Lost Battlefields is the story of two of Canada’s battles in the First World War: the battles of Mount Sorrel and Hill 70. These battles marked dramatic turning points in the development of the Canadian Corps, from the enthusiastic naïve volunteers of 1915 to the most ruthless and efficient fighting force on the Western Front in 1918.
Lost Battlefields takes the viewer back to the Western Front with archival footage and memoirs, and by walking the forgotten fields of battle today, captures the feeling and sacrifice of those desperate struggles 80 years ago.
Part One of Lost Battlefields takes us to Mount Sorrel on the southern flank of the Ypres Salient in Belgium where, on June 2, 1916, the raw, rookie and inexperienced Canadians of the Third Canadian Division are suddenly blasted away by German artillery, mortars and exploding underground mines, suffering huge casualties. German infantry overwhelm the shattered Canadian line, seizing the last high ground that protects the Belgian city of Ypres, virtually the last bit of Belgian in Allied hands – a city that is vital to the defense of the ports on the English Channel and to the British Army’s links with England.
The devastation, loss and humiliation is tremendous for these colonial Canadians: they have lost in a few hours what the British, French and Belgians have fought for two years to keep. Only days before the catastrophe, Sir Julian Byng, a long-time British professional soldier, had taken over command of the Canadian Corps. Under Byng and Arthur Currie, the Commander of the First Canadian Division, the Canadians counter-attack in mid-June 1916, drive the Germans from Mount Sorrel, and reconquer virtually all the ground the Third Canadian Division had lost. This is the beginning of the “turn around” of the Canadian Corps. Within a year the Canadians will demonstrate their fighting prowess by driving the Germans back on the Somme in late 1916 and, then, by conquering the impregnable German Fortress of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
In Part Two of Lost Battlefields, we see that the Canadians are now – in the summer of 1917 –considered a conquering and almost invincible force. To divert the Germans from a major British offensive in Flanders, to the north, the Canadian Corps is ordered to make an attack on Lens, a key French coal and steel city that has long been held and strongly fortified by the Germans. Canadian Arthur Currie, has just taken over from General Byng, who has been promoted to head the British Third Army, and Currie insists on doing the attack his way: he will not attack the city directly but will attack the heights overlooking it – a hill called Hill 70. In this way he will force the Germans to counter-attack him, giving him the opportunity to pound the Germans with artillery and “bleed the German Army white”. He plans to turn German counter-attack tactics against the Germans themselves. Currie prepares the attack with great method and deliberation, and, after a devastating artillery barrage, his troops take Hill 70. A ferocious battle follows in which the German army counter-attacks again and again and suffers a reported 30,000 casualties – it is a great victory, and pins down large German forces.
In little over a year – between Mount Sorrel in June 1916 and Hill 70 in August 1917 – the raw, inexperienced volunteers have transformed themselves into one of the fiercest and most efficient fighting forces on the Western Front. These troops will be known – in 1918 – as the “spearhead of victory.” Arthur Currie says that he “is sure Canada will appreciate the great sacrifice of its’ men.” Of course, no one remembers those battles now – 5000 men died in a few days at Mount Sorrel and Hill 70. They are truly “Lost Battlefields.”
Lost Battlefields is hosted by Norm Christie and is based on his books.
Produced for History Television (Canada). Distributed by Breakthrough Entertainment Inc. Worldwide rights available.