Pvt. Thomas Neill and Hill 70

Thomas Neill had joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force along with his brother James in March 1916, when he enlisted with the 111th South Waterloo Battalion. They had completed basic training at Camp Borden, Ontario and sailed together to England for further training. Thomas had remained in England in various training camps for an entire year, until he turned 18 years old.

Arrival in France

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Arrival of the British Expeditionary Force in France. The 11th Regiment Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) arrive at Le Havre to be met by a cheering crowd. 16th August 1914. (Source: Imperial War Museum)

On May 10, 1917, Thomas arrived at the Canadian Base Depot in France at Le Havre. Base Depots were established at the Channel Ports in France and at other places on the lines of communication. They had a variety of purposes as a transport hub and for storing ammunition and other supplies. By the end of 1917 the Base Depot in Le Havre contained three General Hospitals, two Stationary Hospitals and four convalescent depots. All drafts, although they had already passed in England as fully trained, were subjected to further tests, a strict medical check, and at least ten days of additional training. These extra days of training proved frustrating for both the soldiers and for the units often desperate to get hold of these men as reinforcements. (Source: Anzac 22nd Bn)

Thomas spent another month at the Canadian Base Depot, until on June 12, 1916 he joined the 2nd Canadian Division, 4th Infantry Brigade and the 18th Battalion, the fateful Co. D, specifically. It was likely an uncomfortable and agonizing time of waiting, being in limbo before finally facing the Germans at the front.

Joining the 18th Battalion near Barlin/Lens

April 1917 had brought the Canadian Expeditionary Forces a victory at Vimy Ridge and from that success, the 18th Battalion held positions on the East side of Vimy Ridge through the month of May. (Read about the 18th Battalion at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1918 here.)  Orders then placed Thomas just north-west of Vimy, near Barlin, in the Haut-de-France region, Flanders territory and the communality of Lens. He arrived while the battalion was resting away from the front and put up in billets – not yet facing the Germans after all.

Coincidentally, Vincent McCarter Eastwood, also with the 18th Battalion, writes home to his parents on the day of Thomas’ arrival, after not having found time for it in the weeks prior and describes his current conditions and outlook which are apparently relatively enjoyable for the time being.

“There certainly is some fine news coming in now isn’t there. There has been some terrific fighting going on. We are out of it for a while for a bit of a rest, so we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves while we may..How is the war economy garden coming on in the front yard. You ought to see how the Frenchmen are using every available plot. This country is simply wonderful in summer time. I get out riding every evening and it certainly is wonderful to canter down some of these long French roads with trees trimmed like hedges on either side. It is pretty warm here now. Today we had a nice summer shower and it certainly was needed. In all this you can hear away in the distance the ever steady pounding away of the big guns and at night you can see the flashing of the guns lighting up the sky. This is the only thing that reminds you that there is a war on.” (Source: Letters from Vincent)

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War Diary of the 18th Battalion for June 1917 (Source: Canadian Great War Project)

Here is what the official War Diary of the 18th Battalion notes for the days around Thomas’ arrival. War Diaries were written by hand or typed on a standard legal-sized form. The richness of information in these Diaries varies greatly from unit to unit. In some Diaries, this is a terse, point-form record of the most basic facts, while others contain lengthy, graphic and moving first-hand descriptions of life in the front lines and during trench warfare. (Source: Library and Archives Canada)

Place

Date

Hour

Summary of Events and Information

Barlin

11

Morning

Training according to syllabus. Afternoon, recreational training. Lieut. L.A. Bissell and 18 o.rs arrived as reinforcements.

12

Morning

“C” Company on specialist training under specialists Officers. “A. B. & D” coys training according to syllabus. Lieut. H.N. Bawden and 15 o.rs returned from hospital.

A Horse show was held by Brigade at which we gained 1 second and 2 third prizes.

13

Morning

“B” Company at ranges on Musketry instruction. Special training by R.S.M. Price[iv] of N.C.Os. 52 o.rs arrived as reinforcements. 3 o.rs returned from hospital.

14

Battalion training to according to syllabus. 3 o.rs accidentally wounded.

15

Battalion sports held at RUITZ. Races, Tug of War, Football and Wrestling during the day and a concert in the evening by the Battalion Band.

According to the official war diary (transcribed by Eric Edwards), Thomas arrived at a relatively peaceful time for the 18th Battalion. His arrival and that of 17 others (‘o.rs’ referring to ‘other ranks’ excluding officers) as reinforcements was noted on June 11. The men were at a period of rest and recovery that was also used for sports and further training. Soldiers were likely billeted not with locals but in huts in the centre of town, according to a 1917 map. Yet another month goes by until the battalion moves on to Bouvigny Wood (Bois de Bouvigny, heavily fought over by the French in 1915) on July 9, just about 10 km southwest of Barlin and still behind the lines of fighting at the time.

This is what Sgt Leonard McLeod has to say about Bouvigny Huts in his recollections “The Story of the 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion  – From B.C. To Baisieux”:

“…we moved back to rest in what was perhaps the worst camp outside of Vadincourt that we ever visited, Bouvigny Huts, situated in a wood on a hill above Gouy Servins; the weather was bad, the mud intense, the accommodation crowded; the 87th shared the camp with us and for eight days we lingered there with no recreation other than that afforded by one Y.M.C.A. hut which was always packed to the doors. It is a positive fact that man after man when out at rest under these conditions would emphatically declare that he was looking forward to going up the line again because life in the trenches was less irksome and monotonous and no more beastly than in places like Bouvigny Huts. In view of the number of troops to be looked after and the limited possibilities of accommodation in the whole of the shell-shocked area round Vimy we were lucky not to be sleeping on the ground; but the statement is made to show that life behind the lines was not lived out upon a bed of roses.” (Source: 102nd Battalion CEF)

It may have not been as bad of a situation for Thomas as far as the weather was concerned since he got to Bois de Bouvigny in the summer of 1917 and above observations were made earlier that year in March. At Bouvigny Huts, the reality of the war must have finally settled in though. Thomas was likely present when a long range shell hit the huts billeting Company D, as stated by the war diary. 9 men died and 35 were wounded.

“Training during the morning. Postponed Church Parade held. About midday (12.40 pm) shell dropped by long range gun struck one of the huts in which H.Q. details and portion of D coy where billeted. 5 ors killed. 4 ors died of wounds. 35 wounded.” (Source: War Diary of the 18th Battalion)

Harry Davies from Hamilton, Ontario and serving with the 205th Battalion writes in his diary in September 1917 after arriving in Bouvigny. He describes his every day life going back and forth between rest and the front lines in Lens, giving us a glimpse into a soldiers daily routine.

“September 7: Left Collone at 10:00 and marched to Bouvigny, hottest and hardest march I ever did, 25 kilometres, joined Coy. tonight, village all destroyed.

September 8: Inspected by C.O., only six miles from line, very sick all day from eating bully beef yesterday, biliousness

September 9: Very weak today and bunked in ruined houses, fired M.G. on ranges, can see Lens, very heavy bombardment

September 10: Cleaned guns in morning, cleaned limbers, bath parade in afternoon, the weather fine, feeling much better, wrote home

September 11: On guard today, heavy firing, easy day 

September 12: Rested all day and saw Lens and Vimy tonight, received a letter dated April 1 and one from Bob dated May 2

September 13: Gun drill, through Aix Noulette and other ruined villages, saw battery of 8″ Howitzers in action firing around Lens

September 14: Fatigue work, easy morning, fair weather

September 15: Saturday the same

September 16: Cleaned guns and packed limbers, marched to trenches and taken our position by 9:30, shell fire, take turns in firing MG, good dugout

September 17: Not very heavy shelling in daytime but bad at night, machine gun bullets sweeping a few feet above head, fair weather

September 18: Fritz put a lot of big shells within a few feet of dugout, awful concussion, gas shells last night, we fire into Lens each night

September 19: Areoplane fight today, fed well every day, awful lousy, raining tonight, on ration drawing party, tired, rained

September 20: In heavy shelling last night, carrying water for use this morning, SOS call tonight and had to stand by, firing 3,500 per gun per night

September 21: Areoplanes active, big gas attack tonight and could hardly breath, wind changed and cleared it away, down in deep dugouts

September 22: Tired out, haven’t slept over two hours at a time since coming, fairly good food and good weather

September 23: SOS call today, Fritz put up a heavy barrage fire, on carrying party of ammunition, 3,000 rounds, fire 3,500 per gun per night

September 24: Big shell blew up gun position, shells bursting all about me and machine gun bullets going overhead, had broken fuses, gas attack

September 25: Firing at aeroplanes today, nerves all unstrung and very unsteady, fairly quiet night, dug new position

September 26: Firing from new position, MG bullets only a few inches from head, a lot of stoppages in firing

September 27: Three British balloons shot down, 2 Fritz planes shot down, relieved at 9:00 p.m., walked through town with shells bursting all around, 2 hit, not serious

September 28: Long march to billets last night, bath and good sleep, wondering how we got out alive, feeling fine, fine weather” Source: The Canadian Letters & Images Project

Deployment To The Front Lines And Preparation For Attack on Hill 70

On July 10th and 11th, the 18th Battalion relieved the 26th Battalion in the LENS left Sector – at long last Thomas Neill moved into the frontlines. For a couple of days, all was quiet, the war diary reports “Front line fairly quiet. Slight Trench mortar activity, shelling practically nil.”

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2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade troops receiving hot tea on the night before Hill 70. Source: Library and Archives Canada

The coal-mining city of Lens, which lay inside German-occupied territory not far from Vimy Ridge, had suffered terribly in the war. In 1917, the Canadians were sent to capture a city that lay half in ruins. It was hoped this action would divert German attention and military resources away from the major Allied offensive then raging at Passchendaele, in Belgium. Lt. General Currie, the first Canadian in command of the Canadian Corps, thought that Hill 70 — an elevation on the outskirts of Lens, so named because it was 70 meters above sea level — was tactically more important. He believed that a traditional assault on Lens would be futile if the Germans could simply shoot down at the Canadians from the commanding hills. So Currie convinced his superiors to drastically alter the plan of attack, by making Hill 70 the Canadians’ main objective. Throughout late July and early August, as the Canadians prepared to assault Hill 70, they harassed and distracted the German forces. (Source: Canadian Encyclopedia)

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A party of Canadian soldiers takes water to the front, during the advance on Hill 70 in August 1917.  Source: Canadian Encyclopedia

And harassing and distracting the Germans is exactly what Thomas Neill and the 18th Battalion participated in. They stayed put in current positions, trading places with and relieving other units, in turn being relieved and returning back to Bouvigny to billets in the village. Quiet periods were followed by heavy shelling and retaliating in turn. While being placed on rest in Bouvigny, further training for the upcoming attack was ordered.

Place

Date

Hour

Summary of Events and Information

LENS

July 19

Day quiet. Night of 19/20th again heavy strafing by enemy heavy and light T.Ms. Our retaliation very effective so before daylight enemy almost silenced by our heavies. Lieut. L.C. Jarvis[v] and 1 or. Killed by T.M. in front lines.

20

Day quiet. Support line shelled at night and 2 men killed and 8 wounded. Our retaliation showed marked effect in lessening enemy Trench Mortar activity during night 20/21st.

21

Quiet day. Our light Howitzers concentrated on suspected T.M. emplacements and good results obtained. During the night of 21/22 enemy Trench Mortars less active owing to retaliation by our heavies [heavy artillery] immediately hostile T.Ms commenced firing.

22

Quiet during day in Front line. 6th Brigade relieved the 4th and 5thBrigades in LENS and LAURENT Sectors. The 29th Battalion relieved both the 18th and 19th in the LENS left and right sectors. 4th Brigade proceeding to Divisional Reserve area. 18th Battalion being billeted in village of BOVIGNY. During night enemy T.M. activity practically nil. Slight shelling. 3 men being wounded

24

Battalion resting at BOVIGNY.

25

Bath and Pay parades. Preliminary reconnaissances by Officers on grounds selected for special training. Area reconnoitered being marked to represent a specific area opposite our Divisional front.

26

Special training for attack carried out by Battalion.

27

Brigade attack over marked area.

In preparation for the main attack, and in keeping with ‘harassing and distracting’, the 18th Battalion undertook a raid on enemy front line trenches on August 9th, 1917. In Battalion orders, the intention was stated “To raid enemy front for prisoners, information and to secure identifaction and to effect casualties.” (Source: War Diary of the 18th Battalion) As Co. D was part of the raiding party, in all likelihood Thomas Neill participated in this attack.

“In conjunction with the 20th and 21st Canadian Battalions the 18th Battalion raided the Enemy front line trenches. The whole raiding party was under the command of Lieut-Col. L.E. Jones, O.C. 18th Canadian Battalion. The frontage raided by the 18th Battalion was the German front line from N.13.b.1.4 to N.7.d.70.15.

Zero hour for the raid was 4.15 a.m. Artillery support was very good.

Although no prisoners were captured many casualties were inflicted upon the enemy, and very valuable information as regards to enemy trenches, wire and dug-outs was obtained. Our parties penetrated a distance of 100 yds into the German lines, our casualties being 4 o.r. Killed and 24 o.r. slightly wounded. All wounded were returned safely to our lines.

The German barrage was very scattered. Our raiding party consisted of 35 men of “C” Coy under Lieut. H.[B]. Johnson and 65 men of “D” Coy under Lieut. D. Northcombe and Lieut. G.J. Spencer.” (Source War Diary of the 18th Battalion)

The Battle of Hill 70

After having been in limbo and being moved around, kept waiting and constantly training for battle, suddenly Thomas Neill found himself in the thick of it. The 18th Battalion participated in the battle of Hill 70 from August 14 until the night of August 18th. They supported the Canadian Corps at the southern tip of the battle field, their goal being the capture of Chicory Trench held by the Germans. A detailed trench and position map can be found here Nicholson Battle Map.

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A simplified battle map (click here for a better view:  Simplified Battle Map ) Thomas Neill finds himself with the 2nd Division, 4th Infantry Brigade at the southern tip of the battlefield.

The 18th Battallion successfully captured Chicory Trench after 26 minutes, as stated in the war diary:

“At 4.25 a.m. the 18th Battalion in conjunction with other Units of the 1st, and 2nd Canadian Divisions attacked the enemy lines from N.13.a.9.6. to N.7.70.15. the object being to capture and consolidate the enemy support line (CHICORY TRENCH) from N.14.a.05.55. to N.13.b.60.0. thence Westerly to N.13.b.05.35. The attack was entirely successful and 26 minutes after zero hour (4.25 a.m.) we occupied our objectives, capturing some 65 prisoners (165 P.I.R.).” (Official War Diary transcribed by Eric Edwards)

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Canadian soldiers in captured German trenches on Hill 70, near Lens, France in August, 1917 during the First World War. Source: Canadian Encyclopedia

German resistance stiffened as the Canadians advanced on the hill. The smoke screen created by drums of burning oil fired by Royal Engineers drifted away and German machine guns and rifles killed and wounded many attacking Canadians. Attacking Allied soldiers now ran from shell hole to shell hole as they tried to move forward up the hill.

The fighting at Hill 70 was remarkably brutal to even the most battle-hardened of soldiers. Poison gas was widely used, often forcing the men to gasp for air inside their restrictive respirators as they struggled to see the advancing enemy through their fogged up goggles. Many of the Canadian soldiers had to engage in desperate hand-to-hand combat against the tenacious German attackers who managed to reach the Canadian defensive lines. Despite the Germans’ ferocious efforts, Hill 70 remained in the Canadians’ grasp. After managing to capture the western portion of Lens, the Canadian attacks petered out in the face of stiff resistance and the Battle of Hill 70 came to an end by August 25. Despite failing to achieve all of its goals, it was a remarkable success for the Canadian Corps. (Source: Veterans Affairs Canada)

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A stretcher bearer party bringing up wounded from the front lines on Hill 70, near Lens, France in August, 1917, during the First World War. Source: Canadian Encyclopedia

The Canadians turned back 21 German counter attacks and held on to their new positions atop Hill 70. About 9,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in the overall battle, while an estimated 25,000 Germans were killed or wounded. (Source: Canadian Encyclopedia)

Death On The Road To Aix-Noulette

On August 18, 1917 Thomas Neill and the 18th Battalion were relieved by the 50th Battalion and the men proceeded to Divisional Reserve and billets in Bully-Grenay; reinforcements arrived and men returned from the hospital. On the 19th and 20th of August, bathing parades and resting is noted – certainly much needed after returning from the trenches and heavy battle the day before.

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14th Battalion on way to rest camp. Source Library & Archives Canada

On August 21st, the 18th Battalion retreated further, marching on the road to Aix-Noulette back to Bouvigny Huts for more resting and continued training. Surely everyone was happy to be as far away from the battle as was possible under the circumstances. The war diary reports as follows:

“The Battalion left BULLY-GRENAY at 9.30 a.m. and proceeded to BOUVIGNY HUTS going in Corps Reserve. On the road “D”coy sustained 52 casualties, 23 of which were fatal, by the bursting of an enemy shell (high velocity). This bringing our casualties to approximately 220 during the tour.”

Among those injured in the unexpected shelling was Thomas Neill. Lt. W. K. Rooney of D Company notes the following in his diary entry for August 21, 1917:

“Bad business. Shell landed on road in centre of company. 83 casualties, mostly killed. I have burial party with Sgt. Jones in afternoon. Awful mess trying to sort out the pieces. Everything is all blood. 11 men not recognizable.” (Source: Lt. Rooney’s grandson Robert K. Rooney via Facebook)

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Report on Thomas Neill’s injuries in his service records

A company in a Canadian Infantry Battalion consisted of 118 officers and men – out of those, 83 were killed or injured in this incident. Company D was practically wiped out. Thomas Neill was severely wounded in this attack and attended to by the 6th Canadian Field Ambulance. He did not make it to a casualty clearing station or field hospital. His injuries were too serious and he died of wounds to the chest, lung, abdomen, groin and to the head. He was 18 years old. His earnings had been $20 for every month in service, translating to approximately $320 in today’s currency. At enlistment he had signed his will and left his estate to his mother, Mary Neill.

Thomas Neill’s burial place is not known. Even though his place of death is known, circumstances were difficult and chaotic so that many burial places did not get recorded. To this day, remains continue to resurface in the area and every attempt is made in identifying and honouring the remains as well as giving them a proper burial.  Thomas Neill is commemorated in the Vimy Memorial as well as the Galt War Memorial in Cambridge, Ontario.

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Memorial Plaque issued to Mary Neill, Thomas’ mother, in 1920

The decorations Thomas received posthumously were the Memorial Plaque and Scroll as well as the Memorial Cross. The Memorial Cross, the gift of Canada, was issued as a memento of personal loss and sacrifice on the part of widows and mothers of Canadian sailors, soldiers and airmen who died for their country during the war.

The Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park opened to the public in August 2017. The centerpiece of the Memorial is an obelisk signifying the victory of the Canadian Corps at the Battle of Hill 70. The Memorial Park is located near the start line where the Corps began its advance to capture Hill 70. Set into the pathways on the site are 1877 Canadian Maple Leaves, each representing a Canadian Soldier who died achieving the Victory at Hill 70.

Remembering Thomas Neill.

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Hill 70 Monument in Lens. Photo Source Hill 70

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