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Albert Victor Baker survived a sniper’s bullet through his neck during the Battle of Hill 70, near Lens, France in August, 1917. (family photo handout/family photo handout)
Albert Victor Baker survived a sniper’s bullet through his neck during the Battle of Hill 70, near Lens, France in August, 1917. (family photo handout/family photo handout)

remembrance day

The forgotten WWI battle that helped define Canada as a nation Add to ...

The Baker Boys had a grand plan.

To celebrate Greg Baker’s 65th birthday, his brothers Randy and Bruce would join him on a trek they had dreamed about most of their lives. They would leave their Ottawa homes and fly first to England to see the small coastal town in Suffolk that their grandfather and two older brothers left in 1908 to settle in Canada. Then they would travel on to Arras, France, to see where their great uncle, Harry Simon Baker, had fought at Vimy Ridge as a member of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Canadian Division and where, the brothers believed, he had picked up the nickname “Lucky,” merely by escaping unscathed.

After Vimy, the brothers – Greg, a retired firefighter, Randy, a retired city worker, and Bruce, a retired teacher – would travel to the nearby town of Lens, where their grandfather, Albert Victor Baker, had served in the 21st Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Division. It was here, in the Battle of Hill 70, that their grandfather had taken a sniper’s bullet that went in one side of his neck and out the other. That he had somehow lived – and would later meet their grandmother, Margaret May, a nurse’s aide, while convalescing in England – meant the three Baker brothers could be here today.

They even had T-shirts specially made for the occasion: “European Tour 2015, Baker Boys.”

The Baker Boys easily found their way to the magnificent monument at Vimy. They toured the Canadian Centre and spent hours walking about the memorial imagining what it had been like and what this pivotal battle had meant for Canada.

Related: Time machine: What life in Canada was like before the First World War

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Read more: Soldier’s First World War medal finds its way across the Pacific to great-nephew in B.C.

They then moved on to the town of Lens and Hill 70, which many historians believe to have been a battle every bit as significant as Vimy when it came to turning Canada from a colony to a nation.

But the Baker Boys couldn’t find Hill 70.

“There’s nothing there,” Bruce Baker says. “It’s not marked. They only way we could even come close was through Google Maps. There’s nothing there that represents anything we know.”

All that is about to change.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle for Hill 70 as well as the 150th birthday of this country, an $8.5-million initiative is under way that is intended to educate Canadians about this largely-unknown-yet-hugely-significant moment in Canadian history.

“It did get lost,” says Governor General David Johnston, who has agreed to serve as patron for the Hill 70 Memorial Project, an ambitious undertaking that includes the construction of a proper memorial – easily findable without Google – near the site of the original battle.

“It was such an important part of Canadian history,” says Mr. Johnston. “It was the first time the Canadian Corps was truly under Canadian command … It’s a remarkable story of leadership, of Canadians coming together, and like Vimy and Passchendaele, it should be front row centre in Canadians’ memories about World War One.”

Out of those tremendously difficult battles came a new sense of national identity, a pride and a confidence that led to Canada shedding its colonial status and standing as a nation in its own right.

The story is told in a new book from UBC Press, Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War, which contains essays by such eminent historians as Jack Granatstein, Serge Durflinger and Tim Cook.

The Hill 70 Memorial Project also includes:

  • The Battle of Hill 70, a children’s graphic novel featuring the true account of soldier Brock Chisholm, who went on to become Surgeon-General of Canada and the first director of the World Health Organization.
  • Victory Forgotten, a roundup of the roles played by every Canadian unit that took part in the battle.
  • The Lads in Their Hundreds, a collection of personal stories drawn from the diaries of those who fought.
  • A multifaceted educational program aimed at 3,500 high schools across the country, including a teacher resource package.
  • A bilingual portable museum on Hill 70 that will tour communities and military museums.
  • The establishment of bursaries designed to facilitate class trips to the battlefield.

Hill 70’s significance is undeniable when it comes to defining Canada. The battle took place over a 10-day period, Aug. 15 to 25, 1917, at a time when the war was not going well for the Allies.

It marked the first time that a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, had full command of the Canadian Corps. While Canadians had fought in vast numbers at Vimy, they had been under the command of British General Julian Byng. As Lt.-Gen. Currie had played a key role in planning the successful taking of Vimy, his reward was to assume full command of the increasingly respected Canadians – and take the strategic town of Lens.

“The first thing [Lt.-Gen. Currie] did was reject the order that was given to go into battle,” Mr. Johnston says. “He said: ‘We cannot do an assault on Lens, the town. That’s been tried for two years and look at the lives lost. Give us a little more time and we’ll take the hill overlooking the town.’”

This seemed a shocking act for someone given his first command. But Lt.-Gen. Currie reasoned with his superiors, saying that the frontal assault would mean a huge loss of life. If they took the high ground, the hill just north of the town, they would be in a better position to keep the German soldiers from leaving the area to support German strongholds elsewhere.

Lt.-Gen. Currie’s superiors agreed. He and his officers drilled their men until each knew precisely what was to be done that first morning. Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum considers Lt.-Gen. Currie to have been “one of the finest generals of the war.” His “bite, hold, destroy” tactics involved extensive shelling, strategic use of machine-gun fire to keep the enemy down and, of course, a strategic attack.

The Canadians took the hill and held it despite a remarkable 21 German counterattacks. Lt.-Gen. Currie’s troops suffered 8,700 killed, wounded or missing in the 10 days of battle, while German estimates of losses ran between 12,000 and 20,000.

It was a hideous battle, with 1,877 Canadian lives lost. More than 1,100 of the Canadian soldiers suffered from mustard-gas poisoning.

Here is how Arthur Lapointe, a signaler serving with the 22nd Battalion, described the initial assault in his journal: “Dawn is coming and my heart is suddenly filled with bitterness when I realize that the day may be my last. … Only two minutes now remain. Two minutes – in which a thousand thoughts mingle in my brain: the thought of the battlefield, where I may lie in a few moments, weltering in blood; the sweet thought of our beloved land across the sea; and the thought of those I hold most dear.

“4:25 a.m. Zero hour! A roll of heavy thunder sounds and the sky is split by great sheets of flame … I scramble over the parapet and … am one of the first in No Man’s Land …The noise of the barrage fills our ears; the air pulsates, and the earth rocks beneath our feet. I feel I am in an awful dream … Now we are crossing ground so torn by our barrage that no soil remains in place … We reach the enemy’s front line, which has been blown to pieces. Dead bodies lie half buried under the fallen parapet and wounded are writhing in convulsions of pain … A section in the second wave has come up a communications trench and opened fire with a machine-gun on the Germans … Now they lie in a mass of grey, with blood splashed all around. One lifts a hand to his chest and falls in a dugout entrance. I shall never forget his face, a mask of tortured agony … The sun is spreading golden rays over all this carnage and destruction, as though mocking at the strange folly of mankind.”

When it was over, six Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadians: Pte. Michael O’Rourke, Pte. Harry W. Brown, Sgt. Frederick Hobson, Maj. Okill M. Learmonth, Sgt. Maj. Robert H. Hanna, Cpl. Filip Konowal. In Vimy, four VCs had been awarded to Canadians.

Next year, there will be a national “hackathon,” hosted by project spokeman Col. Chris Hadfield, in which 5,000 high-school students will connect to research the names of all 1,877 Canadians who fell there. Their biographies will then appear on the group’s website.

“What really impresses me about the project,” Mr. Johnston says, “is the educational outreach with the four books, and with the opportunities for young people to be engaged. It’s marvellous.”

A planning team of 35 people is serving the charity project on a pro bono basis.

“We pay our own gas,” says Col. Mark Hutchings, who serves as chair. “We buy our own sandwiches.”

There is no government funding involved, although clearly the group would welcome some help. A bilingual TV Heritage Minute, narrated by former CBC host Don Newman, should increase public interest in the project.

Three donors have committed $1-million each to the project. Contributions in kind – from architectural design to legal assistance – will make up another $2-million from various sponsors, including The Globe and Mail.

France has also stepped up, with the town of Loos-en-Gohelle handing over an eight-hectare parcel of land near the battle site and a Commonwealth War Graves cemetery that was started by Canadians. France will also waive import duties on materials and will not apply its value added tax to the construction costs, a savings of approximately $2-million for the charity.

If all goes according to plan, first work is to begin in France in November. By 2017, it is hoped the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Hill 70 will be marked nationally as a significant moment in Canadian history.

Canada, after all, did not even get to declare war in 1914; the declaration was made by Great Britain for the Empire. For a considerable time, Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Sir George Perley, was not even allowed to see correspondence between the Colonial Office and the Governor General.

All that began to change with Vimy, however, and after Hill 70 Canada was increasingly treated as it deserved. By 1919, Canada had a seat on the League of Nations, confirmation that Canada was, in fact, a full nation.

“Hill 70 was an important way station on the way to victory, on the way to nationhood,” says John Cowan, principal emeritus of the Royal Military College of Canada.

Much credit, of course, has to go to Lt.-Gen. Currie, who was knighted by King George V in 1917. Known as “Guts and Gaiters” to his men, the Ontario farm boy had headed West where he became a schoolteacher, insurance salesman, real estate developer and militia leader in Victoria, B.C., and had found himself in a financial and legal entanglement when he was accused of diverting monies intended for new uniforms to his crashing real estate holdings. Friends bailed him out. Back in Canada, he served more than a dozen years as principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University in Montreal, died at 57 and is buried at Mount Royal Cemetery.

But what of Hill 70 itself? The vast majority of Canadians have never heard of it. Nor can people find it.

“It’s not a place,” says Serge Durflinger, co-editor of the new book on the battle. “It’s a map reference. Urban sprawl has made it virtually impossible to find.”

All that will change.

And Bruce Baker and his brothers could not be more pleased.

“As the grandson of a soldier who was seriously wounded in the Hill 70 battle,” Mr. Baker says, “I have a personal interest in the marking of the site with a memorial. As a former educator, I know how important it is that we honour and do not forget the sacrifice of the young men and women who experienced such horrific conditions and whose lives were forever changed in order to protect the freedom of future generations.”

As for the Baker Boys and their spouses, a new trip might soon be in the works.

“Perhaps we will go back again,” Mr. Baker says, “as I do not think we found the right one last year.

“Now it will be properly marked.”

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