Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War
Edited by Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger
UBC Press, 288 pp., $34.95
The Weight of Command: Voices of Canada’s Second World War Generals and Those Who Knew Them
By J.L. Granatstein
UBC Press, 294 pp., $34.95
We are seeing poppies on lapels again, a sign that Remembrance Day is approaching.
With every passing year, memories of Canada’s two great wars seem to fade a bit more, which makes it more important to raise awareness of the contributions and sacrifices made overseas and at home.
Despite the passage of time, there are still new stories to tell, and old events worthy of a new light. These two books, one from each war, are proof of that.
The August 1917 battle at Hill 70, north of the French city of Lens, was considered to be much tougher than the fighting at Vimy Ridge, seven kilometres from Hill 70, a few months earlier. Six Victoria Crosses were awarded as a result of the battle, and Canada suffered 8,677 casualties.
Hill 70 was the first major action for Lt.-Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, the soldier from Victoria who had risen during the war to the top ranks of the Canadian Army.
Despite its importance in the history of the Canadian military, Hill 70 is not as well known as Vimy, Passchendaele, the Somme, or Ypres, and the idea behind Capturing Hill 70 is to bring Canadians up to speed on what happened there.
The battle at Hill 70 was designed to divert the enemy’s attention from Ypres, which had been the scene of long, bloody fighting for months. To that end, it worked well, despite the high cost to the Canadian troops. And, for what it is worth, the Germans suffered more casualties than the Canadians did.
Capturing Hill 70 is a collection of essays that brings together contributions from seven noted writers as well as from the two editors. Each writer has taken a different angle, and the approach works.
As Douglas E. Delaney notes in his introduction, a battle does not take place in isolation, so it makes sense to dissect it and examine each element individually. The writers here look at the structure of the army, Currie’s role, the weapons used in the fight, the transportation and supply systems in place, medical services, and the German defences, among other points.
A critical part of the success of the battle was the planning that went into it — even though that planning had to be done in a third of the time that was taken to plan for the Vimy offensive a few months earlier.
So why did Hill 70, which was certainly known and understood when it happened, fade from our collective memory? Was it because the battle had a rather dull name, compared to even Amiens or Mons? Or was it because by the time it was fought, Canadians were becoming battle-weary?
Regardless of the answer, there is no doubt that Hill 70 was important to Canada and the war effort, and along with the other major battles helped strengthen our nation’s belief that we could stand on our own on the world stage.
That newfound confidence had an impact on our role in the Second World War, which started just two decades later.
Granatstein’s book on that war, The Weight of Command, extends his past work in a logical, but difficult, direction.
Granatstein is one of the best-known military historians in Canada, and has been writing on military, political, and foreign policy history for half a century. (He was one of the contributors to the Hill 70 book.)
The Weight of Command is a valuable addition to his body of work, bringing together excerpts from interviews he conducted almost a quarter of a century ago.
In 1993, Granatstein published a book about the Canadian Army’s senior commanders in the Second World War, based on archival research and more than 70 interviews.
Those interviews were vital then, but have become more valuable with the passage of time. Simply put, the number of Second World War veterans is dropping every month, and the number of family members and friends of those veterans is dropping as well.
In 1992, Granatstein was in Victoria to interview Dagmar Hertzberg Nation, the daughter of Gen. H.F.H. Hertzberg. Nation died in 2012.
Poet and painter P.K. Page was interviewed by telephone in 1992. Page, the daughter of Maj.-Gen. Lionel F. Page, died in 2010.
Granatstein also spoke with Helen Price Perodeau, the daughter of Maj.-Gen. C.B. Price, the commander of the Third Canadian Division. Perodeau, who lived in Sidney, died in 2014.
James (Buster) Sutherland-Brown was the director of military operations and planning at the National Defence headquarters in the 1920s. Granatstein interviewed his two sons, Malcolm and Atholl, in 1992. Malcolm died in 1999 and Atholl in 2006.
Excerpts from all of those interviews, and many more, are included in The Weight of Command, which brings to life the experiences of some of Canada’s generals.
Granatstein has unearthed some surprising opinions of the work of the generals during the war, including a few harsh opinions. That goes against the military code of loyalty, but time and distance can have that effect.
As Granatstein writes in his introduction, Canadians know little of their nation’s role in the Second World War — and he says that is a shame, since the war helped to shape Canada.
The body of work that Granatstein has amassed over the years should help all of us gain a better appreciation for what our country — our family members — went through.
His work is as important as that of Mark Zuehlke, a Victoria author who has produced a series of books on the Canadian Army during the war.
Capturing Hill 70 and The Weight of Command help to bring fresh information on both wars to a modern audience. As we gear up for Remembrance Day, both books are worth reading.