Battle of Hill 70
The Battle of Hill 70 was a battle of World War I between the Canadian Corps and five divisions of the German 6th Army. The battle took place along the Western Front on the outskirts of Lens in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France between 15 and 25 August 1917.
The objectives of the assault were to inflict casualties and to draw German troops away from the 3rd Battle of Ypres, rather than to capture territory. The Canadian Corps executed an operation to capture Hill 70 and then establish defensive positions from which combined small-arms and artillery fire, some of which used the new technique of predicted fire, would repel German counter-attacks and inflict as many casualties as possible. The goals of the Canadian Corps were only partially accomplished; the Germans were prevented from transferring local divisions to the Ypres Salient but failed to draw in troops from other areas.
A later attempt by the Canadian Corps to extend its position into the city of Lens failed but the German and Canadian assessments of the battle concluded that it succeeded in its attrition objective. The battle was costly for both sides and many casualties were suffered from extensive use of poison gas, including the new German Yellow Cross shell containing the blistering agent sulphur mustard (mustard gas).
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Battle
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Notes
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 References
- 8 External links
By May 1917, the Nivelle Offensive, despite the successful opening of the Battle of Arras, had come to a disastrous conclusion with the French Army mutinies. The British First Army commanded by General Henry Horne, was required to prevent German reinforcements from being sent to Flanders, where the British were preparing an offensive. On 9 June, the commander of the Canadian Corps, Julian Byng was promoted to General and assumed command the Third Army. Arthur Currie, the 1st Canadian Division commander, was promoted to lieutenant-general and assumed command of the Canadian Corps.
The industrial coal city of Lens, France had fallen under German control in October 1914 during the Race to the Sea. Consequently, the Germans also controlled the heights at Hill 70 to the north of the city and Sallaumines Hill to the southeast, both of which had commanding views over the surrounding area as well as the city itself. Hill 70 was a treeless expanse at the end of one of the many spurs. In September 1915, the British had overrun the hill during the Battle of Loos but had not managed to hold it. On 7 July, Currie was ordered to plan operations to occupy the west half of Lens by the end of the month and Horne ordered the Canadian Corps to relieve I Corps from their position opposite the city of Lens on 10 July 1917. The First Army was ordered to capture Lens and threaten Lille from the south and the French promised a substantial effort by four corps at Verdun; given the dilapidation of the French army and delays in mounting the operation, its effect could not be predicted.
Affairs south of the Souchez River
To create a threat to Lens, Horne intended that XIII Corps on the southern flank would attack to reach better positions between the villages of Gavrelle and Oppy by advancing the front line for 200 to 500 yd (180 to 460 m) on a 2,300 yd (2,100 m) front. The 4th Canadian Division on the left flank of the Canadian Corps south of the Souchez river (a tributary of the Deûle) and the 46th (North Midland) Division on the right of I Corps, north of the river, were to attack on a front of 4,800 yd (4,400 m) to eliminate a German salient from Avion to the west end of Lens and to occupy Hill 65 (Reservoir Hill). I Corps was to plan for an attack on Hill 70 with the 6th Division on the left (northern) flank. Horne expected that the operations would take place in early July but found that many of the best heavy guns were to be sent to Flanders and brought forward the date to 28 June. The plans were made less ambitious; the XIII Corps scheme was retained but the attack either side of the Souchez was reduced to the capture the German front line west of Avion and Hill 65; the Hill 70 plan was postponed.
28 June was dull, humid and storm clouds appeared in the south over the afternoon. The First Army artillery, assisted by Third Army guns en route to Flanders, began a bombardment along the 14 mi (23 km) army front from Gavrelle to Hulluch. The simulation of a much bigger attack on Lens was enhanced by lightning, thunder and a downpour, which began at 7:10 p.m. when the infantry advance began. The adjacent brigades of the 31st and 5th divisions had been bombarded in their jumping-off trenches at 5:30 p.m. and suffered 200 casualties before the advance began. The survivors moved so fast that when a German counter-barrage fell on no man's land three minutes later, the British were on the far side and unharmed. The attackers suffered few casualties, took 200 prisoners and counted 280 dead German soldiers. Gavrelle Mill and a new line was consolidated, despite the rainstorm, from which the areas to the north-east and east around Neuvireuil and Fresnes could be observed, along with Greenland Hill to the south-west.
Capture of Avion
Further north, in the area of the 4th Canadian and 46th (North Midland) divisions, the German 56th Division had moved on 22 June into reserve to substitute for a division transferred to Flanders. The division holding the line had orders to retire from the salient to the Avion–Lens railway if pressed. The western slopes of Hill 65 had been occupied on 24 June and patrols pushed forward towards Avion Trench, which was taken early on 28 June. The divisions made ready to resume the advance when the army barrage began at 7:10 p.m. Most of Avion, Éleu-dit-Leauwette and the eastern slope of Hill 65 was captured, as the 3rd Canadian Division formed a defensive flank along the Arleux–Avion road, joining with the 4th Canadian Division in Avion. Rain and the flooding from the Souchez stopped patrols from probing the German main line of resistance in the north-eastern part of Avion and along a railway embankment about 600 further on. The attack on Hill 70 and other operations to continue the encirclement of Lens had to be postponed, because the depleted First Army artillery was unable to complete its wire-cutting and destructive bombardments.
Currie regarded control of either Hill 70 or Sallaumines Hill as tactically more important than control of the city of Lens. Merely to occupy the city while the Germans held the high ground would place the attackers in an unfavourable lower and more exposed position than the ones they occupied. At a conference of corps commanders, Currie persuaded the First Army commander, General Henry Horne, to make Hill 70 rather than Lens the main objective of the limited offensive. The capture of Hill 70 would provide excellent observation over the German lines, in preparation for more offensives. Currie believed the Germans would attempt to counter-attack if Hill 70 were captured, largely because of its observational importance and that the advantageous artillery observation would defeat German counter-attacks with accurate artillery-fire. The plan was therefore to occupy the high ground quickly, establish strongpoint defensive positions around the 48 Vickers machine guns allocated to each brigade and use combined small-arms and artillery-fire to repel counter-attacks and inflict as many casualties as possible.
Thhe 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions to attack on a front of 4,000 yards (3,700 m). Their objective was to capture the main enemy defensive positions on the eastern or reverse slope of Hill 70. The objectives were marked off in depth by three stages. In the first stage, the assaulting troops would capture the German front-line trenches. The German second position on the crest of the hill during the second stage and the final stage, marked by the German third line, on the reverse side of the slope, some 1,500 yards (1,400 m) from the starting position. The 1st Canadian Division's 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade would attack north of Hill 70 while the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade would attack the summit. The 2nd Canadian Division's 4th and 5th Canadian Infantry Brigades would attack the rubble remains of the suburbs of Cité St. Édouard, St. Laurent and St. Émile directly south of Hill 70.
In an attempt to further deceive the Germans, minor operations were conducted to suggest a forthcoming attack by the British First Army south of La Bassée Canal. In late July 1917, the 9th Canadian Brigade feinted a direct attack of Lens by engaging units of the German 36th Reserve Division at Mericourt Trench while to the north of the Canadians, the 46th (North Midland) Division set up a diversionary attack north of Loos complete with poison gas artillery bombardments and dummy tanks.
Bad weather led to the postponement of the attack on Hill 70 from late July until mid-August. In the interim, special companies of the Royal Engineers augmented the regular level of harassment by firing a total of 3,500 gas drums and 900 gas shells into Lens by 15 August. The artillery neutralized 40 out of an estimated 102 German batteries in the area by zero hour, partly with the technique of predicted fire for the first time, using datum points and calibrated guns, which greatly improved the accuracy of the artillery. Troops were rotated through the reserve area to conduct training and rehearsals in preparation for the assault. These obvious preliminary actions to an attack were observed by the Germans, which made it impossible to conceal the First Army's general intentions or even, as it turned out, the date of the assault. The best that could be done was to attempt to mislead the Germans with respect to time and place.
Royal Flying Corps
On 9 August, six Nieuport 17s of 40 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps (RFC) made a low-level attack on the six German observation balloons along the Hill 70–Lens front and shot them down. German observation was reduced but also made the Canadian interest in the area obvious. For the two days and nights before the attack, 10, 25 and 27 squadrons bombed railway junctions, airfields and billets. In earlier battles, British fighters patrolling at height to engage German fighters had not been able to see low-flying, camouflaged German aircraft, which flew artillery-observation and ground attack sorties without interference. Six Nieuport 17s of 40 Squadron moved to an advanced landing ground at Mazingarbe about 5 mi (8.0 km) behind the front and a ground station was established on higher ground west of Loos. When observers spotted a German aircraft at low altitude a wireless message was sent to Mazingarbe for a Nieuport to be sent up to engage the German aircraft. A letter-code on white canvas sheets containing the location of German aircraft could be laid on the ground for an airborne fighter pilot to read.
The RFC provided 16, 40 and 43 squadrons to support the Canadian Corps and the Sopwith Camels of 8 (Naval) Squadron, Royal Naval Air Service were provided to fly higher over the battlefield. An advanced landing ground at Petit Sains was made ready for 43 Squadron to mount continuous, counter-attack reconnaissance patrols. Formations of three Sopwith 1½ Strutters were to observe an area 7,000 yd (4.0 mi; 6.4 km) wide and 1,500 to 2,500 yd (0.85 to 1.42 mi; 1.4 to 2.3 km) deep that German counter-attacking troops would have to traverse. The Sopwith crews were to report their observations to the Canadian Corps and heavy artillery headquarters, then attack with their machine-guns any German artillery or concentrations of troops seen at bottlenecks. Contact patrols to mark the progress of the Canadian infantry were to be flown by 16 Squadron.
The Canadian Corps (Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie) had the 1st, 2nd and 4th Canadian divisions for the attack and the 3rd Canadian Division in reserve. Extra artillery brigades were attached to the Canadian divisions, the 14th Army Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA) to the 1st Canadian Division, the 46th Divisional Artillery to the 2nd Canadian Division and the 179th Army Brigade RFA to the 4th Canadian Division. Three heavy artillery groups were under command for counter-battery fire and there were four siege artillery groups.
The 6th Army (General der Infanterie Otto von Below) was responsible for the defence of the area between Lille and Cambrai, Lens being about half-way between. The town was an important railway junction and after the Battle of Arras early in 1917, had become a salient in the German defences. Hill 70 and the vicinity was held by the 7th Division, part of Gruppe Loos, the headquarters of IV Corps. (The German army had begun to use corps headquarters as territorial command units, rather than for a permanent complement of divisions.) Lens was garrisoned by the 11th Reserve Division in Gruppe Souchez (VI Corps). In anticipation of an attack, Army Group Crown prince Rupprecht had moved the 4th Guard Division and the 220th Division into the 6th Army area in reserve. The divisions in reserve rehearsed reinforcement and counter-attacks with the two front divisions, Below having written of an expected Canadian (Angriffstruppe) attack on 15 July.[a]
The assault began at 4:25 a.m. on the morning of 15 August, just as dawn was breaking. Special companies of the Royal Engineers fired drums of burning oil into the suburb of Cité St. Élisabeth and at other selected targets to supplement the artillery creeping barrage and build up a smoke-screen. Divisional field artillery positions executed a creeping barrage directly in advance of the assaulting troops while field howitzers shelled German positions 400 m (440 yd) in advance of the creeping barrage and heavy howitzers shelled all other known German strong-points. Artillery Forward Observation Officers moved forward with the infantry and artillery observation aircraft flew overhead and sent 240 calls for artillery fire by wireless. The Germans had moved up their reserve units on the previous night in anticipation of an attack and the main assembly of Canadian troops was detected by 3:00 a.m.
Within three minutes of the attack commencing, the German artillery brought down defensive fire at widely scattered points. The affected forward positions of the German 7th Division and 11th Reserve Division were quickly overwhelmed. Within twenty minutes of the attack beginning, both Canadian divisions had reached their first objective. By 6:00 a.m. the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade had reached the second objective line, while units of the three other brigades had in some cases already reached their final objective. Only the flanking companies of the two battalions attacking Hill 70 managed to reach their objectives. The remainder of the both units were forced to retreat up the slope and consolidate their position at the intermediate objective line.
On the right flank of the 2nd Canadian Division, the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade of the 4th Canadian Division executed a diversionary operation which proved successful in drawing German retaliatory fire away from the main operation. Four hours later, the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade of the 4th Canadian Division attempted to exploit the weakened German force by pushing strong patrols towards the centre of Lens. This ultimately failed as the Germans used local counter-attacks across the 4th Canadian Division's front to drive the patrols back to the city's outskirts.
The 1½ Strutters of 43 Squadron received many hits from ground fire but only two were shot down, three crew being wounded; a German aircraft was shot down and others driven off, four more aircraft were so badly damaged as to be unserviceable for 16 August. One Sopwith attacked troops in Drocourt Trench, another aircraft attacked a transport column near Fouquières, then troops near Annay and in Bois de Quatorze. About 1,600 German infantry behind Bois de Dixhuit, north of Lens, were strafed, then the information was reported from Mazingarbe to the Canadian Corps heavy artillery, which dispersed the German troops. While flying artillery-observation sorties in the afternoon, 16 Squadron aircrew saw four waves of German infantry advancing in the open to counter-attack. The crews called on the Canadian heavy artillery and attacked with machine-guns, which "all but annihilated" the German force. From 15 to 17 August, the RFC sent 240 reports of German artillery in action and all were answered by the counter-battery groups.
In preparation for German counter-attacks, the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions began to reinforce and construct strong points immediately after capturing the first objective line. Within two hours of the start of the battle, the Germans began using their immediate reserves to mount local counter-attacks. Between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. on the morning of 15 August, the Germans executed four local attacks against Canadian positions. Each attack was repulsed due in large part to the work of forward artillery observers, who could now overlook some of the German positions. On one occasion, the counter-attack was only repulsed after engaging in hand-to-hand fighting. The Germans rapidly brought up seven additional battalions from the 4th Guards Division and 185th Division to reinforce the eight line battalions already in place. Over the following three days, the Germans executed no less than 21 counter-attacks against Canadian positions. A frontal attack against the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade on the afternoon of 15 August ultimately failed. A German attack against the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade was initially successful with the Germans re-capturing Chicory Trench but were repulsed later the same afternoon.
Capture of Hill 70 and additional counter-attacks
The morning of 16 August was relatively quiet, with only a few attempts made by small German parties to approach the Canadian lines. After having failed to capture all their objectives the previous day and having postponed additional attacks a number of times, the 2nd Canadian Brigade attacked and captured the remainder of its final objective line on the afternoon of 16 August. The assault lasted a little over an hour but the troops were then forced to defend against a dozen German counter-attacks during the day.
Attempts by the 4th and 11th Canadian Infantry Brigades to eliminate an enemy salient between Cité St. Élisabeth and Lens on 17 August failed and as had been foreseen the Germans continued to mount determined counter-attacks. The German command began to realize that the Canadian and British artillery would need to be neutralized before a counter-attack could succeed. The Germans began a series of counter-attacks against a chalk quarry under Canadian control outside of Cité St. Auguste but also sought to wear down the Canadian artillery resources by sending up false flare signals or provoking the infantry to call for unnecessary artillery fire. The Germans also began to use poison gas in earnest. From 15,000–20,000 of the new Yellow Cross shells containing the blistering agent sulphur mustard were fired in addition to an undetermined number of shells containing diphosgene. The Canadian 1st and 2nd Artillery Field Brigades and the Canadian front line were heavily gassed. Many artillery men became casualties after gas fogged the goggles of their respirators and they were forced to remove their masks to set the fuses, lay their sights and maintain accurate fire. The Germans used the cover of gas to make a number of attempts against the Canadian controlled chalk quarry and Chicory Trench on the night of 17 August and early morning of 18 August. All attempts against the chalk quarry failed and only one company of the 55th Reserve Infantry Regiment (on loan to the 11th Reserve Division) managed to breach the Canadian defences at Chicory Trench before being repulsed. German troops employing flamethrowers managed to penetrate the Canadian line north of the quarry on the morning of 18 August before being driven out.
Attack on Lens
The front quietened significantly after the final attack against the chalk quarry. For the Canadian Corps, the following two days consisted largely of consolidation. The front line was drawn back 300 yards (270 m), midway between the original intermediate and final objectives. The 4th Canadian Division slightly advanced its forward posts on the outskirts of Lens and extended its front northward to include the Lens–Bethune road. Currie wished to further improve the position around Hill 70 and ordered an attack against enemy positions along a 3,000 yd (1.7 mi; 2.7 km) front, opposite the 2nd and 4th Canadian Divisions.
The operation was scheduled for the morning of 21 August, the tasks being divided between the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the left and the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the right. The attack was to begin at 4:35 a.m. but the Germans began shelling the Canadian positions at 4:00 a.m. Just before the Canadian attack, the left flank of the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade was attacked by units of the German 4th Guard Division. Both forces met between their respective objectives, fought hand-to-hand and with the bayonet and in the mélée the 6th Brigade advance was stopped. Communication between the forward units and brigade headquarters had broken down at the beginning of the attack and could not be restored due to heavy German shelling, making it all but impossible to co-ordinate the infantry and artillery.
Counter-attacks by the 4th Guard Division, reinforced by a battalion of the 220th Division, forced the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade back to the start line. On the right flank, one unit of the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade suffered a large number of shellfire casualties while assembling for the attack and was met with massed artillery and machine-gun fire, as it neared its objective. Only three small parties, the largest of not more than twenty men, reached their goal. The other two attacking units captured their objectives late in the evening and a salient was created in the 4th Canadian Division line. On the evening of 21 August, three parties went forward to bomb the German position from the flanks but were only moderately successful. An attack planned for 22 August failed to materialize, due to battalion-level misunderstandings. A brigade reserve unit was ordered to remedy the situation by attacking a slagheap called Green Crassier and the mine complex at Fosse St. Louis. The attack was repulsed, with the majority of the attackers being killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Germans held on to the area until the beginning of the final German retreat in 1918.
In 1981, Sydney Wise, author of the Royal Canadian Air Force official history, called the attack at Hill 70 "a demonstration of how a set-piece attack should be carried out". The Germans refrained from attempts to recapture the lost ground at Lens, due to the demands of defensive operations of the Third Battle of Ypres and the need to avoid the diversion of forces from the main effort. In 2017, Andrew Rawson wrote that the Canadian attack prevented the Germans from transferring five divisions in the Lens area to Flanders. In 2016, Robert Foley wrote that Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht and the 6th Army headquarters thought that the Canadian advance had been stopped by 16 August. Below wrote in his diary that more than ten attacks by the Canadians, "the best English (sic) troops", had been repulsed. The Canadian attack had been stopped because the "English" lacked the flexibility to exploit success, a criticism that had emerged during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
The Canadian attack was seen as a feint to divert German divisions from Flanders and the army group ordered the 6th Army to fight with its own resources, including the seven divisions in army reserve. The 4th Guard and the 220th divisions acted as Eingreif Divisions on 15 August and with the existing divisions conducted most of the German defence. Once the German counter-attack in 15 August had failed, the attempt to recapture Hill 70 was abandoned and counter-attacks were restricted local efforts to repulse Canadian attacks and for tactical improvements to the German defences. Two divisions were moved from reserve to replace the 4th Guard and the 220th divisions, three more divisions in reserve remaining available to the 6th Army. No forces were transferred to Lens from Flanders or anywhere else and no divisions were sent to Flanders from 15 to 25 August. Foley wrote that the 1st Guard Reserve Division had been included in some accounts but that neither Below or other German sources from the time refer to it; Foley also wrote that Canadian sources mention the 185th Division in interrogation reports.
In the History of the Great War (1948), the official historian, James Edmonds wrote that from 15 to 23 August, the 1st Canadian Division suffered 3,035 casualties, 881 being fatal. The Second Canadian Division suffered 2,724 casualties, 763 men being killed and the 4th Canadian Division had 1,432 casualties, including 381 killed. Corps troops and other troops attached to the 1st Canadian Division suffered 105 casualties, a total of 8,418 casualties; 1,389 German troops were taken prisoner. In the 1962 Canadian Official History, G. W. L. Nicholson wrote that the Canadians and attached troops suffered 9,198 casualties. In Surviving Trench Warfare (1992) Bill Rawling wrote that the attack on Hill 70 cost the Canadian Corps 3,527 casualties, 1,056 killed, 2,432 wounded and 39 taken prisoner. In the subsequent attacks into Lens, the Canadian Corps suffered another 5,671 casualties increasing the number to 9,198 men in eleven days.
Douglas Delaney and Serge Durflinger edited Capturing Hill 70 a volume of essays published in 2016; Delaney wrote that Tim Cook remedied a mistake in the Canadian official history which gave Canadian Corps casualties for August rather than for the period 15 to 25 August. The Canadian Corps suffered about 8,677 casualties during the fighting at Hill 70 and Lens. In 2016, Robert Foley wrote that German casualties are difficult to measure, the German official history (Der Weltkrieg) volume noting that complete records did not exist. Foley wrote that the 7th Division suffered about 2,000 casualties before being withdrawn on 17 August, the 4th Guard Division about 1,200 from 15 to 21 August and that the 220th Division also suffered many casualties, Reserve Infantry Regiment 99 losing 474 men in four days. Foley estimated that the Germans suffered c. 10,000 casualties; Delaney and Durflinger wrote that the lower estimates of German casualties were higher than those of the attackers, an unusual occurrence in the war.
From the rest of August to the beginning of October the front was relatively quiet, with Canadian efforts devoted mainly to preparations for another offensive, although none took place, largely because the First Army lacked sufficient resources for the task. The Canadian Corps was transferred to the Ypres sector in early October in preparation for the Second Battle of Passchendaele. Soon after the battle, German 6th Army commander General der Infanterie Otto von Below was transferred to the Italian front, where he took command of the new Austro-German 14th Army. In this capacity, he executed an extremely successful offensive at the Battle of Caporetto in October 1917. General der Infanterie Ferdinand von Quast took over command of the 6th Army until the end of the war.
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