Robert Hanna emmigrated to Canada from Kilkeel, Ireland in 1905. When war broke out he enlisted with the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion on 7 November 1914. By 21August 1917, he had risen to the position of Company Sergeant-Major (CSM), when during an attempt to gain a number of trenches atop Hill 70, all the officers of “B” Company became casualties. Leadership of the beleaguered force thus fell to CSM Hanna. In a precarious position, neighbouring “C” Company, and now Hanna’s “B” Company, was taking mounting casualties from an enemy defensive live that centered on a machine-gun post. Already having seen the previous three attacks fail, CSM Hanna nonetheless calmly gathered up a small band of men, leading them on a dash through heavy barbed wire entanglements and enemy fire. Reaching the machine-gun post, Hanna carried the charge through to its end, engaging three of the crew with his bayonet and the fourth with his rifle butt (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 49). In a momentary lapse, Hanna and his few surviving men created a blocking position in the trench system, before the Germans launched a series of counter-attacks. Each renewed attack was turned back by the small band of Canadians led by CSM Hanna, and theyheld out until relief arrived later that day (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 49).
For his immediate actions, leadership and fighting efficiency that day, Company Sergeant-Major Robert Hanna received the Victoria Cross. He would survive the war, returning to British Columbia, Canada. He passed away 15 June 1967 and is buried in the Masonic Cemetery, Burnaby, British Columbia. His grave has since received a traditional Commonwealth War Graves Commission tombstone.
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.
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.
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.
Today marks the 75th Anniversary of the Dieppe Raid. On 19August 1942, 4,963 Canadians led the 6,100-strong raiding force as it landed on 8 separate points of the Atlantic coast. While local successes were achieved by British commandos attacking artillery batteries at neighbouring Varengeville and Berneval, the Canadians struggled to enter the town from the main landing beaches. Only half of the supporting armour from the Calgary Regiment (Tank) made it past the seawall, the rest bogging down or breaking tank treads on the shingle beach. A vicious infantry battle took place within the beachfront casino and surrounding streets, while the remaining tanks, blocked by anti-tank obstacles, provided fire support. By 09:30, just six hours after the first landings, a general withdrawal began. Tanks that hadpassed the seawall covered the retreat to the beaches. As the tanks pulled back, they too became stuck on the shingle beach. Fighting valiantly, their crews remained in their tanks, serving as immobile gun support. By 14:00, the withdrawal was complete.
The Canadians suffered 916 fatalities across the three branches of service. Only 2,210 of the 4,963 Canadians, many of whom were wounded, returned to England. Total casualties numbered 3,367, including 1,946 as prisoners of war (POW).
Two Canadians received the Victoria Cross for their actions that day, as well as a British Commando.
Reverend John W. Foote, VC, of Madoc, Ontario, became the first member of the Canadian Chaplain Services to earn the Victoria Cross. As Chaplain of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Foote walked up and down the beach, administering aid to the wounded and dying. During the withdrawal, Foote made countless trips bringing thewounded to the evacuation craft arriving at the beach. Finally, at the end, Foote stepped off the last craft out, and rejoined those left stranded on the beach, in order to provide comfort and ministry to the thousands of Canadian POWs.
Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt, VC, of Vancouver, British Columbia, led the South Saskatchewan Regiment ashore at Pourville. As the regiment suffered mounting casualties attempting to cross a bridge, Merritt stepped forward and calmly walked numerous parties across through murderous fire. When the order for withdrawal was given, Merritt, though twice wounded, mounted a rear-guard action that enabled many others to escape off the beach. He too became a prisoner of war.
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.
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.