August 1917 was arguably the darkest month in the long history of Norfolk County. War in Europe had raged for three savage years and communities across Canada had already sacrificed thousands of young soldiers. From Aug. 15 through Aug. 25 of that deadly year, it was Norfolk’s turn to offer up blood and that it did in copious amounts at the Battle of Hill 70. Over the span of 10 days, 29 sons of Norfolk made the supreme sacrifice in a fight for strategic ground over-looking the city of Lens in the north of France. Among the dead was Sgt. Frederick Hobson of Simcoe – the only resident of Norfolk to win the Victoria Cross.
“Hill 70 was far deadlier for Norfolk than Vimy Ridge,” says Dave Stelpstra of Simcoe, a member of the Norfolk Remembers committee. “Twenty-nine died at Hill 70. Twenty of them don’t even have graves. That’s a phenomenal number for Norfolk. We only had a population of 29,000 at the time. That was the ultimate sacrifice for Norfolk right there.”
The brutality of the fight for Hill 70 is difficult to imagine today but typical of what occurred during the First World War. Thousands of shells filled with toxic gas were discharged. En route to victory, Canadian soldiers met the enemy and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. In July of 1917, the British high command ordered the Canadian Corps under Gen. Arthur Currie to prepare a plan to re-take the city of Lens near the border with Belgium. Currie thought that was pointless because German artillery would continue to command the heights surrounding the city. Currie instead prepared a plan for taking Hill 70. Allied troops held the strategic position until the Armistice ended hostilities in November of 1918. Sgt. Frederick Hobson was born in England before he moved to Simcoe. He served in the British army during the second Boer War of 1899-1902. Hobson earned the Victoria Cross on the third day of the battle for Hill 70. The events leading to that citation began when a strategically-important machine gun nest was buried in a shell blast. Hobson, 44, rushed to the position and dug out the gun. Hobson and another soldier got the gun firing again as German soldiers rushed toward them. That’s when the gun jammed. Hobson left his colleague to correct the situation while he confronted the Germans with his rifle and bayonet. Hobson held off the advance until he was killed by a rifle shot. By this time, the Lewis gun was back in action and re-inforcements were beating back the German counter-attack. “The valour and devotion to duty displayed by this non-commissioned officer gave the gunner the time required to again get the gun in action and saved a most serious situation,” a report in the London Gazette said. Even so, the place where Hobson was laid to rest has been lost to history. Heather King, CEO of the Norfolk library system and chair of the Norfolk Remembers committee, finds this perplexing. “That’s surprising,” King says. “They knew where he died.” An estimated 9,200 British and Canadian soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner at Hill 70. More than 25,000 German soldiers were killed or wounded. The Norfolk Remembers committee will mark the 100th anniversary of the historic battle with the release this week of a 72-page booklet titled Letters Home: Norfolk at Hill 70. The booklet’s official launch is this Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Carillon Tower in Simcoe. Copies will also be on sale this Sunday at the Carillon Tower from 11 a.m. till 4 p.m.
Article from the Simcoe Reformer by reporter Monty Sonnenberg – MSonnenberg@postmedia.com