battle, which most Canadians are unaware of, not only resulted in a resounding victory over the Germans, but it also marked the first time the Canadian Corps fought under a Canadian commander, Lt.- Gen. Arthur Currie.
Among the soldiers who fought in the battle were those from the Kingston-based 21st Battalion, perpetuated today by the Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment. Hill 70 is one of the battle honours inscribed on the Princess of Wales’ Own Regiment memorial in City Park.
Ten years ago, Hutchings and his family were at the Vimy Memorial for the 90th anniversary celebration of the April 1917 battle at Vimy Ridge.
“An Englishman named Peter Last said, ‘Have you seen Hill 70?’” said Hutchings, a Royal Military College grad who served at division headquarters in Kingston from 1989 to 1992 and moved back to the Limestone City in 2002.
“I said no and he said, ‘You must come.’ I drove to the top of the hill but didn’t see anything. I said, ‘Where’s the monument?’ and he said, ‘Exactly. Where’s the monument?’” Hutchings was stunned. “Canada lost 1,877 men and there was nothing there, not even a cairn,” he said.
Hutchings and the other Kingstonians formed a group and went to work.
“We said let’s make this a project, let’s raise money, we’ll get a charity number from the CRA [Canada Revenue Agency].”
Ottawa architect Sarah Murray designed the memorial park, which encompasses approximately four hectares and includes a 15-metretall obelisk made of white limestone, an amphitheatre and a walkway imprinted with maple leaves representing every one of the Canadians who died in the battle.
“Because there were 1,877 Canadians who never left Hill 70,” Hutchings said.
The memorial project’s board of directors are all from Kingston: vice chair John S. Cowan, the former principal of Royal Military College; Art Jordan, honorary colonel of the PWOR; and Douglas Green, David Parker and Warren Everett. Susan Everett of Kingston created an educational kit on the project.
Canada’s involvement in the Battle of Hill 70 is often referred to as “a forgotten victory.”
“It has been forgotten ,” Hutch in gs said. “One of the reasons is that Pierre Berton’s Vimy book [published in 1986] started Canadians’ fascination with that battle at the expense of all others.”
The Battle at Hill 70 fell between two well-known battles involving Canadians in 1917 — Vimy Ridge (April 9-12) and Passchendaele (late October to early November).
The success at Hill 70 wasover-shadowed by what Hutching sc all ed a “tragic battle” at Passchendaele, where Canadians captured the ridge in mid-November.
“There were huge losses,” he said.
More than 4,000 Canadians were killed and approximately 12,000 wounded at Passchendaele.
“Every [Canadian] family lost someone in that battle,” Hutchings said. “Passchendaele scarred the psyche of Canadians.”
Hill 70 — so named because it was 70 metres above sea level — was a ridge just northwest of the town of Lens, a key strategic outpost occupied by the German army. In an effort to divert the Germans from moving north and reinforcing in Passchendaele, Currie, who in June had become the first Canadan commander of the Canadian corps, devised a plan to take the hill and force the Germans to counterattack.
“Currie said, ‘We will pay the price in shells rather than blood,’” Hutchings said.
The assault began at 4:25 a.m. on Aug. 15.
The Canadians took the hill in the first five hours and over the next 10 days fended off 21 counterattacks by the Germans, whose casualties were almost three times that of the Canadians.
“The Germans were wiped out by machine-guns and artillery,” Hutchings said. “[The Canadians] basically destroyed five divisions of the Germany army.”
Canada suffered 9,000 casualties, including 1,900 deaths, at Hill 70. An estimated 25,000 Germans were killed or wounded.
“Germany lost a disproportionate ratio,” Hutchings said.
The 21st Battalion fought at Hill 70 until Aug. 18 when it was relieved. In those few days, the battalion’s casualties were 40 killed, 208 wounded and 23 missing in action.
The victory was significant for Canada, Hutchings said.
“The effect [of the victory] is that [commanders] didn’t want to split up the Canadian Corps,” he said. “They began to treat the Canadian Corps as a sledgehammer that could be used to slam [any opponent].”
The Hill 70 Memorial is 10 minutes from the Vimy Memorial.
“From the Vimy monument on a sunny day you can see the Hill 70 Memorial glistening in the sun,” Hutchings, whose group wants to raise another $2 million to build an accessible walkway at the memorial, said.
Almost every regiment in the country has honoured the battle during the past 100 years, Hutchings said.
“It’s been called ‘Canada’s Forgotten Victory’ because the government and some regiments forgot it. You know who didn’t forget it? The families of those lost at Hill 70 never forgot it.”
For more information on the battle and the memorial, go online to www.hill70.ca.
German prisoners captured by the Canadians on Hill 70 in August 1917.
Canadian Armed Forces personnel and civilians attend the dedication of the newly built Hill 70 Memorial monument in Loos-en-Gohelle, France, on April 8,.