War history: Why nondescript Hill 60 matters so much
08:00 30 March 2014
Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, visits a Flanders landmark critical to the story of the First World War − a place where, sadly, many troops began their ‘last long sleep’
I’m often asked where I especially like to take battlefield visitors, and why. I answer that a personal favourite is Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient.
You may wonder why a hill should have such an odd name. The origin of this, and many other hills in military history, is as with most things military born out of practicality. The hill in question sits outside Ypres and was created artificially when engineers dug out a nearby railway cutting. The excess soil, known as spoil, was dumped 100 metres away from the new railway line to create a new hill. When later measured, the peak had a height above sea level recorded on maps as 60 metres – hence Hill 60.
Further around the salient sits another Belgian peak, Hill 62, and this would also figure prominently in the fighting around Ypres. (A salient is part of the forward line that sticks out into enemy-held territory. (At first glance, these heights are hardly significant (even by East Anglian standards!), but they overlook and therefore dominate the low-lying, basin-like area that surrounds Ypres.
The ground over which visitors now walk was vital for both sides during the First World War. Whoever held Hill 60 had the advantage of height and unobstructed observation.
When the German army held the hill, they could dominate the south-eastern side of Ypres and direct artillery fire onto the British defenders at will. This inescapable military fact made Hill 60 one of the most fiercely contested pieces of ground in the Ypres Salient. The ground still bears the scars of battle almost a century on; numerous shell holes and mine craters are evidence of repeated battles for possession of this nondescript hill in Belgian Flanders.
A guided walk over the hill soon reveals the physical evidence of ferocious fighting: desperate battles that are almost a microcosm of the war.
The French held the hill first; the Germans took it from them in December 1914. The British arrived and retook the hill at great cost in April 1915. They attacked using tunnellers, underground mines, artillery, bayonet and sheer guts.
The following month, in May 1915, the Germans successfully counter-attacked, retaking the hill using every weapon in their arsenal. It was here at Hill 60 that British troops were subjected to one of the first German gas attacks on the Western Front.
The two sides wrestled over possession of the hill for many more months. The British finally succeeded in blasting the Germans off the hill and occupied this vital ground in June 1917.
When walking across the broken ground that is Hill 60 for the first time, most visitors comment on the atmosphere. It is one of the few places that you can actually feel, or at least get a lingering sense of, the desperate fighting that took place in the Ypres Salient. The footprint of the hill occupies the area of no more than three football pitches and yet a total of five Victoria Crosses were awarded to men for their actions fighting on, and beneath, this almost claustrophobic battlefield.
There are a few memorials at Hill 60 but no war cemetery. However, we do know that many soldiers from both sides never left the hill. Sadly, many of the missing of Ypres remain buried underneath the ground they battled so hard for. A British officer who fought on the hill had this to say:
“The place was practically a cemetery, and several hundred must have been buried in the ground, it proving impossible, when digging trenches, not to disturb some poor fellow in his last long sleep.”
The men that fought over Hill 60 witnessed the full horrors of the First World War. This tiny piece of man-made terrain bore witness to close and vicious hand-to-hand fighting, grenades, gas, mortars and the unimaginable shock of underground mining that shattered the body of the hill and the men who defended its barbed wired slopes.
For me, the struggle for the hill still resonates today. Now, it is occupied by sheep and occasionally patrolled by harmless groups of battlefield tourists. If you want to visit a place that epitomises the battles fought in and around what Churchill later called the Immortal Salient, I can think of no better place to take you than the battered slopes of Hill 60.
Why not join me when I visit Hill 60 with Galloway this summer.