It is only appropriate that a story that was silent for so very long should have its own moment of silence.
On a sunny, warm spring Saturday on the edge of this little town in Northern France, more than 200 Canadians gathered to honour the new memorial still under construction to the Battle of Hill 70.
The military band marched, the honour guard snapped their heels on the new concrete with the huge, embedded red Maple Leaf, the dignitaries – including Governor-General David Johnston – spoke, the wreaths were laid by the important and by the very young, and then The Last Post was sounded followed by a moment of silence that seemed to stretch on forever.
After what seemed forever … birds began to sing.
Hill 70 and Vimy, 100 years later: Read the Globe's full coverage
The sounds of children at play in a far-off street could be heard.
Somewhere in the distance a dog barked.
Left alone with his thoughts, the Governor-General of Canada set his mind to remembering the unknown soldiers, the ones who gave their lives in war but who never found a proper grave. He thought of nearby Vimy Ridge and how the names of more than 11,000 Canadians who were lost and never found in this “terrible, terrible war” are etched on the wall. He thought about the importance of memory at such a time and how each generation must remember so that the next generation will understand how easily it can all be lost.
And then he thought about that poem about the larks, remembering just a few of the words but knowing it said it all. He was thinking of Returning, We Hear Larks, one of the last poems written by British soldier Isaac Rosenberg, who was killed at the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918.
“Sombre the night is.
“And though we have our lives, we know “What sinister threat lurks there.
“Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
“This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –
“On a little safe sleep.
“But hark! joy-joy-strange joy.
“Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks…”
Mr. Johnston, like most Canadians, was unaware of the Battle of Hill 70 until Mark Hutchings, a former colonel and now chair of the Hill 70 Memorial Project, came to visit him. It took the GG “about 10 seconds” to say he would be proud to act as the project’s patron.
Mr. Hutchings and many others, including Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum, believe that Hill 70 somehow got lost to the collective Canadian memory. The battle took place Aug. 15-25, 1917, four months after Vimy Ridge and just before Passchendaele, two battles with a far tighter grip on the Canadian psyche.
Yet it was at Hill 70 that Canadians forged a most remarkable victory. Neither the British nor the French had been able to dislodge the Germans from this vital coal-supply area in previous battles, each costing tens of thousands of casualties.
It marked the first time the Canadian Corps fell under the command of a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie, and Currie’s reaction to his very first order – to take the nearby town of Lens – had been to tell his British superiors he had a far better idea.
If the Canadians could take Hill 70 – so called because it was 70 metres above sea level – then from the hill they could at least keep the Germans holed up and prevent them from sending reinforcements to German forces under siege elsewhere along the Western Front.
British Command listened and let Currie have his head. He mapped out a brilliant strategy, planned the attack intricately and executed it. The Canadians took, and held, the hill. And they held it through a remarkable 21 German counterattacks – proof of the Hill’s strategic importance.
It came at a heavy cost, however. Currie’s troops suffered nearly 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 and more than 1,100 of the Canadian soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. But Canada won the day and, soon after, the tide of the war began to turn decisively in the Allies favour.
“In keeping with Canadian modesty,” Mr. Hutchings told the gathering, “this triumph has been overlooked too long.”
No longer. The charity, still lacking any government funding, has raised millions toward completing the project and has already refashioned the parkland, laid cement walkways and erected an impressive monument to honour those who died here. While the actual hill is about 1,300 metres to the east – now part of suburban growth – an obelisk stands exactly high enough to be 70 metres above sea level. The tapered portion at the top, at 5 feet and 6 inches, is the average height of a Canadian soldier in the First World War. In the walkway there is embedded a small Maple Leaf to represent every Canadian who fell here, many of whom are buried in a military cemetery on the border of the parkland.
When the Battle of Hill 70 was over, six Victoria Crosses were awarded to Canadians: Private Michael O’Rourke, Pvt. Harry W. Brown, Sergeant Frederick Hobson, Major Okill M. Learmonth, Sgt. Maj. Robert H. Hanna, Corporal Filip Konowal. At Vimy Ridge, the Canadians had won four Victoria Crosses.
Earle Drope also won a medal at Hill 70, the Military Medal. The farmboy from the shores of Rice Lake in central Ontario had joined up at age 17, inspired by his much older brother Bruce, who had joined up earlier. Earle’s mother was furious that her young son had followed the older brother but he was already off on his great adventure.
By the time Earle made it to Hill 70, big brother Bruce was already dead, killed by flying shrapnel at Vimy Ridge. So convinced was the family back home that Earle, too, was doomed that they made the remarkable decision to name a new member of the family, Earle Fisher, born to one of the sisters, in his honour – and Earle was not even dead.
Perhaps he should have died, for in the first day of the hideous battle he was ordered to leave the front line and go back to the supply units and let them know the battalion needed more ammunition. He raced back, diving into craters and trenches until he reached his goal. Then he returned and did it again. And again.
“For courage and devotion to duty displayed as a runner on Aug. 15, 1917,” the citation read. “The runner repeatedly carried messages under extremely heavy fire.”
Earle made it home unscathed. The train dropped him off at Cobourg and he walked the 24 kilometres back to the farm where he told his family, “This is the most peaceful place I have ever known – I’m going to stay right here.”
And he did, too, apart from those trips to Ottawa after he became the member of Parliament for Northumberland in 1945.
When that long moment of silence began, Earle’s daughter, Pauline Browes, sat along the front row thinking of how her father had managed to come home unhurt and how he had somehow remained optimistic and supportive for the rest of his life.
She thought about how when she was very small and would get into trouble her mother would tell her to go and see her father, and he would put her on his knee and wrap his arms around her and tell her “I’ll always love you.”
She could not understand how a man who came from a home “where we never even had a gun” could have been here where soldiers fired shells and cartridges into the millions. Or how such a gentle man could witness such horrors and not be destroyed by them.
Earle Drope so inspired his daughter that she followed him into politics, winning the riding of Scarborough Centre in 1984 and serving in the cabinets of Brian Mulroney and, briefly, Kim Campbell.
She thought of him all through the long silence and well into the piper who ended it, eventually, by standing high on the hill beside the new monument and playing The Lament.
And, like so many others surrounding her, she had a small cry to herself.Report Typo/Error