In the summer of 1917, the Allies were losing the First World War. Russia was collapsing into revolution, half the French Army was experiencing mutiny, and the island of Great Britain was being slowly strangled by German submarine attacks on its shipping and strategic bombing by German Gotha bombers. The United States had recently joined the Allies, but at that time their army was smaller than Canada’s.
A tremendous British offensive was planned in Belgium near Passchendaele which was meant to sweep the Germans from the English Channel coast where their bombers and submarines were operating. But they needed to divert German reinforcements away from Passchendaele in order to be successful. The British ordered that a diversionary attack be made against the German-held city of Lens in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. The formation chosen to make this attack was the Canadian Corps, the recent conquerors of Vimy Ridge, who in the summer of 1917 were for the first time being commanded by a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie.
Currie had orders to attack Lens directly, but knew that it was one of the most fortified positions on the Western Front and would be costly. He argued with his British superiors and received permission to attack something more important: the high ground surrounding Lens. This ground, particularly a feature designated “Hill 70,” was vital to the German defences and Currie knew that the Germans would spare no expense in blood trying to recapture it if the Canadians could take it. Currie would divert enemy troops away from Passchendaele by bleeding them white on the slopes of Hill 70.
The attack began on August 15th 1917, with the Canadians seizing the trenches around Hill 70 in a pre-dawn assault, and the trap was set. The Germans assumed the Canadians were attempting to break through their lines, and flung wave after wave of counter-attacking troops at the Canadians entrenched on Hill 70. Twenty-one German counter-attacks were launched against Hill 70 in four days. All of them were torn apart by Canadian guns, heart, and courage. A second attack by the Canadians in the days afterward, this time directly on Lens, was less successful and more costly, but pulled even more German units into the fight. The Canadians suffered 9,198 casualties from 15 to 25 August, but the Germans lost over 20,000 men. Six Canadian soldiers won the Victoria Cross during the ten days of fighting at Hill 70 and Lens, and a new style of warfare that tricked the Germans into making themselves vulnerable had been pioneered. These tactics would help the Canadian Corps become the “Shock Army of the British Empire” in the final year of the First World War.