TORONTO -- Canadian soldiers who fought in a little known battle in the First World War were honoured at the unveiling of a new memorial in France on Wednesday.
The battle and victory at Hill 70 in 1917 is not as renowned as the battle of Vimy Ridge, which was fought the same year. But the fight proved essential, according to historians, during a war in which controlling the high ground was essential.
“The Hill 70 battle is a story of great hardship and sacrifice, a young country growing in confidence,” said Colonel Mark Hutchings, chairman of the Hill 70 Project board at the ceremony Wednesday. “And it’s a story of great victory, that for too long -- true to our modest Canadian character -- was a historical footnote.”
The new memorial in a park near the town of Loos-en-Gohelle is intended to right that wrong. Dignitaries and families of descendants attended the memorial unveiling Wednesday. Poppies grow throughout the park surrounding the large white obelisk erected through donations of $12 million. Placards featuring the writings and drawings of soldiers who fought in the battle are also featured at the site, which CTV News London bureau chief Paul Workman said is likely the last memorial to be erected for the First World War in Europe.
The battle was the first time a Canadian general commanded Canadian soldiers. British General Douglas Haig had ordered Canadian General Sir Arthur Currie to launch an assault in the city of Lens. But Currie had a better idea: “Instead of attacking the heavily fortified city directly, Currie, after studying the ground, convinced his British superiors that a better plan would be to capture Hill 70, directly to the north,” according to the Canadian War Museum website. “ If this dominating hill could be taken, the Germans would have no choice but to counterattack. Currie planned for artillery and machine-guns to smash these German concentrations, thereby weakening their hold on the entire sector.”
More than 9,000 Canadian soldiers died during the battle, but an estimated 25,000 German soldiers were killed or wounded as soldiers fought back 21 German mustard gas and flame thrower counter-attacks over several days. Six members of the Canadian Corps earned Victoria Crosses, the highest award in the U.K. honours system.
“As a nation we may have overlooked this battle for almost a century,” said Hutchings on Wednesday. “But the family of the thousands of men killed or wounded here have never forgotten Hill 70. For them erecting this monument and telling the Hill 70 story is deeply personal.”