Sun and snow on Hill 60, January 2013.
Our trip to Hill 60 begins in the village of Zillebeke, where this signpost in the centre of town leaves us in no doubt in which direction we need to go.
He’s looking very serious, don’t you think? But then again Hill 60 is a pretty serious place once you get to know what happened here.
One of the disadvantages of a snowy day; this information plaque gives a brief outline of the fighting that took place on the hill. Unfortunately it’s not very easy to read despite our attempts at snow clearance, so here’s a potted history of the main actions that took place on, and beneath, Hill 60:
In December 1914 the Germans forced the French off the hill, and despite attempts to recapture it, which included exploding a number of small mines, when the British returned to this sector in February 1915 the hill was still in German hands. On the evening of April 17th 1915 the British fired five mines beneath the German positions on the hill and quickly took the craters and shattered remains of the German trenches. Despite furious German counter attacks over the next few days, the British held the hill, the award of no less than four Victoria Crosses (three to the East Surreys) perhaps giving an insight into the intensity of the fighting. Although the British, despite almost continuous enemy attacks, remained in control of Hill 60 for the next couple of weeks, on 5th May, a final German gas attack succeeded in forcing the exhausted troops to abandon their trenches and the Germans retook the hill. Although almost continually fought over, it would remain in their hands for more than two years until 7th June 1917, when the furthest north of the nineteen mines that heralded the start of the Battle of Messines would erupt beneath the German positions and once again the British would retake what remained of the hill.
This trench map from April 1917, less than two months before the Battle of Messines, shows the German trench system in red; the earlier craters on Hill 60 are clearly marked.
Before we find our way on to the hill proper, there are a number of memorials here, one of which, just next to the entrance, we really ought to visit first.
This is the memorial to the 1st Australian Tunneling Company, whose name has become synonymous with Hill 60.
An information board, just visible to the left of the previous photo, gives a brief history of their activities here; there is so much information available about the exploits of the tunnellers, British, Canadian, Australian and German, beneath Hill 60, either in books, on the net, or even on film, that I leave it to you to satisfy your curiosity should you wish to do so.
The memorial itself bears the scars of a later conflict.
During the Second World War these bullet holes defaced the memorial.
Now they have become part of its history.
And so on to Hill 60 itself. Mine craters and shell holes, edges softened by time, and today by snow, litter the surface of the hill. Under our feet the remains of hundreds of men still lie where they fell in and around trenches long gone, pulverized by artillery fire, or where they were entombed in underground tunnels all those years ago. It’s difficult, impossible even, to imagine the horrors that thousands of men, human beings like you and me, with their own lives and loves and thoughts and hopes, experienced on this small piece of Flanders Fields.
Above and following photos: Before the British took over this sector in February 1915, the French exploded a number of small mines in their attempts to retake Hill 60, evidence of which is still visible in these craters that are encountered on first setting foot on the hill.
Hill 60, called as such as its height was 60 metres above sea level, is not a natural feature. It was formed from the excavated spoil when the cutting for the Ypres – Comines railway was dug in the 1860s.
Above & photos below: The site of the furthest north of the nineteen mines exploded by the British on 7th June 1917 on the opening day of the Battle of Messines. Interestingly, due to the network of underground tunnels that still allow water to drain away quickly, this is the only one of the craters that always remains dry; even the crater to be found on the Caterpillar, another spoilheap just south of the railway here, is water-filled.
Both mines were actually begun by the Royal Engineers in August 1915, nearly two years before they would be detonated.
In April 1916 Canadian tunnellers took over from the Royal Engineers, before the Australians, whose job was to protect the mines from discovery by the Germans, took over from them towards the end of 1916. The underground galleries would become death traps for many an Australian or German tunneller, but the Germans were never able to find the exact locations of the mines.
It’s difficult to get an idea of the depth of the 1917 mine crater from these pictures, but perhaps this view taken looking up from the bottom gives some idea.
The remains of German pillboxes, shattered when the mine was detonated, are still visible near the edge of the crater; of the strongpoint that stood directly above the mine itself, nothing remains.
Above & photos below: Surely the most photographed pillbox in Flanders, this bunker faces east, and was built on top of an existing German bunker by Australian engineers early in 1918.
The walls must be at least three feet thick, which perhaps partly explains why it still appears to be in such good condition. On 15th April 1918 Hill 60 was evacuated as the Germans made their final attempt to take Ypres, but was regained with relative ease on 28th September, as the final Allied advance pushed the Germans inexorably east.
View looking south east past the bunker (towards the right of the photo).
Panoramic view, taken standing on top of the bunker, looking north east on the left to south east on the right.
Another memorial, this time to the men of Queen Victoria’s Rifles, with an inscription that is worth reading (below).
Much earlier I said that Hill 60 is a serious place, and I hope by now you understand, if you didn’t before, why I said that. And yet with snow on the ground the slope below the memorial provides good sledging for the local kids, and I like to think that the men who fought here might approve that the sounds of another generation’s laughter now echo across this once-tragic place.
Above & below: Evidence of more blockhouses.
Above & below: Back amongst the early French mine craters near the entrance to the hill…
…Baldrick takes a final photograph…
…before it’s time to bid farewell.
I cannot remember where I got this aerial photograph, so if I am infringing someone’s copyright I apologise in advance and will remove it forthwith. Taken, I suspect, in the 1960s, you can clearly see the Queen Victoria’s Rifles memorial near the centre of the hill, and the Australian Tunnellers & 14th Light Division (see below) memorials to the far right. You can also see the site of Caterpillar Crater within the woods on the far side of the railway cutting.
Another view of the Australian Tunnellers memorial…
…before we visit yet another memorial, this time commemorating the men of the 14th Light Division.
Time to cross the railway and take a look at the Caterpillar Crater in the woods to the south. Wait for me Balders!
Even here at the bottom of the hill, it’s not difficult to see why Hill 60 was a strategically important position for the Germans; from here they could see pretty much every movement made by the British between here and Ieper (Ypres) in the distance.
On our way, this small memorial remembers two victims of the Nazis during the Second World War. Arrested by the Gestapo in Lille, their bodies were thrown, I believe, from a passing train, and found on the railway track here below the bridge.
This view looks north west from the railway bridge; Ieper is visible on the horizon, and the trees much nearer to us to the far left grow on the third of the spoil heaps made when the railway cutting was excavated back in the 19th Century. This was known as the Dump during the First World War, you can see it marked on the trench map, and we shall see more of it when we visit Larch Wood Cemetery a little later.
Looking south east from the railway bridge, Hill 60 to the left, Battle Wood and the Caterpillar, our next stop, to the right.
Having crossed the bridge we take a final look back across the railway line towards Hill 60, looking beautiful in the snow, but for the best part of three years a place of death and unbelievable horror. Never forget.