The Battles of Hill 60
By the time the 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion arrived in the Ypres sector as relief and reinforcements in 1916, intense fighting had already been engaged in there for nearly a year. The flat landscape offered little topography for German or Allied armies to out-maneuver each other. Any mound on the landscape became a much sought after point of higher ground to provide better observation and weapon range. Hill 60 was just such a notorious mound, so called because it was approximately 60 meters high.
“With the arrival of the Canadian Corps, beginning in February and stretching through March, 1915, the BEF now took over from the French the entire length of line in the northern part of the Salient and, to the profound regret of many, would remain responsible for holding it for the duration of the war. Because of the shortages of artillery shells, no large-scale operations were contemplated for the time being, but British Headquarters busied itself planning so-called limited attacks to wrest a particular piece of ground or a terrain feature from which the Germans were annoying them. One of these, perhaps the most notorious, was known simply as Hill 60.” (Groom, p.91).
The battle line drew very close to Hill 60 and the Allies and the Germans steadfastly tried to take the position from one another. But why this spot?
“A brief description of the topography of the area is necessary in order to understand its relationship to the tactics employed by both sides during the Second Battle of Ypres. On the eastern side of Ypres, at a distance of three to six miles, was a semi-circle of ridges, some rising 150 to 200 feet above sea level. The Germans occupied much of the high ground on the distant ridges, and from there enjoyed a clear view of the wide plain below, including Ypres itself. The Yser Canal, which constricted the movement of Allied troops to the Salient, passed behind Ypres and continued northwards through Steenstraat to the sea. Near the southern extremity of the salient lay Hill 60…From purely strategic considerations, it made no sense for the Allies to have retained Ypres and the salient. The Germans held enough of the high ground to observe movements around Ypres and their artillery could rain shells on Allied positions from three sides…But Ypres was the only remaining town of any size left unconquered in Belgium and, to the Allied authorities, it stood as a symbol of defiance and determination.” (Cassar, p.81).
That grim determination was necessary of the Allies were going to defeat the Central Powers, and this spot was a necessary battle ground.
“Hill 60, which the British were so determined to occupy, was not really a hill at all but a mound of dirt 60 meters tall that had been created many years earlier from the spoilage of digging out the cut for the Ypres-Comines railway. Over time, trees, grasses, and flowers had sprouted on the hill…Two similar but lower mounds of dirt were nearby, known as the Caterpillar, which lay behind the German lines, and the Dump, which lay behind the British. During the late autumn battles French troops had lost these less than impressive heights. And now the Germans were enjoying them as excellent artillery observation posts to register a devastating fire on the British positions and on Ypres itself. Hill 60, in fact, was the highest point on the Messines Ridge. Thus it was decreed by High Headquarters that Hill 60 must be retaken. On the face of it, it seemed a reasonable proposition, if such bloodthirsty endeavors can ever be described as ‘reasonable.’” (Groom, p.94).
The 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion was stationed at Hill 60 at the beginning of their involvement in the war in the summer of 1916. Private W. C. Millar described the Maple Copse, an area adjacent to Hill 60, defended by Canadians. “It was really an oak grove,” Millar writes, “which gave good shelter from the sun, and from enemy aerial observers. The front line was about three hundred yards in front of the Copse. We had attached to us in the position the famous Lahore Royal Field Artillery.” (p.14). According to the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, Millar would spend about six months with the 52nd (New Ontario Battalion) before he was invalidated and sent from the front lines. The battle for that patch of earth would rage on without him.
And the battle for this bit of earth raged above as well as below ground. “Clay kickers” were specialized soldiers trained to dig tunnels. Tunnels were used extensively to gain territory and to destroy enemy lines. Within the tunnels, sappers could plant explosive mines that killed and injured many men and further tore up the landscape.
“…[W]orking around the clock in eight-hour shifts, the clay kickers began to make steady progress. A main shaft was dug down sixteen feet and then a tunnel started out under no-man’s-land toward Hill 60. Working by candlelight, the men soon began to experience serious oxygen shortages. A bellows system was rigged up, pumping in fresh air by hose, but still they suffered the effects of oxygen depletion: headaches, dizziness, nausea, blackouts. A few of the men were known to have had their hair turn white. At one point they began to hear the disturbing sounds of Germans counter-mining toward them and one day actually broke through into a German tunnel. When an officer went down to investigate and shone a flashlight into the hole, he was greeted by a pistol blast, which tore through his jacket but luckily did not injure him. This was apparently the first incident of what would come to be known as ‘The War Underground.’ Before it was over, hundreds of men would be shooting, knifing, grenading, and strangling one another in the very bowels of the earth.” (Groom, p.97).
Furthermore, when the mines exploded, German soldiers were blown to pieces or buried. “In the several ‘clay kicked’ tunnels beneath Hill 60 the British had placed thousands of pounds of explosives. [On 17 April at] exactly 7 p.m. a plunger on a electric detonator was pushed and an enormous eruption went off: dirt, lumber, sandbags, rifles, ration boxes, Germans, and parts of Germans were sent hurling more than 100 yards into the air…Even before the roar of the mine had died away, a tremendous British artillery fusillade began to explode on Hill 60. Then, British soldiers with bayonets fixed began to leave their trenches to the tune of bugles and cross into no-man’s-land. Most of the Germans on Hill 60 had simply been blown to bits or buried alive by the explosion, and of the stunned hundred or so who survived, most were bayoneted by soldiers of the Royal West Kent regiment.” (Groom, p.97).
Scouting and observation attempts were especially dangerous because of the deadly accuracy of the enemy’s weapons. For instance:
‘While in Maple Copse one of our scouts, Private J. Hill of Port Arthur, was detailed off to climb one of the tallest of the oak trees, to see if it were possible to observe the enemy lines some eight hundred yards away. Jack got safely to his perch in the top of the tree, and was able, by the aid of the field-glasses with which he was equipped, to take some pretty good observations. But while observing he was, in turn, observed. Possibly the sun had glinted on the field-glasses, and had been seen by a German observer at the same game behind his own lines. At all events, Jack had not been at his post fifteen minutes when two shells came crashing perilously near, tearing away the lower branches of the tree he was in. The third shell, striking his tree, a few feet away, got him, blowing away part of the shin of one leg. Although in very great pain, Jack shouted to the boys on the ground that he was hit, and was coming down. He started to drop from branch to branch, until he stuck within a few feet of the ground. He was helped down, rushed off to the dressing station, and from there down the line on the way to “Blighty,” where he spent nearly a year on his back, owing to the severe wound received that morning.’ (Millar, p.36-7).
A British Captain, Gerald Achilles Burgoyne, kept a detailed journal of his experiences. Of Hill 60 he wrote:
‘As we dropped down alongside the railway embankment, we quickly came on the debris of the heavy fighting round here; for, burrowing into the embankment were, first a dressing of the RAMC and then a battalion of the Rifle Brigade, the litter round this latter, filthy beyond description, and I cannot understand any officers allowing their men to live in such insanitary and disgusting conditions when it was quite possible to have a camp clean and sanitary. In front of the dressing station we saw three dead bodies, awaiting burial, evidently died of wounds and, within a few yards more dead but no effort at burial. The men walking about amongst the corpses very callously. Apparently no one’s job to bury them and no one cared.’
As they got close to the front near Hill 60, they began to see the effects of poison gas: ‘All the grass and foliage around was bleached white, or a sickly yellow; all brass buttons turned black, and it even affected the bolt action of the rifles, corroding the steel apparently and making them stiff to work. A Major of the Bedfords led us into the trenches. A shell had blown in the left and he suggested we need not visit that part as there was a horrid mess there. I believe there were a number of poor fellows lying dead, horribly mutilated.’ (Groom, p.110-11)
Death lingered across the land. “In the Ypres Salient, spring drifted into summer – the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo had come and gone – and the ‘wastage’ in Flanders continued: hundreds and even thousands of daily casualties from bullets, bombs, shells, gas, disease, or people simply going insane.” (Groom, p.128). And from the death, poppies bloomed, inspiring Lt.-Col. John McRae’s famous poem. Many poppies and flowers grew in Flanders Field but for grisly reasons. “Poppies and other flowers were blooming profusely in no-man’s-land, in soil fertilized by the remains of so many human and animal carcasses and enriched beyond imagination by nitrates from the high-explosive shells.” (Groom, p.128-9).
The horror that these people went through cannot be over-emphasized.
Cassar, G. H. (2010). Hell in Flanders Fields: Canadians at the Second Battle of Ypres. Dundurn Press, Toronto.
Groom, W. (2002). A Storm in Flanders: the Ypres Salient, 1914-1918: Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.
Millar, Pte. W.C. (1918). From Thunder Bay through Ypres with the Fighting 52nd. Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society.
Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society. Webpage. From Thunder Bay through Ypres with the Fighting 52nd. Retrieved from http://www.thunderbaymuseum.com/from-thunder-bay-through-ypres-with-the-fighting-52nd/ on March 5, 2015
2 Photograph donated to the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project, courtesy of the Scott/Fryer family.
3 Photograph donated to the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project, courtesy of the Scott/Fryer Family.
4 Photograph donated to the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project, courtesy the Scott/Fryer Family.