Bénifontaine is situated just to the north of Lens. From Arras take the N17 in the direction of Lens following the new road system around Vimy village. At Avion you will enter the A 211 autoroute (and pass the Green Crassier immediately on your left) this will then change to the A 21 — following Lens (Ouest).
At Sortie No 9 Lens (Nord) leave the autoroute and turn right at the junction for La Bassée. You are now driving along the ridge of Hill 70. The summit is the roundabout near the hospital. On your left is Loos-en-Gohelle (scene of the famous battle in 1915). Continue straight on and down the far side to another roundabout.
You have to turn right towards the shopping centre and then at the mini-roundabout turn around towards the aerodrome and the car park. The plaque is easily seen within a clump of trees at the corner of the car park.
The Canadian Corps’ successful capture of Vimy Ridge resulted in its commander Lt General Sir Julian Byng being promoted to take command of the Third Army. He was replaced by Haig’s preferred candidate; the recently knighted, Sir Arthur Currie commanding the Canadian 1st Division.
The first task required of Currie was to capture Lens. Haig had informed Sir Henry Horne’s First Army that his Flanders campaign would begin on the 31st July and that it was imperative that the Germans should feel threatened from the south.
Currie conducted a reconnaissance of the front line and proposed to Horne that instead of trying to fight their way through the town it would be better to deprive the Germans of the strategic Hill 70 observation post. Currie was certain that he could take the hill and having done so that the Germans would be forced to try to take it back.
Looking at the hill today populated with its buildings and commercial centres it is hard to think of it as a barren slope riddled with trenches dug into its chalk.
The two assaulting Divisions employed two Brigades in the attack. From north to south these were the 3rd and 2nd Brigades of 1st Division responsible for capturing Bois Hugo on the left flank and Hill 70 itself. The 5th and 4th Brigades of 2nd Division would attack to the south of the hill through the mining estates.
After a number of delays allowing the artillery to properly prepare the targets the final date for the offensive was set for 15th August 1917.
The 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade was made up of four battalions :
Many of the Canadian Infantry Battalions were sponsored by Militia units back in Canada and it was from these units that they took their secondary titles and traditions. The soldiers from the three ‘Scottish’ battalions wore the kilt.
On the 15th August the Brigade’s task was to attack on a front of just over a kilometre. On the right the 13th Battalion would attack through the Bois Rasé, whilst the Puits 14 bis (Pit 14b) and Bois Hugo (Hugo Wood) were designated as targets for the 15th Battalion who would then form the left flank of the Canadian Corps.
Puits 14 bis served as a ventilation mine for Puits 14, which no exists but whose location is easily spotted by the blue and white water tower on the ridge. Puits 14 bis was named in honour of the Director of the Lens Mining Company, Ernest Cuvelette.
Bois Hugo is now the Parc des Cytises which contains a children’s farm enclosure. The wood originally extended out as far as the main road covering part of the aerodrome.
The battalion went into training near Bully Grenay between the 20th to 26th July in an area that was very similar to the ground that they would face during the attack. This prolonged practice period allowed them to familiarise themselves with the names of the trenches and the locations of the German dugouts and machine gun posts on their front.
On the night of the 13th August 1917, The Battalion HQ together with No 1 and No 3 Companies moved up into the front line. They were followed 24 hours later by No 2 and No 4 Companies and the entire battalion moved into position ready for Zero Hour.
The 15th Battalion had two objectives: the Blue line just behind the German support trench and the Green Line half way through the Bois Hugo. Knowing that the Germans would counter attack they were also required to create four strong points for the crews of the Canadian Machine Gun Brigades as well as barricade the German trenches on the left to stop the enemy infiltrating back into their conquered front line.
Out in no man’s land the first wave consisted of two platoons each of No 3 Company on the left, and No 1 Company on the right. Behind them were No 2 Company who were acting as the moppers-up and had a number of specific tasks. A party under Lieutenant Andrews would mop-up Bois Hugo and then form strong point 7.
Lieutenant Samuel was tasked with clearing Puits 14 bis before organising strong point 8. Lieutenant Reeves was in command of the wiring party that would fortify the captured trenches.
In the Allied front line the two remaining platoons of No 1 and No 3 Companies formed the second wave of the attack whilst behind them in the support trench the third wave was formed by all of No 4 Company.
At 0425 hours the barrage opened and as soon as it moved forward the first wave advanced into the German lines. Lieutenant Samuel found that the Puits was` almost deserted and had little trouble in securing it before continuing forward.
With very few casualties the Highlanders managed to reach the Blue Line within ten to fifteen minutes; the Germans fleeing before them and the rolling barrage. On the Blue Line they consolidated their position and waited until 0530 hours when the bombardment began to roll forward again.
No 4 Company took over the Blue Line whilst the remainder of the battalion worked its way forward through the wood. The German defenders were putting up more resistance now and the unmolested machine gun nests outside the battle zone to the left of the Highlanders started causing casualties but the Green Line was reached within nine minutes and the Wiring Party set to work. Lieutenant Reeves was killed going forward but his work was completed by Sergeant Keach.
The strong points were prepared as required; an Advanced Reporting Centre organised under the command of Lieutenant Winnifrith and the Forward Observation Officer set up his position just behind the Blue Line in the trench known (To the Canadians) as Horse Alley.
Apart from capturing a number of Machine Guns the Battalion also scooped one of the German Minenwerfers (Trench Mortar) that was on a revolving base plate. Nobody knew how to use it but an obliging German prisoner stepped up to the mark; turned the machine around; loaded it and promptly fired a round off into the German lines at the eastern end of the wood. The Canadians duly trained fired off all the remaining shells.
From 0750 hours the Germans increased their artillery fire on the Puits and then their recently lost positions and from 1030 hours it became obvious that troops were being assembled for counter attacks along the line. This was exactly what the Canadians had planned for by moving their artillery observers forward and by creating the machine gun strong points.
Now in possession of the higher ground along the ridge the observers reported back all the enemy’s attempts to gather an attacking force together and had it shelled. Most of the counter attacks were broken before they could even leave their own trenches.
One large assault from the Highlanders’ left was mercilessly cut to shreds when just after midday it attempted to attack in four waves.
Those few Germans who did reach the Canadian position were soon chased out of it by bombers (in trench combat the word bomb refers to grenades).
A small party of Germans did however manager to infiltrate its way down Meath Trench as far as the Highlanders’ Battalion Headquarters. This trench had previously been vacated by the neighbouring British battalion to ensure its safety during the barrage.
Lt Colonel Charles Bent was within the dug-out and talking to the Brigadier on the phone. He suddenly interrupted himself shouting down the phone :
They’re here, really here ! Outside.
In the trench Lance Corporal Oscar Green raised the alarm and charged the Germans with nothing more than a broken rifle (without bayonet). He killed his first adversary but was bayoneted by the second. His courage however had given enough time for the remaining signallers, runners and orderlies to grab grenades and bomb the Germans back out of the position.
The commanding officer had been saved but Oscar Green died of his wounds. He is buried in Béthune Town Cemetery (Grave: VI G 2).
Although the Germans tried for the remainder of the day to retake their old trenches they were easily beaten back by the Canadians. Each time they attempted to come forward the Canadian Artillery put down an overwhelming bombardment breaking up the assaulting units.
On the Highlanders’ front the last counter attack of the day was attempted at about 2235 hours and by 2315 hours the Canadian artillery had slackened off. The German artillery intermittently shelled the wood and come the morning the Canadians could see that the Germans were effecting a relief of troops.
During the 16th August the Germans attempted to rush Bois Hugo on a number of occasions but the story remained the same: the Canadian artillery had the better of the German infantry each time. General Sir Arthur Currie’s hope that the taking of Hill 70 by the Canadian Corps would create a killing field for his artillery and massed machine guns had proved correct.
During the night of the 16th August the 15th Battalion were relieved by the 14th Battalion and moved back to Les Brebis (near Mazingarbe).
The two days of fighting had cost them : 53 soldiers killed (a further five died of wounds). Only seventeen of them have known graves and the others are commemorated on the Canadian Memorial at Vimy.
This project was made possible by the active cooperation of the Agglomeration of Lens-Liévin.
This commemorative plaque was unveiled on the 22nd September 2012 in the presence of Canadian and French dignitaries by members of the 15th Battalion Memorial Project.
The 15th Bn CEF were sponsored by the 48th Highlanders of Canada a militia unit from Toronto. The regiment has demonstrated its continuing interest in commemorating its First World War combatants by the raising of plaques across the Western Front.
The plaque carries a bilingual account and detailed map of the action.
On a fine sunny morning members of the 15th Battalion Memorial Project were joined by local townspeople led by Jacques Jakuboszczak, Maire of Bénifontaine and Jean-Pierre Kucheida the President of the Communauté d’Agglomération de Lens-Liévin.
Music for the occasion was provided by the Harmonie Saint-Élie. Yves Holbecq and Guy Godet La Loi from the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band provided the traditional Canadian bugle calls and the lament.
The monument was draped with an old-style Canadian flag that had been carried by the grandfather of Captain Steve Gilbert during the battle of the Somme in 1916. It was under this flag that members of the CEF joined and fought.
Also present was Lt Colonel George Turner whose grandfather had not only fought here with the Regiment but had left his name carved in the tunnels under Loos.
Lt Colonel (Hon) John Newman of the 48th Highlanders and M Jakuboszczak unveiled the plaque and wreaths were laid on behalf of the Regiment, the village, Lens and Liévin, Canadian Embassy, 48th Highlanders Old Comrades Association, and the Royal British Legion.
The gathered onlookers were addressed by M Jakuboszczak, for the village; Mr Bruno Hamel on behalf of the Canadian Embassy and M Kucheida for Lens-Liévin.
Following the inauguration a reception was held at Bénifontaine where numerous gifts were exchanged. Perhaps not so surprisingly, considering this is the home of Ch’ti beer, some of these presents came in bottled format.
The afternoon was crowned for Lt Colonel George Turner with the chance to fly over the battlefield and the Vimy Memorial. This had been kindly arranged by M Jakuboszczak with M François Broucqsault the president of the Aéroclub de Lens-Bénifontaine. In a light aircraft taking off and landing on grass will be as close to the feel of flight 1917 style that most of us will experience.