EssayNovember 11, 2018

Commemorating Canada’s Forgotten Victory in WWI

"Study for 'The Canadians Opposite Lens'", c. 1917-8 by Augustus John



In the summer of 1917, the Battle of Hill 70 began.  The Canadian Corps, under Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, began attacking the German 6th Army near Lens, France.  This was the first major action by the Canadian Corps under Canadian leadership in the war [1].  Currie reasoned with his British superiors that taking the city while the Germans still held the hill above would cause his men to be more exposed and was not sound strategy [2].  The attack on Hill 70 had been planned for July 30th but inclement weather postponed it to mid-August [3]. By this time, large-scale raids by the Canadians that began in mid-May had taken out nearly half of the German batteries [4]. Historian Timothy Stewart wrote,  

As the new date neared, Canadian artillery and Royal Engineers gas companies bombarded Lens and its environs with hundreds of gas shells.  Before sunrise on the morning of the assault - 15 August - the Canadians lobbed 500 drums of blazing oil at selected targets to create a smokescreen and demoralize the defenders.  As dawn broke, behind a rolling barrage, men of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions left their trenches and moved onto Hill 70. In short order - twenty minutes - they gained the crest, and by 6:00 AM, after only 90 minutes, several troops had reached the final objective - the base of the hill on the enemy’s side, where they waited for the counterattacks [5].


Combat continued throughout the week, during which the Germans mounted earnest counterattacks.  They hurled shells filled with poison gases in great numbers and wielded flamethrowers in an attempt to stop the Canadians [6] [7].  Their efforts proved futile, with the Canadians effectively neutralizing the German attacks and, as the week came to a close, the Canadians began to secure their hold on Hill 70 [8].  The toll of the Canadian victory was heavy. The total number of men killed was 449, with 1378 wounded by fire, 487 gassed non-fatally, and two taken prisoner [9]. The German casualties numbered around 20,000 [10].


Shortly after the success at Hill 70, Victor Odlum, a Canadian journalist and troop, wrote to a friend, “A Canadian soldier, Lieutenant-General Sir A. W. Currie, is now at its [the Corps'] head, and he has the confidence of all ranks.  Commanded by a Canadian, gradually becoming staffed by Canadians, and covered by Canadian guns, the Canadian Corps is today a very highly efficient military machine” [11].




Under pressure from the High Command, Currie scheduled an attack for August 21st, ordering battalions from the 2nd and 4th Divisions to advance from the outskirts into the city of Lens [12].  The Canadian troops were halted by a maze of fortified homes and tunnels. This first day was difficult and costly, with Canadians casualties being estimated at 1154 to 1346 [13].


The 44th Battalion (Manitoba) from the 4th Division was ordered back into Lens [14].  Their objective was a spot called Green Crassier, which they held for a short while before they were forced to retreat against the German forces.  Curried called off the operation at Lens on August 25th.


The total number of casualties for the Canadian Expeditionary Force between August 15th and 25th, 1917 were 9198 killed, wounded, or missing [15]. “Yet the capture of Hill 70 and the subsidiary attacks on Lens, costly as they were, had achieved the desired results, even though much of the town was still in the wrong hands [...] the Canadian effort had contributed towards wearing down the enemy: General Currie's forces had badly mauled five German divisions” [16].  



As with Vimy Ridge, soldiers from across Canada participated in the action during the Battle of Hill 70.  The battle was the first to be planned and carried out almost exclusively by Canadians, a rarity for World War I. The Canadian success at Hill 70 significantly debilitated the German forces, forcing them to reconsider their plan to relieve troops in Flanders and secured for the Allies the high ground overlooking the city of Lens [17].  


Six Victoria Crosses, the highest award for military valour, were awarded to Canadians who fought at Hill 70 and Lens [18].  


Deemed “the forgotten victory” a monument dedicated to the Canadian Corps that achieved victory at the Battle of Hill 70 in August 1917 was opened to the public in August 2017 Loos-en-Gohelle, France [19].


AUGUSTUS JOHN (1878–1961)

Augustus Edwin John, O.M., R.A., was a Welsh painter, draughtsman, and etcher, known for his portraits.  During World War I he held a position as official artist in the Canadian Corps [20].  As a consequence of this position, John was commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook to create the mural honouring the Canadian recapture of Hill 70 and its efforts at the city of Lens [21].  He first exhibited a cartoon for The Canadians Opposite Lens [Fig. 2] at the Canadian War Memorial Exhibition in 1919 [22].



In his Reminiscences of an Art Dealer, Walter Klinkhoff recalled his career and interactions with artists, fellow dealers, and collectors.  When speaking about Mr. Reggie McLagan, president and chief executive officer of Canada Steamship Lines, who took over from Mr. Cleveland Morgan as head of the Art Committee of the Mount Royal Club, Walter Klinkhoff recalled the following anecdote:

Cleve Morgan was a very knowledgeable connoisseur who had acquired from us some excellent paintings for the Club.  His committee always went along with  Mr. Morgan's suggestions.  Mr. McLagan took over from him and certainly did not  have much knowledge in this field.  Having served in the first war overseas, McLagan  decided he  wanted a portrait of a Canadian soldier in battle dress painted by  Augustus John, who had been one of the  Canadian war artists selected  by Lord  Beaverbrook.  It was a fine work by a distinguished artist and the price was $900.  Mr. McLagan wanted the picture for the Mount Royal Club. Fewer and fewer  members were left who had seen service during the first war and this would be a suitable memorial.   He never asked me to reserve the picture for the Club and when I offered to send it across the street so the committee members or even the general membership could come to a decision, the answer was no.  Over a period of about nine months, committee members would drop in at my gallery and showed little enthusiasm or interest.  One gentleman coming with another committee member said that if Reggie liked it so much, why didn't he buy it since he could certainly afford to give it to the Club?  One Saturday, a doctor from Ottawa came and bought the John portrait of the Canadian soldier. Not long after, the steward of the Mount Royal Club telephoned and asked me to send the picture over and I had to tell him it was sold.  Mclagan never again spoke to me or came to the Gallery after that. I did not really mind. As a highly paid executive he had to make major business decisions every day. I thought it had been very inconsiderate of him to let a little matter of a few hundred dollars drag on for many months and I hoped this thought might have occurred to him when it was too late.”




Fig. 2: Mural Painting, The Canadians Opposite Lens (Canadian at Lens), c. 1918-1960, Oil on canvas, 12 x 40  ft. (3.7 x 12 m) Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, Object No. 20110067-001

The massive 12 ft by 40 ft canvas was returned to Canadian soil in 2011.  Lord Beaverbrook envisioned the mural as the centrepiece for his war memorial art gallery in Ottawa.  When plans for the gallery fell through, Augustus John never finished the painting. When the artist passed away in 1961, it remained in his studio in London before being sold at auction, where it disappeared for almost half a century [23].



1.  Hill 70 - Canada’s Victory, unpaginated
2.  Timothy J. Stewart, Toronto’s Fighting 75th in the Great War 1915–1919: A Prehistory of the Toronto Scottish Regiment (Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother's Own), (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 21 September 2017 ), unpaginated
3.  Ibid.
4.  Colonel G.W. L. Nicholson, Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War : Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914–1919. (Ottawa: Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1962), p. 286
5.  Stewart, 2017, unpaginated
6.  Tim Cook,  No Place to Run: The Canadian Corps and Gas Warfare in the First World War, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000), p. 130
7.  Nicholson, 1962, p. 290-2
8.  Ibid.
9.  Ibid.
10.  The Attack on Lens : A Centenary Action, unpaginated
11.  Nicholson, 1962, p. 293
12.  Ibid., p. 295
13.  Victor Odlum to Greenway, 23 August 1917, Odlum Papers, Volume 20, NAC, as cited by Nicholson, 1962, p. 297
14.  Ibid.
15.  Ibid.
16.  Ibid.
17.  Ibid.
18. Hill 70 - In Memorium, Victoria Cross Receipients, unpaginated

19. Hill 70 - Canada’s Victoryunpaginated

20.  “Jurors For The International Exhibition At Pittsburgh”, The American Magazine of Art, Vol. 14, No. 3 (March, 1923), p. 154

21.  Canadian War Museum, WAR ART MASTERPIECE COMES HOME TO CANADA, 1 November 2011,  unpaginated
22.  The American Magazine of Art, 1923, p. 154



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