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Hill 60

Hill 60, located around three miles south-east of Ypres, is not a natural feature, but was made from the spoil removed during the construction of the railway line nearby. Because it was a small area of elevated land in a flat landscape, it obviously had strategic importance in the battles in the Salient.

Hill 60 location
Hill 60 Location

Following the end of the War, the land was left relatively undisturbed. Because of the large amount of tunneling and mining that went on here, and the fact that during fierce fighting the hill changed hands between the Germans and the Allies several times, the remains of many soldiers from both the Allied and German forces still lie here. The Hill was purchased in 1920 by Lieutenant-Colonel Cawston for 15,000 Belgian Francs. He later sold a half share to a Mr. J J Calder. In 1930 Mr Calder donated the site 'to the nation', and it was taken over by the Imperial War Graves Commission, who as the CWGC still maintain it today. By the car parking area is an information board placed by Westhoek Tourist Board, with contemporary photos and some background information.

Hill 60 sometime after the war
Hill 60 sometime after the war. Photo: NELS

At the front of the site there is a memorial to the 1st Australian Tunneling Company, and the plaque on this contains bullet holes (see right picture below). These date not from the First but the Second World War, when this area was once again fought over, although much more briefly. The plaque explains that this permanent memorial replaces one erected in 1919 by comrades of those who fell here.

Hill 60 Memorial to the 1st Australian Tunneling CompanyHill 60 Memorial plaque
The memorial to the 1st Australian Tunneling Co., complete with WW2 bullet holes.

The 1st Australian Tunneling Company memorial when Hill 60 was still devastated after the War
The 1st Australian Tunneling Company memorial when Hill 60 was still devastated after the War. Photo: NELS

To the left stands another large and impressive monument, to the 14th Light Division. This records that the Division landed in France in May 1915, comprising KRRC, Rifle Brigade, Ox & Bucks Cyclist Co., Royal Engineers, Signals, Pioneers and a Mobile Veterinary Section.The battle honours of the Division are listed, and include Ypres, the Somme and Arras.

The  memorial to the 14th Light Division at Hill 60
14th Light Division Memorial

A little to the right, near the railway line, is a memorial to two French members of the Resistance in World War 2. This was erected in 1969, and remembers these two brave men, who were arrested near Lille and put on a train which passed this way. Their bodies were found near this spot. Exactly what happened will probably never be known. Whilst my main interest is the First World War, the men and women of the Resistance certainly deserve more than a moments contemplation.

There are two gates by which the Hill 60 site itself can be entered. If you enter using the right hand one, there is a stone near the entrance with an inscription giving some of the history of Hill 60, and stating that it was finally taken by the British on the 28th of September 1918. It also emphasises that because of the nature of the fighting here, Hill 60 is effectively a mass grave for soldiers of all sides. After the war, the trenches were filled in, but the land remains cratered and still bears the scars of the battles fought over it. The picture below ishows a preserved trench at Hill 60, probably sometime between the wars.

A trench at Hill 60 in the 1930s
A trench remaining at Hill 60 between the wars. Photo: NELS

Scarred ground at Hill 60Scarred ground at Hill 60
The pock-marked landscape of Hill 60 today

There are large depressions in the ground on this right hand side as you enter, and these result from the craters blown by mines during the course of the war. Nearest the front as you enter are craters from 1915 and 1916, and a little further back on the right is the larger depression of a crater dating from 1917. This was one of those blown at the start of the Battle of Messines. Lumps of fortified concrete remain scattered around the bottom of this crater. As you walk further towards the rear of the site, more lumps of concrete protrude. In a clump of brambles towards the rear the remains of a pillbox can be discerned. On the top of the Hill, the remains of at least four bunkers (plus an almost intact one) can be seen.

The  remains of a bunker by a shellhole at Hill 60
The remains of a bunker by a shellhole at Hill 60

Also on top of the Hill, near the front of the site, is another memorial, this one to Queen Victorias Rifles, commemorating where the regiment fought their first open engagement, in which they lost 12 officers and 180 men in casualties. However, this is not the original memorial. That was erected in 1923, commemorating all ranks of the QVR who gave their lives for their country in the First World War. It was unveiled by General Sir Charles Fergusson, at a ceremony at which Captain G.H. Woolley VC was the clergyman. Woolley, then serving as a Second Lieutenant in the QVR had woin the Victoria Cross here at Hill 60 on the night of the 20th-21st of April, 1915. The original memorial was approached by an impressive fenced track with steps , shown below along with a close-up of the memorial.

The  original QVR Memorial photographed before WWII
The imposing setting of the original QVR Memorial. Photo: NELS

The  original QVR Memorial photographed before WWII
The original QVR Memorial photographed before WWII. Photo: Dean & Dawson

However this original memorial was destroyed in 1940 by the Germans, and the plaque on the current memorial was placed by the Regiment on some of the stones of that original memorial. From the black and white photo, it would seem that the four flat stones forming a tier on top of the much larger plinth of today's memorial are the original stones referred to.

The  replacement QVR Memorial
The replacement QVR Memorial

Towards the rear of the site on elevated ground is a pillbox which is still largely intact. This was originally German, but modified by the Australians in 1918. It's appearance is somehow macabre and the marks of bullets/shells can still be seen in the concrete.

Pillbox at Hill 60
Pillbox at Hill 60

Closer inspection reveals just how massive was the construction of this pill-box. The walls are at least three feet thick, with metal reinforcing bars protruding. This can be seen in the picture below; the view through the pillbox in the centre of the picture shows the width of the walls. No wonder this pill-box withstood several assaults and is still there nearly 90 years later.

Close-up  of the pillbox at Hill 60
Detail of construction of the Hill 60 pill-box

Hill 60 is quite a large site, and from the front and the rear, through the trees, you catch glimpses of the commanding views that made it such a prize. Looking from the front towards the road, the spires of Ypres can be clearly seen.

The view towards Ypres from Hill 60
The view towards Ypres from Hill 60, before the trees grew tall. Photo A.J. Insall from "Twenty Years After"

The whole site is riddled with bunkers, reflecting the importance that both sides attached to this small elevated area in an otherwise largely flat landscape. A few yards from the intact above-ground bunker, another can be seen which also looks largely intact, although in this case subterranean.

Entrance to a pillbox at Hill 60
Entrance to a pillbox at Hill 60

Across the road from Hill 60 used to stand the Hill 60 museum, which also housed a cafe. It held a large collection of arms, weapons and personal effects. This included, among many other exhibits, Webley & Scott flare pistols, "toffee apples", a buckle from the Church Lads Brigade and wooden aeroplane propellers.

The Hill 60 Museum
The Hill 60 Museum. Photo: NELS

Other items of note included a large collection of badges, letters from a Sergeant Jack Dorgan telling of his 1915 Christmas dinner, and then of being wounded on Hill 60 towards the end of March 1916. There were also signboards for trenches named Henry Street and Vince Street. The latter may be one of those that makes up the trenches at Sanctuary Wood, and is also mentioned by Edmund Blunden in Undertones of War.

The Hill 60 Museum
The Hill 60 Museum. Photo: NELS

The museum also held an early grave marker for Lance Corporal David Williams of the 24th Signals Division, killed on the 19th of June 1917. He is now buried at Larch Wood (Railway Cutting) Cemetery, which is a little north-west of Hill 60 next to the railway. The material gathered in the museum was not just from Hill 60 but from all over the Salient

The Hill 60 Museum
The Hill 60 Museum. Photo: NELS

In January 2006 however, the museum at Hill 60 closed. I visited Hill 60 in May 2006, when the building that used to house the cafe and museum had gone and construction of a new building was underway. By May 2007, the new restaraunt with the name Hill 60 on the front had been completed and was open for business - looking very different from its predecessor.

The new restaraunt at Hill 60
The new restaraunt at Hill 60 in 2007

In August 1928, a Great War veteran lamented in The Scotsman how Hill 60 even then had been "adapted for sight-seers" and that "at the entrance gate vendors of souvenirs, mostly disabled soldiers, offer for purchase old rifles, badges, pieces of shrapnel picked up from the Hill". He described how in the roots of thistles rusty barbed wirwe could be seen, and in a shell hole were "rusty relics": fragments of bombs, helmets and old water bottles. There were then, ten years after the war ended, several cafes operating nearby.

Today there are no disabled ex-soldiers left, and although the topography of Hill 60, complete with shell-holes, still shows the ground as it was, grass, nature and time has softened the scars. There are no relics, although the remains of concrete fortifications can be seen. For many who fought here however, the place remained in their memory, and probably because of the friends he lost here, at least one veteran, Mr P G Arnold from Birmingham, asked his widow to scatter his ashes here after he died in 1931.

Sources & Acknowledgements
The Scotsman
The Times