from ‘The War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume III page 789
'The Extraordinary Battle for Hill 60'

The Great Episodes of the War

left : a map of the Ypres salient and battle area
right : an artist's impression of the fighting at Hill 60


Of all the famous episodes in the western theatre of the war the recapture of the little rise of ground south-east of Ypres was the least important in itself. The position was not occupied by the enemy's artillery; his snipers used it for firing with telescopic- sighted rifles m our men in the low-lying trenches. It was from the larger and more distant hill at Zandvoorde that the German batteries bombarded our lines at Ypres. In the ordinary way, the capture of the smaller hill would have been just a slight effort of pressure on the enemy's front.

Our attack upon Hill 60 was only designed to make German commander anxious about his gun-positions it Zandvoord. Both the higher ridge and the smaller mound had been lost by our troops and their French supports in the autumn and winter of 1914, when the Germans were trying to break through to Calais. In the spring of 1915 a battalion of the Bedfords were entrenched at a distance of sixty yards west of Hill 60, and the West Kents, the heroes of many a great fight, came up to help the Midlanders when the time drew near to put pressure on the Germans and continue the work which had been carried out at Neuve Chapelle, St. Eloi, and elsewhere.


The Work of the Rival Tunnellers

On this occasion the main work was done by our sappers instead of by our artillerymen. Starting from the trenches it the valley, our engineers drove a great tunnel eastward, which branched out under the hill in three directions. Sounds were heard by the tunnellers indicating that other human moles were at work in the neighbourhood. The bet was that the Germans were busy at the same game, driving a mine under our tenches. It then became a race between the Teuton and British sappers; and by a long, magnificent, and arduous effort our men won the race by a few hours, and placed several hundredweights of dynamite under the hill.

At seven o'clock on the evening of Saturday, April 17th, our seven mines were exploded by electrical wires running from our trenches. The result was a volcano, in which all the enemy's defences disappeared in a dense cloud of smoke and mist. Swiftly, before the smoke cleared away, the leading companies of the Bedfords and West Kents rushed across the space some fifty to sixty yards intervening between our lines and the huge craters formed by our mines the little hill.

Our storming parties did not use the bayonet, but dashed ahead, with the streamers of their hand-bombs fluttering around their legs like a very ragged kilt. In the trenches where the mines had exploded there was nothing left alive; but the uninjured parts of the enemy's earthworks were full of surprised, bewildered German troops working in their shirt-sleeves. On them fell the rain of grenades thrown by our modern grenadiers. No fight was left in the Saxons who had been holding the hill. The tremendous explosions and the rapid appearance of our bombing parties threw them into a panic. Like wild beasts they fought each other to get into the traverses leading to their second line of defences, some even driving their bayonets into their comrades in front.

Cascades of Fire and Lanes of Flame

The trenches which we captured only extended 250 yards on the enemy's front, and with the slopes of the captured hill the position formed a wedge driven in the enemy's lines. Our storming parties suffered little loss until they came to the barricades in the German communication trenches, where they were kept back by bomb-throwers and machine-guns. It was then that our artillery took part in the fight. We had an unusual number of big guns massed in readiness behind our main position, and as soon as they received the signal that the hill was won a most terrible bombardment began. All the French and British batteries for six miles round woke in thunder and flame, and, with an uninterrupted cascade of shells, they formed a curtain of death between Hill 60 and the second and third German line of trenches running towards

Zandvoorde. The object was to cut all the German supporting infantry off from their lost trenches, and thus give our men time to dig themselves in and prepare against the grand counter-attack.

Then all the German guns for miles along their line concentrated their fire in an attempt to counter our mighty bombardment. The German gunners did not try to master our batteries, but massed their fire on the captured hill and on the lines by which our supports were coming up. As a spectacle the night sky during this double bombardment was as picturesque as the grounds of the Crystal Palace on Brock's Benefit night. The heavens were arched with cascades of fire and lanes of flame, with the great shells bursting like wildly beautiful stars.

Happily the German guns missed the first line of our trenches, and our men worked at the top of their speed building up parapets, making firing positions near the tops of the craters, and stopping up the enemy's communication trenches. And while this was going on in the darkness, bombing parties on either side harried their opponents with hand-grenades.

At last, in the darkness of early Sunday morning, the Germans gathered for the grand counter-attack. There were about three thousand of them, advancing in grey, ghostly lines towards the hill, where the West Kents and Bedfords met them only with a ragged line of rifle fire. Though falling in large numbers, the Germans bravely pressed on up the hill-slope, and clustered for a bayonet charge against the crest. But we had brought up some thirty machine-guns, masked behind sandbags. And as the Germans bunched for the final charge, the guns opened fire and laid the Germans out in swathes. Twice they bravely attempted to retake the hill. Our men sang songs as the enemy charged, and smote him down in hundreds, and then in thousands.

The German Commander's Mistake

All day Sunday the counter-attacks continued, the German commander drawing support on troops all down the line, in the hope of recovering the position. As the hill formed a salient, he was able to attack it from three sides, and get cross-fire effects upon our hastily-made trenches. But all the day our men held out without reinforcement. They met the enemy with rifle fire, waited until he bunched, and then opened on him with machine-guns. When he was driven back to his support trenches, our artillery caught him midway to Zandvoorde.

But by continuing the pressure at a dreadful sacrifice of life the German commander managed about six o'clock on Sunday evening to lodge his men on the southern edge of the hill. But he made the mistake of wiring to headquarters that he had completely driven the British out of the trenches they had occupied. This report of the British defeat was published in Berlin, and wirelessed all over the world, leading to the catastrophe that followed. For at six o'clock on Sunday evening our men were reinforced, and in a great charge they swept the Germans from the foothold they had gained, and by Sunday night completely re-established our position on the captured hill. There was the Duke of Wellington's Regiment and a battalion of Highlanders, who fought magnificently.

The German General Staff was now in a very awkward position. It had officially denied the news of our victory, and had asseverated that the hill had been recaptured and that a counter-attack made by us in great force hail completely failed. It was this state of affairs that made! the Battle of Hill 60 one of the most extraordinary episodes in the war. For when the Germans had lost the position as completely as they had lost Neuve Chapelle, they could not adopt the same defensive tactics and withdraw and strengthen their line. The whole world wanted to know if the German or the British statement about Hill 60 were correct. There was only one way in which the German General Staff could retrieve its false situation.

Bayonet Work and Grenade Throwing

All Monday, April 19th, was spent in grand preparations for the recapture of the little rise. And for the greater part of Tuesday preparations went on. The celebrated enormous German howitzers—the 16'5 in. and the 13.7 in. —were brought up against our front, together with a thousand other guns. On the evening of Tuesday, April 20th, after Ypres had been bombarded, an attempt was made to blow in all our trenches on the hill-top and curtain off all our infantry supports by an unending storm of heavy shell fire. Then the German infantry attacked.

What happened nobody knows in detail. Our machine-guns worked in their old way, and attack after attack was broken, but the Germans, fed from their large reserve, still pressed onward throughout the night, and, crossing I the zone of fire, they got mixed up with our men in hand-to-hand fighting. It was bayonet work varied by grenade throwing and point-blank magazine fire. The main struggle took place in and around the labyrinth of winding trenches that encircled the craters. But our men, somehow, won through, and when daybreak came on Wednesday, April 21st, only one point on the hill was held by the Germans. From this they were dislodged in the afternoon by a fierce infantry attack.

The Germans then tried to asphyxiate our troops by raining on the hill, from three sides, bombs filled with poisonous gases. The space our men occupied was only a mound 250 yards long by 200 yards wide. By means of steel catapults the Germans threw cylinders of chlorine gas which burst and spread all over this small area. But even this utterly barbaric use of the deadliest resources of civilisation had no effect whatever upon the strength of our line. Our men tied wet rags about their noses and mouths, and firmly established themselves on the captured hill. There were times when the famous little hill was blotted from sight by clouds of poisonous fumes, but no German was able to get a foothold there.

How the Canadians Saved Ypres

After the victory of the British troops at Hill 60, following on their success at Neuve Chapelle, the German Commander-in-Chief was forced to attempt an advance in some part of his lines round Ypres. For the continued local defeats of the entrenched German armies were telling on the spirit of the men. All the allied generals, on the Yser and the Lys, expected a German attack, and prepared for it. But the desperate and disheartened enemy was afraid to essay an advance in the ordinary way. As General J off re had openly explained, the Allies had two men to every German from the North Sea to Switzerland.

The Barbarians' Greenish-Yellow Poison

Having little hope of winning by fair fighting, the enemy developed the inhuman, forbidden methods of asphyxiation, which he had hastily and vainly employed at Hill 60. This time he was more careful in preparing his diabolic method of attack. He waited till Thursday evening, April 22nd, when a strong wind was blowing steadily from the north. He then placed his apparatus along the northern section of his trenches above Ypres, and the German troops there were supplied with masks, protecting eyes, nose, and mouth from the deadly fumes.

As darkness was falling, great greenish-yellow clouds rose from the German trenches, by the forest of Houthulst, and drifting with the wind over the French lines, by the villages of Bixschoote and Langemarck. The gas attacked the mucous membrane of every soldier in a zone of two miles

causing the throat to swell inside, and close the air passages; at the same time it blistered the delicate covering of the eyes, producing dreadful pain and temporary blindness. When the gas had done its work, the German soldiers, with their masked faces, rushed the French trenches, crossed the canal, and made a bridge-head at the village of Lizerne. What French troops survived the clouds of gas withdrew towards Ypres, and made a stand at the village of Boesinghe. Four miles eastward, at the hamlet of St. Julien, the trenches of the Canadians, under Major-General Alderson, remained like the edge of a broken dyke through which a flood was pouring. In the darkness the Canadians felt a i curious smarting of their eyes and an extraordinary lumpiness in their throats, but most of them were sufficiently removed from the deadly gas zone to escape sudden asphyxiation. But they were in deadly peril. For the Germans had captured the four heavy guns which they had lent to the French holding the wood of Pilken, and from the wood a German force was advancing round their rear, while another hostile force held them in front.

Charging the Sand-Bag Forts

It was the most difficult situation soldiers could be called upon to face. The breaking of the allied line had occurred with the unexpectedness and weirdness of a nightmare terror, and much would have been forgiven the untried, newly-trained sons of Canada had they given ground and withdrawn towards Ypres. Instead of doing so they extended their line and entrenched westward, back to back, to hold the Germans enveloping their rear. Meanwhile, their comrades came out of their billets, and took each four hundred rounds of ammunition, and marched up in the darkness without food or water towards St. Julien.

Towards midnight the Canadians charged. In front of them, about five hundred yards away, was the wood that had been held by the French regiment, to whom they had lent their four 4'7 in. guns. The wood was now occupied by seven thousand Germans, who had made little sandbag forts, defended by many machine-gun parties. There were two thousand Canadians bent on recovering their guns, but they did not know what was waiting for them in the dim, thick spinney. No enemy was visible.

When they were two hundred yards from the German trench by the wood there came, from three sides, the rattle of machine-gun fire and the flash of rifles. The Germans had almost enveloped the British position at St. Julien, and they enfiladed the daring attackers as these charged forward. Line after line of the Canadians went down, but their supports leaped over their bodies and burst through a hedge, bayoneted the Germans in the trench behind it, and then entered the wood. Here it was wild hand-to-hand fighting amid trees and brushwood, our men having only their rifles in taking each German machine-gun position.

For though some of our Maxims were brought up, they were not sufficient to cope with the enemy's machine-guns, and the Canadians had to do their work with bullet and bayonet.

And they did it well, with all the odds against them. Rushing, stabbing, yelling, firing, they got the Germans—the famous Prussian Guard it is reported—on the run, and I shot them down as they fled. Clearing the wood, they recaptured their own guns and three French howitzers, leaving behind them a broad trail of thousands of dead and wounded Germans. With all that the Canadians were not satisfied. Still going at the double, they emerged from the farther side of the wood, and ran on for another five hundred yards, till they were close upon the light field artillery of the Guards they had routed. Then, however, the German forces along the canal swept backwards against them, and again the heroes of Canada were surrounded and brought under a cross- fire. But, retiring into the wood, they dug themselves in the trenches they had captured from the enemy, making new parapets, and deepening the ditches under a hurricane of shrapnel from the distant German batteries. There they held out, without food, until Saturday morning, April 24th, when they were relieved. Their achievement ranks among the glories of our far-flung race. For the Canadians undoubtedly saved Ypres. Had they given way, the town would have been taken from the north.


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